Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/3/12
Let’s take a position-by-position look at the Arkansas Razorbacks, who begin practice for the 2012 season this week in steamy hot Fayetteville. But first, we must acknowledge that there are some “X” factors that will or at least could have a major impact on the Razorbacks’ upcoming season.

1.    Can Paul Petrino call plays and manage his offensive game plan as well as big brother Bobby did? The younger Petrino is a highly respected assistant coach and seems to have a great relationship with All-SEC QB Tyler Wilson; but, after two seasons of mixed results as offensive coordinator at Illinois, the jury is still out. We’ll know how good Paul Petrino is after the week 3 showdown with Alabama.

2.    Can Paul Haynes keep the defense playing like they did in the Cotton Bowl, when the Razorbacks dominated run-oriented Kansas State? If that bowl performance was a taste of what is to come, this could be a very good season for Arkansas. If not, it could range from disappointing to downright miserable.

3.    Can John L. Smith coach at a championship level in the SEC? Nice guy who has had some success as a head coach in the past. Players like him. Assistant coaches like him. Fans will love him if he can beat Alabama and/or LSU and not let the team’s intensity and performance drop off on the road with tough games at South Carolina, Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

If Smith is still feeling the love at season’s end, what will Athletic Director Jeff Long do about a permanent head coach? I would imagine Long will be able to handle that situation when the time comes. After all, he handled the Bobby Petrino fiasco professionally and with clear thinking and firmness.
Special Teams: Pre-Season Grade A

This should be one of the areas the Razorbacks don’t have to worry about.

Punter Dylan Breeding and kicker Zach Hocker are about as good a pair as you can find anywhere. Plus, Dennis Johnson is one of the best kickoff returners in the nation. The only hole is at punt returner, which was where Joe Adams electrified the nation enroute to claiming the inaugural 2011 Johnny Rodgers National Return Specialist Award.

In the spring, Marquel Wade seemed set to be the next great Razorback receiver/punt returner before he had a run-in with the law, refused to do what was necessary to get back on the team, and was shown the door. Now, the position is up for grabs. The Razorback preseason press guide didn’t even mention punt returner in their outlook/preview section.

The coaches are talking about incoming JUCO transfer Demetrius Wilson, who reportedly has great speed. But he’s 6-3 and 180 pounds. It’s doubtful he will have the elusiveness and durability to be a big threat as a punt returner. Redshirt freshman Kelvin Fisher looked like a possible candidate in the spring. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess who will step forward.
Offensive Backfield: A+

Legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo and fullback Kiero Small. Nuff said. If Davis stays healthy and Wilson gets better protection, both should have record seasons.

After earning First Team All-SEC honors in 2011, Wilson threw for over 1,600 yards without a single interception during spring practice. Davis was First Team All-SEC in 2010 when he rushed for over 1,300 yards. At 6-0, 230, he is a near-perfect combination of strength and speed.

Small may be the unsung hero of the offensive backfield. Watching Small—who isn’t—block last year was worth the price of admission by itself. He is a born fullback. Listed generously at 5-10, he is built low to the ground. When Small cleared a hole for Johnson or Wingo, linebackers quickly and painfully learned how powerful he is.

During the spring, Small proved he could also carry the ball in short yardage situations and catch it out of the backfield. Redshirt freshman Kody Walker (6-2, 240) also proved to be a great short-yardage back last year before he was injured.
Receivers: B+

I’ll lump tight end with the receivers. Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg are big (okay, Gragg isn’t really big for a tight end), fast and strong. They will give Wilson two solid, maybe spectacular go-to receivers. Austin Tate, Demetrius Dean, and Alex Voelzke should help out as second tight ends and backups.

Redshirt freshman Brett Wier, at 6-5, 250 and very athletic, could be a surprise at this position. With Wade gone, the question here is who will step up to fill the void as a playmaker at the other receiver positions?

Julian Horton, Keante Minor and Javontee Herndon all have experience and talent. Backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell, 6-4, 230 with good speed, may get a chance to showcase his talent as a receiver. It would be great to see him on the field instead of wasting his talent on the sidelines waiting for mop-up duty behind Wilson.

JUCO transfer Demetrius Wilson will also get a shot at receiver, as will talented incoming freshmen D’Arthur Cowan, Keon Hatcher, and Eric Hawkins. And Fisher is fast and elusive enough to be used on offense even though he is listed as a cornerback.
Offensive Line: B

I can’t go higher than B after watching the beating Wilson took in so many games last year. He deserved combat pay and a medal for courage after the Alabama game. Hopefully, having a stronger running game and three returning starters on the line will keep Wilson upright a lot more this year.

