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Summer hopes



In those lamentable dog days of summer, generally Razorback football news of any kind is rare. And historically, such as in the summer of 2006 when Darren McFadden nearly mangled his foot in a predawn nightclub brawl and Paul Eells died tragically on Interstate 40 prior to summer ball starting in earnest, it's not been all that great.

We've already been leveled with the news that Rawleigh Williams' burgeoning career is over far too soon due to injury precautions, but that occurred in the spring scrimmage. Summer is a time for the fans to summon optimism, if the circumstances dictate it, because everyone in America is 0-0 right now. Except for Oklahoma, which starts the post-Bob Stoops era well ahead of the curve because it might actually win games of magnitude now.

Bret Bielema is not, regardless of your possible venom toward him or the catastrophic way the 2016 season wrapped, going anywhere. He's soon to be a father to a little girl, which was an enthralling enough way for the embattled fifth-year coach to enjoy Father's Day, but the football gods smiled on him even more broadly on Sunday when onetime South Carolina tailback Dave Williams announced his transfer to Fayetteville. Williams will shore up the backfield depth significantly with Rawleigh's retirement having robbed the Hogs of their bellcow.

Now, the running back stable consists of Devwah Whaley, who is expected to blossom after flashing his four-star skill to the tune of 602 yards and three scores on limited totes, and two new Williamses, namely Dave and true freshman Maleek, who arrived on campus early and displayed a bit of Alex Collins-like shiftiness in the spring. Throw in incoming freshman Chase Hayden, a well-regarded recruit who had offers from a variety of power programs, and there's ample backfield depth now.

More critically, though, the arrival of Williams by way of South Carolina may facilitate the return of T.J. Hammonds to the slot, where his speed and elusiveness is desperately needed. Arkansas's 2017 fate may rest on how well the offense performs after four wide receivers of varying degrees of production (Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Dominique Reed and Cody Hollister) all exhausted their eligibility, and Jeremy Sprinkle left a hole to fill at tight end. Jared Cornelius is by far the most proven returning pass catcher, but there's room for Hammonds, Deon Stewart, and LaMichael Pettway to mature and excel after all of them got only tastes of the action last fall. Cheyenne O'Grady and Austin Cantrell should keep the tight end production bolstered.

This is not shaping up to be the most dynamic offense that the Hogs will have, as a consequence of that lost experience at the skill positions, but there's an argument to be made that it will be more consistent because quarterback Austin Allen now has a full season of starting behind him. Allen has to rein in his emotions and spend his senior season the way his older brother, Brandon, shepherded the offense in 2015. What made that offense click as the season wore on was Brandon's ability to accept those downs where the downfield coverage was too stingy to test. He capitalized on the short throws and that made Cornelius, Reed and Morgan that much more lethal on downfield strikes.

We'll break down the offense in greater detail, particularly on the line, as the season nears. But to be greeted this week with the news that the Hogs were getting an experienced running back was something encouraging for a change.

On the baseball front, Dave Van Horn's team may have faltered at the Fayetteville Regional, but the MLB Draft did not strip the program too aggressively, and a couple of collegiate writers observed in the aftermath of the draft that the Hogs accordingly may be one of the preseason favorites in 2018. That's not an entirely welcome proposition, as Van Horn's best teams have traditionally been those that operated without the weight of expectations, but considering that Trevor Stephan and Chad Spanberger may be the only two significant contributors from a 45-19 team who sign pro contracts, there's cause for springtime optimism, too.

Blaine Knight's erratic moments and slight build may have deterred otherwise interested suitors, as he dropped to the 29th round. Luke Bonfield and Carson Shaddy didn't get called upon, so that brings a combined 17 home runs and 89 RBIs right back into the lineup along with Jax Biggers' surprising production and the late-season bursts from Eric Cole and Jared Gates. All-SEC catcher Grant Koch is also back for his third and presumably final year, so suddenly the Hogs' lineup has the look of one that will smack the ball around again, especially with some highly-regarded incoming talent.

The pitching staff will undeniably miss Stephan's power and swagger at the top, but there's no question that Wes Johnson will have a greater level of comfort with the staff he'll presumably have in 2018. Keaton McKinney and Isaiah Campbell will return from injury-sabotaged years, Knight remains a top-flight starter, and the development of Jake Reindl, Matt Cronin, Kevin Kopps and Barrett Loseke throughout the spring will mean that the Razorback arm depth is as good as it has ever been in Van Horn's long and accomplished tenure.

If you can't get too jazzed about the football program, then, keep your spirits up for another good spring on the diamond.  

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