Before Pearls devotes itself completely to 2012 football season preview mode, this week we assess, through a series of yet unanswerable queries, whether these Hogs can survive a turbulent off-season and excel this fall.
• What kind of legacy will Tyler Wilson leave? He owns one of the best all-around seasons of quarterbacking ever at Fayetteville, has demonstrated maturity so advanced that even the head coach's abrupt dismissal hasn't caused nearly the level of alarm expected, and owns the single-game records for pass completions and yardage. But because 2011 represented his first year as a starter, Wilson does not find himself situated highly on career statistical ledgers, and his opening act was not totally above reproach. At times during his career, ball security has been an issue and occasionally that has been a function of not releasing quickly enough under duress. He was blessed with an incredible receiving corps last year and will have to develop a rhythm with mostly green targets this year. And speaking of that...
• Who provides Cobi Hamilton support on the outside? We know now that it will not be the troubled Marquel Wade, nor will Quinta Funderburk or Maudrecus Humphrey have anything to say about it. Neither Javontee Herndon nor Julian Horton has caught a touchdown pass since arriving, and Keante Minor got no real reps last year. This columnist's money is on Owasso, Okla. product Keon Hatcher to become a standout as a true freshman. This position has been an embarrassment of riches for three years running, so the sudden paucity of proven depth there is an issue that demands immediate correction, especially since Hamilton has never been the primary target in his own right.
• Will Darius Winston finally live up to his otherworldly potential, or will he be an afterthought by midseason? The Camden Fairview product has been maddeningly erratic, rarely showing the kind of ball skills that made him a top-shelf cornerback recruit in 2008. He has always had the build and the quickness to excel, but seemingly lost confidence when the learning curve for being an SEC shutdown corner proved high. If Winston channels the setbacks of his first three years into something positive, he and Tevin Mitchel could be a formidable pair in the secondary, especially with the underrated Eric Bennett still manning safety.
• Can Alonzo Highsmith be an All-American? The transfer shined last season after he worked his way into the starting middle linebacker role before the 2011 season began. He was the impact player that the Hogs have missed there for years, consistently involving himself in plays behind the line (12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks) and displaying a great sense of timing for big plays, his touchdown return on a fumble against LSU being the most dramatic example. By the time he had finished terrorizing Collin Klein at the Cotton Bowl, Highsmith seemed to be asserting that he was ready to emerge as the Hogs' defensive anchor for his senior campaign. As is often said in the summer of many players, Highsmith looks the part and has designs on parlaying his last year in Fayetteville into the kind of sustained NFL career his father had.
• Who on Earth takes Joe Adams' place? Spoiled to having the nation's most electric punt returner and "gadget" player, Arkansas faces a serious special teams concern this fall with Adams now a Carolina Panther. Wade was the natural successor; beyond that, it seems like the best fit might be one of the true freshmen (i.e., Defonta Lowe, Will Hines) instead of an experienced skill player who would be at risk.
• Is John L. Smith a Larry Coker for the modern age? Coker inherited Butch Davis' revamp at Miami and promptly won a national championship (should have been two) to begin his head coaching career. Smith has returned to Fayetteville with ample head coaching chops, the same genial nature that made Coker a great short-term breath of fresh air in a cutthroat business, and no real desire to get in the way of his assistants. Coker was never regarded as a Saban-level guru, but rather as a pleasant and decent man who had great fortune and timing. Smith professes that he wants to retain the crown beyond his eight-month contract, and I suspect he would be perfectly content to have a reputation like that of Coker if he could have the jewelry that accompanied it.