words: Brett Brecheisen, Razorback Communications
Images: courtesy Razorback Communications
The Arkansas Razorbacks enter the 2015 football season as one of the nation’s most intriguing teams. A late-season surge last year has given the program a lot of momentum heading into the season and the nation is taking notice. “Arkansas will win 10 games and I firmly believe that,” ESPN and SEC Network personality Dari Nowkhah said last month.
Ten wins would speak volumes for how much Arkansas has improved since Bret Bielema took over as head coach in 2013.
The Razorbacks won just four games in 2012 and three in 2013 but took major strides last season as they defeated LSU, Ole Miss and Texas in the same year for the first time in program history. Arkansas won seven games total, matching its combined win total from the two previous seasons and winning a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
The 2015 Razorbacks have a lot of experience at key positions—particularly on offense. Fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Allen has started more games at quarterback (twenty-five) than any other SEC returner.
He’s joined in the backfield by Alex Collins, who has rushed for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Collins joins Darren McFadden as the only two players in Arkansas history to begin their careers with back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons.
The Razorbacks also have a mammoth offensive line. The five starters weigh an average of 327.8 pounds per player. Four of the five starters return from a season ago on a unit that was the largest offensive line in all of football (college or NFL) and led the SEC in fewest sacks allowed.
Last year, Arkansas’ defense had the biggest turnaround of any defense in the SEC. Led by Robb Smith, the new defensive coordinator, the Razorbacks improved by 11.6 points per game and became the first unranked team in college football history to post back-to-back shutouts of ranked opponents when they blanked No. 20 LSU and No. 8 Ole Miss.
Fast forward a year, and the Arkansas defense should be solid once again. The unit returns six starters from last season including three from the secondary.
Junior Brooks Ellis started at middle linebacker this year but is moving outside to the highly-productive weak side linebacker position. In Smith’s defense, the weak side linebacker thrives, as Martrell Spaight proved a year ago when he led the SEC in tackles (128) and became a fifth-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins. Ellis is Arkansas’ most skilled linebacker and is poised for a big season in 2015.
The defensive line may have lost two NFL draft picks, but the unit is deeper than ever thanks to experienced players and an influx of new talent. Arkansas has eight defensive linemen that played meaningful snaps last season and added highly-touted junior college transfer in Jeremiah Ledbetter and true freshman Hjalte Froholdt. “This Arkansas team is primed to make a run at the SEC West this fall,” said Greg Ostendorf of ESPN.com.
Not much separates the top from the bottom in the daunting SEC West, so why can’t the Razorbacks win the division and play for an SEC championship for the first time since 2006? The college football world thinks the Hogs may have a chance to do just that.