FAYETTEVILLE — Familiarity has been the key phrase of Arkansas’ offseason.
Coach Bret Bielema believes his staff has gained a better grasp of what it takes to succeed in the Southeastern Conference. Assistant coaches have described how much more comfortable they’ve become with personnel. And, of course, players have a much better grasp of what is expected of them on and off the field.
“It’s just familiarity,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “You’ve heard me say that word a lot and I keep saying it. I think it’s a good thing.”
Arkansas, which had trouble getting on the same page throughout a 3-9 season, will find out how much familiarity will help when preseason camp begins this week.
Players report to campus today and the first preseason practice will be held Monday afternoon, kicking off Arkansas’ second camp under Bielema. It means the eight-month offseason — in which the Razorbacks have been left to ponder a nine-game losing streak — ends. It also kicks off a four-week practice period that will lead Arkansas into its intriguing season opener at Auburn on Aug. 30.
The Razorbacks begin the trek with plenty of optimism after what coaches and players described as a productive summer. Classroom sessions, weight room work and player-led drills have led Arkansas closer to Bielema’s plan for the program.
“Coach Bielema has brought his process, his plan for the team,” Arkansas offensive lineman Brey Cook said. “We understood it would take awhile. We understood that it would take some work. That’s what we put in last year and over the summer. I think the whole team, like I said, has bought into that. I’ve never seen them come work as hard as they have this summer. We’ve worked harder this summer than I’ve seen the last four years. This is an incredible experience to see everyone grow.”
There’s plenty of room for improvement, though, for a program selected to finish last in the SEC West once again. There are plenty of questions to answer as well.
Below are a few of them as Arkansas prepares for preseason camp:
• Who is Arkansas’ No. 2? — There’s no question Brandon Allen is Arkansas’ starting quarterback. But what happens if he’s injured again? Arkansas didn’t have a solid plan last season, but must make sure at least one more quarterback is prepared for playing time in preseason camp. It appeared the depth chart had been trimmed to redshirt freshman Austin Allen and true freshman Rafe Peavey, but Bielema and the Hogs threw a curveball last month by revealing AJ Derby, who moved to tight end, will get some reps as well. It’s not clear if the declaration is motivation for the other two quarterbacks or a sign Arkansas isn’t comfortable with their development this summer. Either way, making sure someone else other than Brandon Allen is capable of running the offense will be one of the major themes of preseason drills.
• How will newcomers impact the offensive line? — Arkansas wrapped up spring practice with Mitch Smothers (center) and Luke Charpentier (left guard) working with the first-team offense. But Bielema and the staff made it clear they’ll face plenty of competition in preseason practice. UNLV transfer Cameron Jefferson is expected to provide the biggest competition for a starting spot at left guard, while other newcomers like Frank Ragnow, Brian Wallace and Sebastian Tretola compete with returning players for jobs. The Razorbacks feel comfortable returning starters Brey Cook, Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper will remain with the first-team group, but it’s no secret how vital offensive line play is to Bielema’s plans. So the Razorbacks must solidify its five-man starting group over the next four weeks.
• Can the secondary’s success continue? — Arkansas’ back line struggled throughout the 2013 season, but found new life in the spring. Out went former defensive coordinator Chris Ash and his preference to play off receivers. In came Robb Smith and his aggressive style, which has included more press coverage. Arkansas’ cornerbacks adapted well to the philosophical change in the spring, showing the biggest improvement of any position group according to Bielema. Now a secondary that includes cornerbacks Tevin Mitchel, Carroll Washington, Jared Collins, Will Hines and DJ Dean must prove it is ready to be counted on in 2014.
• Does Arkansas have enough depth up front? — Arkansas has two starters back to anchor its defensive line (defensive end Trey Flowers, defensive tackle Darius Philon). It also has a talented player who appears ready to take on a starting role (defensive end Deatrich Wise). But the Razorbacks still have some holes to fill in the trenches after the departures of veterans Chris Smith, Robert Thomas and Byran Jones. The biggest uncertainty comes in the middle, where the Razorbacks enter camp without much experience outside of Philon. Is DeMarcus Hodge ready to fill into a big role? Can the Hogs count on newcomers Bijhon Jackson and Armon Watts immediately? Or will redshirt freshman Ke’Tyrus Marks, sophomore Taiwan Johnson or former offensive lineman Cordale Boyd be able to make an impact?
• Are the new receivers ready? — Arkansas’ passing attack had plenty of problems last season and its receiving corps shouldered its share of the blame. The Razorbacks didn’t have a big-play threat or many options out wide. Improvement has been one of the offseason objectives and Arkansas believes it moved in the right direction during spring practice. Demetrius Wilson is back after missing the 2013 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and should help if back to form. Keon Hatcher and Eric Hawkins have more experience as well. But all eyes will be on a signing class that includes junior college transfer Kody Hollister and freshmen Jared Cornelius, JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards. Hollister and Cornelius impressed the staff in the spring and will factor into plans, while Robinson and Edwards should have opportunities to prove they’re ready. The group’s development will go a long way in determining how much Arkansas’ passing offense will improve this season.
• How will Chaney spread the ball between backs? — It’s no secret the strength of Arkansas’ offense is the trio of Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall. Williams and Collins produced last season, while Marshall showed his potential last spring. So Chaney has a challenging, but welcomed task of trying to find ways to get all three running backs involved. Will the Hogs put two of them in the backfield at the same time? Will they split out wide to be utilized in the passing game? It’s not clear how much Arkansas plans to show in preseason practices (only one is open to the media the first week) with a big season opener at Auburn on Aug. 30. But the possibilities to ensure all three are involved are intriguing.
ARKANSAS FOOTBALL KEY DATES
Today — Razorbacks report for preseason practice
Monday — Preseason practice begins
Aug. 10 — Arkansas media day
Aug. 17 — Arkansas fan day (Bud Walton Arena)
Aug. 22 — Football Kickoff Luncheon (Springdale)
Aug. 30 — Arkansas at Auburn (3 p.m. on SEC Network)