This is an excerpt of an article I wrote for Sporting Life Arkansas. You can read it in its entirety here.
The section shared here is a comparison of the two team rosters. I also have a section for the schedule, the previous season, the future outlook, and a conclusion that includes another 2008 team that might be more fitting to compare these Hogs to.
The Team Roster
Bielema made a point in the offseason that this Razorbacks team features "twenty seniors that are ready to leave a legacy of greatness." But much like 2008, it feels like the most exciting players, and the one’s trying the hardest, are the younger players.
Other than Arkansas’ two great defensive ends, fullback and kicker, the players Hog fans want to see are the freshmen and sophomores, particularly at running back (Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams), defensive line (Darius Philon, Deatrich Wise), and the mysteries at quarterback – two of which are committed but not on campus yet (Rafe Peavey and Ty Storey). The team’s best offensive linemen, other than senior All-SEC center Travis Swanson, are freshmen (Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper), and Reeve Koehler is another highly touted newcomer expected to contribute next season after redshirting this year with an injury, and junior college star Jermaine Eluemanor is expected to be an instant impact player next season.
Question marks at linebacker and the secondary still exist, but that’s similar to 2008 as well.
The Razorbacks played a whopping 16 true freshmen Petrino’s first season, highlighted by the Jarius Wright/Greg Childs/Joe Adams trio at receiver and Dennis Johnson at running back (and I’ll always maintain that the fumble against Kentucky ruined De’Anthony Curtis. He was never the same afterward and was rated higher out of high school than almost every other freshman on that team). Some of the redshirt freshmen included Jake Bequette and Jerry Franklin on defense.
But there are differences. Casey Dick was an experienced senior at quarterback in 2008, working with a coach known for developing his quarterbacks. Dick still faced plenty of public scrutiny despite throwing for a career best 2,586 yards with a career best 57.4% completion percentage. Two numbers Arkansas fans would die for this season.
Further, Petrino showed absolutely no hesitation to run Micheal Smith right into the ground. Smith carried the ball 207 times and caught 32 passes in just 10 games. He carried the ball 70 times in just the Auburn and Kentucky games, which were in back-to-back weeks. Alex Collins, by comparison, hasn’t carried the ball more than 20 times since Southern Miss, and Jonathan Williams hasn’t had more than 18 attempts in a game all year. That should help Collins and Williams stay healthier in the long run. Smith had to sit out the 2008 finale against LSU and much of the 2009 season due to injuries.
But one very substantial and underrated difference: Dick was sacked an astounding 38 times in 2008 out of 395 total passing plays. That’s nearly 10% – absolutely horrendous. So Dick was able to throw for those yards, complete that many passes, throw 13 touchdowns (and, granted, 14 interceptions) while constantly getting hit or pressured. Brandon Allen has only been sacked six times this year. These Hogs rank 10th in the nation in sacks allowed at 0.75 per game. He’s not been under a lot of pressure in the pocket and the Arkansas passing game is still as dismal as it is.
Maybe the wide receivers and/or Allen just aren’t that good. Maybe Allen’s shoulder was and is a much bigger issue than the coaches let on. Maybe he’s scared of getting hit. Maybe he’s not getting enough reps in practice to help slow the game down for him so he can make better decisions. Maybe it’s a combination of all of that. Regardless, at this point, there’s really no evidence to suggest the Arkansas passing game will get better any time soon. You just can’t rely on true freshmen to come in a year from now or two years from now. It’s imperative for Arkansas to try to re-establish its passing game in November against weaker competition. That’s how they can build confidence in the future.