Center Travis Swanson and guard Alvin Bailey give Arkansas All-SEC caliber starters. Tackle Jason Peacock played well last year after transferring from junior college. There are several quality linemen ready to fight for the other two starting positions. Springdale’s Mitch Smothers started several games as a true freshman last year and will compete at guard this season.

Tackle Brey Cook, also from Springdale, played in 11 games in 2011 and should be ready to start. Senior Tyler Deacon, sophomore Luke Charpentier, and redshirt freshmen Marcus Danenhauer, Austin Beck and Grady Ollison will give Arkansas the depth they need to keep fresh bodies rotated into the game.

The key is for Coach Chris Klenakis to come up with an effective starting five before the September 15 home game against defending national champion Alabama.
Defensive Line: B

This grade was influenced by last year’s overall performance too. The d-line was supposed to be a strength. Instead, the Razorbacks had way too much trouble stopping the run.

In a five-game stretch starting with Alabama and ending with Vanderbilt, they were gouged for a miserable average of 248 rushing yards per game. Kevin Peoples was moved from Director of High School Relations back to the field to coach the defensive tackles and, hopefully, get them to live up to their hype. Byran and DeQuinta Jones, Robert Thomas, Alfred Davis and Lavunce Askew give the Razorbacks size, experience, and depth in the trenches.

Byran Jones led all returning interior linemen with 47 tackles and assists with 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2011. At end, Arkansas is going to miss high-motor Jake Bequette, who was the team’s best pass rusher. However, Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, JUCO transfer Austin Flynn, and Colton Miles-Nash should be able to keep the pressure on opposing offenses.

Smith led the returning linemen with 3.5 sacks last season. Coaches felt confident enough in that group of ends to move former starting defensive end Tenarius “Tank” Wright to inside linebacker to shore up one of the team’s potential weaknesses.
Linebackers: C+

Speaking of linebackers, we come to the lowest grade for the preseason. Gone are 4-year starter and leading tackler Jerry Franklin and undersized, versatile Jerico Nelson. Fortunately, Tank Wright has played inside linebacker in the past.

So, he will join pre-season Second Team All-SEC selection Alonzo Highsmith to give Arkansas a solid inside combination. Highsmith started all 13 games last year, recording 80 tackles and assists, including 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also intercepted one pass. Several players from among the group of Matt Marshall, Robert Atiga, Jarrett Lake, Terrell Williams, Tyler Gilbert, and Austin Jones will have to step up to make this an effective unit overall.

In a move to add even more depth, coaches have promised to give fullback Small a hard look at linebacker as a reserve. Small played both positions in junior college. Highly touted true freshman Otha Peters will also get a shot at playing time in the linebacker rotation. Plus, Ross Rasner, who shared playing time with Nelson last year, will again play the outside linebacker/safety hybrid position.
Defensive Backs: B-

Cornerback should be a strength for Arkansas this season. Tevin Mitchel played well enough in seven starts to earn SEC All-Freshman honors in 2011. Fellow starter Darius Winston returns, backed up by Fisher, redshirt freshman Davyon McKinney and senior transfer Kaelon Kelleybrew, who was a pleasant surprise this off-season and may have had the most impressive spring game of any defensive back.

Quality and depth at safety are the big concerns. Rasner and Eric Bennett are listed as starters. Bennett had 74 tackles and assists with 3 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions and 3 pass breakups last year. Behind Rasner and Bennett, junior Jerry Mitchell, sophomore Alan Turner and redshirt freshman Rohan Gaines will compete for playing time while bringing very little game experience to the fight. Defonta Lowe, a 6-3, 190-pound true freshman, may also earn some playing time at safety.
Overall: A-

The Razorbacks return 16 starters from an 11-2 Cotton Bowl champion team. They led the SEC in scoring offense and total offense in 2011. They have the potential to do the same in 2012. If they move up from ninth in rushing offense—which they should if Davis stays healthy—they could be on their way to a historic season.

However, they will have to dramatically improve on defense after finishing ninth in total defense, ninth in rushing defense, and tenth in passing defense in the SEC in 2011. Make those improvements and they will very likely make me eat my A- overall score with some crow on the side.

Can the 2012 Razorbacks win enough games to at least contend in the rugged SEC West with home games against powerhouses LSU and Alabama and the very difficult conference road schedule mentioned earlier?  It’s anybody’s guess at this point.

But then, that’s the way it usually is in August.

What a time to be Tom Herman!
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