In two weeks, Pearls will commence its annual rite of August, that being a game-by-game prediction of how the 2017 Razorback football season will assuredly play out (yes, I hear your derisive snickering, and it is noted). This being something of a crossroads campaign for slightly embattled, slightly sub-.500 Bret Bielema, the new father — Briella Nichole Bielema arrived early Saturday, July 8, with her and Mama Jen in great health thereafter — is under no small degree of pressure to prove that his latest team will be cleansed of the inconsistency that earmarked the 7-6 squad of a year ago.
We've typically taken this opportunity to author a few points to observe as August practices loom closer. Thusly, we proceed with the latest installment of FIVE BIG QUESTIONS™:
1. Can Austin Allen get a better handle on the job and rein in his emotions? Last fall, in the games where the team faltered, Allen's frustration was often visibly on display, and let's not mince words here: When the senior-to-be was pissed off at the lackadaisical approach to the fourth-quarter playcalling as the team played from behind against Texas A&M, or when he was predictably irritable after protection broke down completely and imperiled him at Auburn and Missouri, he was fully justified, and it was a bit refreshing to see that kind of passion. We had heard for years that Austin carried a bit more of an edge to him than his even-keel older brother, Brandon. But as a senior leader, he simply can't forsake composure in the tense moments, and that will be taxing considering the untested receiving talent with which he has to work. Allen had some fine moments throughout his first year as a starter, but also threw 11 of his 15 interceptions in losses, and many of those came at junctures where he was trying to shoulder too much of the proverbial load.
2. Will the offensive line revert to its 2015 form? Arkansas will necessarily be powered up front by road-grading, experienced run blockers like center Frank Ragnow, but pass protection was an obvious and repetitive deficiency. Allen's 34 sacks didn't just come at the hands of the power programs like Alabama (recall that Louisiana Tech tormented him in the very first 60 minutes of the season), and his alleged mobility was often neutralized because inexperienced tackles simply missed assignments. Rawleigh Williams improved dramatically in picking up blitzing back-end players, so his early retirement will also put some heat on Devwah Whaley to be every bit as instrumental in the passing game as he expects to be on the ground. The real mystery, though, is whether the young linemen thrust into action last fall (Colton Jackson, Brian Wallace, Johnny Gibson and Jalen Merrick) will now take charge after taking lumps, or if some newer blood will have to undergo trial by fire yet again.
3. What fresh hell will the kicking game put us through? Let's see now ... Cole Hedlund lost his job last year after trying hard to lose it the year before, and Connor Limpert was only serviceable on kickoffs, logging a mere nine touchbacks out of 43 boots. Steady punter Toby Baker is gone after two fine years handling that duty. Hedlund probably has backed his way into being the placekicking frontrunner by default with Adam McFain now gone, and Blake Johnson should have the inside track on the punting job, but monitor this situation closely, because — stop me if you've heard this before — there's a chance that either or both of the odds-on favorites to handle these chores will be dethroned at some point before or during the season. Bielema needs some stability here desperately, and the outlook is honestly less than exciting.
4. Can somebody in that secondary actually snatch the damn ball out of the air? Through 13 games last year, the Hogs' top ballhawk in the secondary was ... hard to figure. Henré Toliver had two of the team's moribund total of 10 interceptions, and so did Ryan Pulley and Josh Liddell, but that's the number that paced the team: two. The best news is that this unit played inarguably better than it was expected to, thanks to now-defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads' tutelage, and the aggregate experience of the defensive backfield is the best that it has been in several years. Toliver cut his teeth shutting down Amari Cooper as a freshman in 2014, and Pulley and Santos Ramirez both genuinely blossomed last year after having rocky times on the turf in 2015. What once appeared to be a liability now seems like the outright strength of the defense, particularly because the Hogs' pass rush has regressed slowly but markedly since the likes of Trey Flowers departed.
5. Will this be the year that Arkansas finally has a linebacking corps worth its salt? Long an Achilles heel, this unit has size, depth and athleticism, and is bolstered by the return of Dre Greenlaw and the maturity of Dwayne Eugene and Randy Ramsey, two skilled guys who had to take circuitous and arduous routes to find their playing time. The real gem of the bunch may be De'Jon "Scoota" Harris, who blew past a couple of higher-rated prospects to become a key cog and All-Freshman contributor. The days of sub-6-foot, scarcely-two-bills guys in the middle are gone, thankfully, and with no disrespect intended to the departed Brooks Ellis, this is going to be a much speedier and agile crew manning the second line of defense, and Robb Smith is no longer around to call and design creative plays that leave the entire center of the field exposed.
There are other matters worth talking about, to be sure. Arkansas is as mystifying a team this preseason as any in recent years because it faltered so badly in all six of its losses last year, choking away sure wins in the latter two after getting blown out in the other four. That mercurial performance set the fan base to restlessness and the losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech were the most sour season-ending notes since John L. Smith's beleaguered 2012 bunch got blown out by South Carolina and Mississippi State and then frittered away an upset bid against LSU in the waning seconds. Bielema, you can be certain, does not want his 2017 team to be remotely comparable to that damnable cast, or he'll be exiting the premises the same way his immediate, ill-fated predecessor did.