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Spring Check-In: Arkansas

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Arkansas Fight’s Doc Harper fills us in on the Hogs’ spring practices.

Arkansas Fight

1. The biggest news to come out of Arkansas' spring was probably Rawleigh Williams' unfortunate retirement. How do you quantify that loss for the 2017 Razorbacks?

It was definitely the biggest news. This is the third time in recent years when a star running back has gone down for the year in the offseason (Knile Davis in 2011 and Jonathan Williams in 2015), so we're sadly getting somewhat accustomed to this. He's a big loss, no doubt. Arkansas does have Devwah Whaley ready to step into that lead back role, and TJ Hammonds may move back to running back after practicing at receiver for most of the spring. We're also bringing in two talented freshmen in Maleek Williams, who enrolled early and looked good in spring, and Chase Hayden, a 4-star running back recruit. If the freshmen look good Arkansas may choose to keep Hammonds at receiver. So Arkansas does still have players at running back, but losing Williams certainly hits at Arkansas' depth and experience. We won't know how it'll shake out until August and September, except for Whaley taking over the lead role.

2. Arkansas returns a strong quarterback in Austin Allen, and most of the offensive line, but little else in terms of skill-position talent. How's the offense shaping up this spring?

I don't expect Arkansas to see much of a drop-off at receiver. Jared Cornelius is returning for his senior year and there are talented players ready for their turn. LSU fans might be familiar with Brandon Martin. He signed with LSU a couple of years ago and went to juco. He signed with Arkansas this year as one of the two top juco receivers in the country according to some people. Jordan Jones was a highly recruited receiver who redshirted last year and looked good in the spring. Arkansas will be fine at tight end despite losing Jeremy Sprinkle. The Razorbacks have a ton of younger tight ends in the system and bring in Jeremy Patton, who was the top juco tight end in the country. I'm really more concerned about the offensive line, honestly. Other than returning center Frank Ragnow, those guys coming back really weren't that great last year, so hopefully they've gotten better, but we'll see.

3. The Razorback defense was pretty bad and went through a coordinator change. How'd that side of the ball look in the spring?

Reports were fine but spring reports are always fine. Defense will be a question mark regardless of what anybody else says until at least the TCU game in Week 2. I'm not giving them any credit until they play someone decent and play well. Arkansas did shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the spring, and it's allowing some players to shine at those new outside linebacker positions, and that will have to happen for Arkansas to be better. Depth on defense is still a big concern, however, especially at linebacker.

4. Any major question marks or concerns for this team as we hit the summer?

Defense. I'm not really concerned about the offense, but the defense was so bad last year it's hard to have any faith. I do think the change at coordinator should help because things were trending so badly for Robb Smith, and it wasn't just about talent. Arkansas sent two defensive linemen to the NFL Draft this year but still couldn't stop the run for anything last year. It'll be good to have new energy in that spot.

Special teams is also a concern. Nothing proven coming at kicker or punter. No idea what to expect.

5. Last season felt like a step back for Bret Bielema. Does he have something to prove for Arkansas fans in the coming season?

Last year was so inconsistent, and that drives fans crazier than anything, I think. Because there were some really great games (beating TCU in Fort Worth, blowing out Florida, beating Ole Miss when they were ranked and hadn't given up yet) it felt like the team wasn't playing as well as we knew they could when they got blown out against Auburn and LSU and gave up the big leads to Missouri and Virginia Tech in the bowl game. That concept of playing below expectations is sometimes worse than just being bad. I wouldn't say Bielema's on the hot seat right now but he certainly lost some fans. More questions are getting asked right now than ever in his tenure. Too many blown leads and unexpected blowouts will do that. I don't know that there's a win total he has to hit this season but fans don't want to see the quit in the team that they saw last year. If that continues it'll be a problem.