Panel Discussion: Arkansas Spring Practice Thoughts, Quarterback Battle, Auburn, Razorback Defense Improving?

Wesley Hitt

A few of our contributors give thoughts on the end of spring practice and the latest goings on with the football team.

1. Now that spring practice is complete, did you see/learn anything that changes the way you feel about the upcoming season? What will be your general football mood over the next four months?

Randy: For me the change was overwhelmingly positive. Opinion of offense did not shift much, except to be more sure that Korliss Marshall is the real deal. Oline still needs help from freshmen but is OK as is, as long as no one gets hurt. Receivers are pedestrian and need help from freshmen. Quarterback position remains a key point of contention - coaches must choose the right level of responsibility to put on the starter, and they should err toward less.

Defense - even playing against just us - must be improved a lot. Chris Ash has been thrown under a fleet of buses by now. My read is the talent level is better than it had looked, and the scheme + fit of scheme are much better after the staff turnover.

Scottie: A few young defensive linemen intrigued me this spring. The "grown men" look of Brandon Lewis, Deatrich Wise and JaMichael Winston has me somewhat excited to watch the defensive line work with Trey Flowers in the fall. I think that group could surprise some folks. But for the most part I'll spend a majority of the summer mentally preparing for another dreadful season, and trying to get people in my hometown to understand (which will be tough) that Brandon Allen WILL BE our starting QB next season.

Brent: Ugh. I think we'll be improved at most positions, but unless we get dramatically better in the passing game, it's hard to spot many wins on the schedule.

Drew: Over the past few years, I've decided that it's really hard to get an accurate gauge of a team based on how they do in the spring.  I'm pretty concerned about the offense (execution, not style), and I'm not sure that it's a good thing that so many expected contributors aren't even on campus yet (Hedlund, Jojo Robinson, Tretola, and Ragnow come to mind).  I'm cautiously optimistic going into the fall, but only because there's no point on dwelling on negatives.

Doc: I’m wouldn’t say I’m more optimistic, but I am excited. I’m looking forward to seeing the new team gel and come together with the newcomers, and to see what that looks like on the field in September. I’m really interested to see how September unfolds. I do think this will be a better team, the question is how much better, and we won’t really know probably until we get to fall.

2. Do you believe Bret Bielema when he says Brandon Allen is without a doubt the clear #1 quarterback on the team? What are your thoughts on the quarterback situation?

Drew: Do I believe him?  Pretty much, yeah. None of these guys are Ryan Mallett, but I haven't seen anything from either of the backups to make me say "yeah, this guy should be starting."  Austin Allen may occasionally look like he has a higher ceiling than big bro, and sometimes Rafe has a better completion percentage, but that's such a narrow criteria to base this decision on.  Actual in-game experience is important, too... and BA's the only one who has any of that.

Scottie: I really do. Bielema, and he should, puts a lot of stock into BA's in-game experience. You would think he'll only improve in his second full season as the starter in the system. But you just can't convince me that Austin Allen or Peavey is ready to take on SEC defenses at this point.

Brent: Yeah, I guess I do. And I can understand the reasoning. BA has a better-than-average arm and is the only QB with any game experience. But man. That deer-in-the-headlights routine is gonna cost us some wins.

As for the other two, I thought Austin Allen was actually looking pretty sharp in his decision making and then he telegraphs one to Rohan Gaines for a pick six. He was shaky a couple of other times, and his passes don't exactly whistle, but he looked like an accurate Game Manager-type and those two deep balls for TDs were encouraging.

Hard to get a read on Rafe. Live arm, but erratic. Overall he looked like what he is: talented, but still very much a freshman. Would've been interesting to seem him with the 1s, though.

Randy: Yes, I believe Bielema. Also, Jim Chaney is in a precarious position. He must make the right decisions about how much the QB should be asked to handle. Getting a different signal-caller on the field would require dumbing down the offense, probably down to the level it should be with B.Allen at the helm. Let's not throw for show. Clearly, the Hogs are trying to demonstrate to high school receivers and quarterbacks that they intend to pass downfield. This offense needs short, high-% throws to augment the power/speed run threats. In the spring game (not a reliable indicator), we saw more hopeless heaves instead of easy underneath passes on third downs. We keep trying to take what they aren't giving us, and if the Hogs continue, the QB will complete a very low percentage, and the offense will not score enough.

Doc: I was talking about that high-% passing issue with someone during the spring game. For whatever reason, Arkansas just doesn’t run many of those types of plays. That’s a big issue I have with Jim Chaney. They weren’t being run last year either. A lot of these spread teams, many of their passes are simple dump passes to the sidelines or screens, or to the flats. Remember Ole Miss running the same sideline pass several times in succession? All too often, it seems the Hogs try to force more difficult pass plays when we just don’t seem to have the personnel to pull it off.

I believe Bielema to an extent. I was completely behind him after watching the first two scrimmages this spring, but I admit the spring game shook my confidence some. I’m not saying I think anybody’s clearly better than Brandon, but I do think the others, particularly Austin at this point, could  make it a legit competition. But again, in the last scrimmage, Brandon was clearly better than Austin. Really, it’s just disappointing that the 1st team offense did so badly in the passing game against the 2s in the Red-White game. That bothers me.

