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Razorbacks Eye Improvement Under New Leadership

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(This is the first in a series of twelve, previewing the 2013 opponents for Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns.  Today:  the Arkansas Razorbacks).

Is there anyone who is a fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks who doesn’t want to forget 2012?

Not just the football season.

Earlier that year, Bobby Petrino was let go by the Hogs after he wrecked his motorcycle with his mistress riding, and then lied to his bosses, saying he was alone.

That left Arkansas with the task of hiring a coach in a hurry.  And, they settled on Weber State HC John L. Smith.

The result was a motorcycle….er….train wreck of a 2012 season.  The Razorbacks finished 4-8, lost to ULM and Rutgers, and gave up 155 points in losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.  Smith was dismissed after the season and the Razorbacks started the process of finding a new coach.  And, mouths dropped open in surprise when they announced Bret Bielema as the new face of Arkansas football.

Bielema was 68-24 as coach of the Wisconsin Badgers and was known for having physically tough teams, especially on the offensive line.  Bielema promises the same philosophy at Arkansas, but it will be interesting to see how that works, personnel wise, from the wide open, skill heavy style of Petrino.

OFFENSE
Not a lot of starters returning, but, given the change in philosophy, maybe that’s a good thing.  Sophomore Brandon Allen won the quarterback job in the spring.  But who the QB is probably won’t mean quite as much under Bielema, who likes big bruising backs that run, run and run some more behind a solid offensive line.  Allen in fact, threw the ball only 13 times in the spring game, perhaps a precursor of what is to come.  Running back Jonathan Williams (6-0, 220) carried the ball just 45 times last year and there’s not much experience behind him.  Javonte Herndon and Mekale McKay return at the wide receiver spots.  McKay will be a big target at 6-6, as is tight end Austin Tate.  The offensive line returns some experience and size and they will be the key under Bielema’s system.  It should be noted; however, offensive coordinator Jim Cheney is coming from Tennessee, so expect some of those characteristics as well.

DEFENSE

There’s returning talent on this side of the football.  DE Chris Smith was a third team All-SEC pick last year.  He had 9.5 sacks and he’s one of three starters returning on the DL.  Arkansas was devastated by injury last year at the linebacker spot, which gave freshman  A. J. Turner a chance to perform, and he didn’t disappoint.  Junior college transfer Myke Tavarres will play on the weak side.  The best experience is in the secondary, where all four starters, and seven of their top nine, are back.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Zach Hocker is a fourth year kicker who had touchbacks on more than 67% of his kickoffs last year.  He slipped to 11/18 field goals but has 48 career field goals.  Hocker may also be the punter, but Sam Irwin-Hill is pretty interesting.  He’s a juco transfer who averaged over 41 yards per kick last year.  But here’s the, pardon the pun, kicker….He can punt with either leg.  The top kick and punt returner are gone.

OUTLOOK

Bielema has proven he can coach with the big boys.  And, there’s probably no question Arkansas will be a better football team than they were a year ago.  The tough thing for the Cajuns is opening the season against a team debuting a new head coach, especially one in the SEC, a conference against which the Cajuns are winless.  UL coaches are watching video on Arkansas for personnel and Wisconsin and Tennessee for trends on offense.  Even doing that, they’ll probably have to make some adjustments on the fly when they see just what the Hogs are going to do.  That being said, this is not a bad matchup for the Cajuns at all.  When you talk about size and athleticism, the two teams are very similar.  Gone are the days when the Cajuns get overmatched in talent, even against the lower part of the Southeastern Conference.  Obviously it’s going to take a very good performance to get it done, but this is not an unwinnable game.

(Information from Phil Steele’s College Football Preview and Sporting News College Football contributed to this article.)

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