3. Has your faith in the defense increased, especially considering Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel did not play and the defense still played well for the most part?

Randy: Yes, certainly. The first comforting thing is the style, aggressive instead of the softy stuff of last season. Then, watching the secondary doesn't elicit nearly as many cringes. We're told the secondary really hated what they were asked to do technique-wise last season, which showed in the critical plays where someone broke wrong and got burned, or gave up on the play in disgust. After that, I'd like to believe in Deatrich Wise as a replacement for Chris Smith at defensive end. He was impressive in the spring game.

Brent: I'm pretty guarded in my optimism until I see us stop somebody in real life, but there's talent on the DL and at spots in the back seven. Depth at LB has me nervous, but Ellis, Spaight and Peters all look pretty good. Safety is still a big concern, though. I think Alan Turner is vastly underrated as a run defender, but his coverage skills remain suspect. And Gaines blowing that deep coverage responsibility at the end of the half in the spring game was pretty disconcerting, too.

Scottie: I would say my faith has increased just a bit for next season after the spring game. Deatrich Wise on the end, and Brooks Ellis and Matrell Spaight tying for a game-high in tackles with nine was encouraging. Linebacker play is going to be huge. They have to stay healthy. I really think there's a chance this defense could see improvement this season, but I won't hold my breath.

Drew: Really hard to say.  Is the defense that much improved, or was the passing offense really that stagnant?  I did see tacklers wrapping up and DBs turning their head to look for the ball, so that's progress.  I do like the new aggressive philosophy that Robb Smith brought with him - we'll see if it pays dividends this fall.

Doc: Once again, they should be better, but how much better? We won’t know until September. It does feel good to know that they still played well with both Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel on the sideline.

One thing I did like, after the interception on Brandon Allen’s first pass, the 1s held the 2s to a field goal instead of lying down and letting them score a touchdown. I liked that.

4. Is there a particular player/s who unexpectedly surprised you in the spring and excites you to see in the fall?

Scottie: I've mentioned his name twice already: Deatrich Wise. He was an absolute freak show on the defensive side of the ball last Saturday nearly as much as Korliss Marshall was carrying the ball. I was impressed with Wise's motor, but I also had to take into account he was going against the second string O-line. But still, he's a freak and he'll complement Trey Flowers nicely in the fall.

Randy: Wise seemed to have come far and separated from the pack. He was amazingly energetic on every down. The secondary looked good grabbing four interceptions in the spring game. The buzz about the secondary has gotten more favorable ever since March. Young safety De'Andre Coley might grow into an Atwater/Hamlin style intimidator.

Brent: A few, mostly on defense. TQ Coleman and Deatrich Wise would be the primary two. Coleman looks like a poor man's version of Jerico Nelson, and Wise just looks like a freak. Is he really that good or was he just exploiting second-teamers in the spring game? I really want to lean toward the former, because he was impressive when he got on the field last year, too.

Drew: Korliss Marshall on offense - it's going to be really hard to have enough touches to go around for him, JWill, and Collins.  TQ Coleman's new position at LB is interesting - it would be nice if he could have a successful transition like Juice Leon did a few years ago.

Doc: He didn’t do too much in the Red-White game, but Cody Hollister had a really nice spring. I was pretty skeptical about signing him last winter, but it looks like he’ll be able to contribute quickly. I’m also happy AJ Derby seems to have found a home at tight end. I wish Arkansas had done more tight end work in the spring game, but I hope to see more in the fall.

5. It came out on Sunday that Auburn was an early 20.5-point favorite for the opener. Too high? Too low? About right?

Randy: Please, Vegas, keep the number above 20. Even this early with so much more to learn about both teams, I would be stunned if Auburn were able to cover that number. Do ya think that line would be good motivation for the Razorbacks? My bet is it will be clear in the first quarter that the line was way too high.

Scottie: My buddy and I went to pick up Zaxby's Sunday afternoon and he told me a spread came out. My guess was 20, so I think 20.5 sounds about right.

Brent: Not surprising, but if I bet on Arkansas games I'd be all over this one. I feel pretty sure that the Hogs can move the ball against Auburn. We ran for 222 yards last year and I expect this year's offensive line to be better and the RB stable to be deeper and more explosive with the full incorporation of Korliss Marshall.

Of course, being the season opener, they're gonna be all jacked up on the Plains, and Gus is gonna pull out everything he's got to try to embarrass Bielema, so if they can, I'd expect the Tigers to try to run it up. But if the Hogs can avoid a first-quarter road-game meltdown, I think we'll be able to keep it relatively close for most of the game.

Doc: Arkansas would have covered that line last year (lost by 18) and I think Arkansas will be better and Auburn will be not quite as great – at least early in the season. I don’t think that’s a bad line but I think Arkansas can cover it. The Razorbacks should be the hungrier team if nothing else.

Drew: Too high.  That's a combination of optimism and the fact that I just plain don't respect anything about Auburn's program.

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