SEC: Demetrius Wilson

Arkansas can’t rely solely on the running game again. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams might be one of the best tandems of running backs in the country, but they can take the offense only so far. Quarterback Brandon Allen and the passing game, which ranked dead last in the conference last season, must pick up the slack. If not, we could see the Razorbacks’ nine-game losing streak continue into this season, beginning with Saturday’s opener against Auburn.

At the center of it all stands Hunter Henry. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound tight end was one of the best true freshmen in the SEC last season, finishing with 28 receptions, 409 yards and four touchdowns. Against Texas A&M, he had 109 yards on four receptions. A few weeks later against Alabama, he proved to be a matchup nightmare yet again, splitting the defense on one play that picked up 25 yards.

[+] EnlargeHunter Henry
AP Photo/April L. BrownArkansas tight end Hunter Henry has shown the potential to be a deep threat in the passing game.
But his production was volatile. Like most freshmen, he struggled with consistency.

One reason for that was fairly obvious. He simply didn’t know the offense like he should. He knew his job on each play, but hadn’t had time to understand the concepts of everyone involved. The nuances of the game -- breaking in and out of each route, feeling for the soft spot in the defense, etc. -- hadn’t come to him.

The other reason for his struggles was physical. Two games in, he banged his knee and was forced to sit out against Southern Miss. Then, about the halfway point of the season, he injured his other knee. Against South Carolina, he failed to catch a pass. Against Auburn, he caught just one ball. A few weeks later, in an overtime loss to Mississippi State, he had just two receptions for 14 yards.

"I had some fluid and muscular issues,” Henry said. "It was really weird. I’ve never had anything like it. It was bothering me from really opening up my stride and really running at my full potential."

Despite getting his knee drained "a couple of times," the tightness lingered. He couldn’t get to his second gear, he said.

Now, after some time to rest, he said he feels great. And judging by the word of his quarterback, he is playing like it -- from the neck up as much as the neck down.

"Physically, he’s in better shape," Allen said. "He’s more conditioned and built up a lot of muscle.

"The biggest thing is the maturity level. Going from being a freshman last year to now, his maturity level is off the charts. He’s seeing defenses and seeing coverages a lot better. He’s understanding how to get himself open within the coverage."

That could spell trouble for opposing defenses.

"They’ll be prepared for him," Allen said. "But you can be as prepared as you want, because great players are going to make great plays, and I think Hunter is a great player. It doesn’t matter if defenses are tailored for him or not, he’s going to get himself open."

That might be true. But Henry’s teammates need to play more of a supporting role than they did last season when defenses were able to double- and triple-team him without paying the price.

Those around the program say to expect a major upgrade at receiver. Keon Hatcher returns after ending last season on a good note, Demetrius Wilson is back from his torn ACL and Cody Hollister is poised to make an impact as a sophomore.

Then there are the young guns like Kendrick Edwards, who stands 6-foot-6. Jared Cornelius will "make people miss" in the slot, according to Allen. And Jojo Robinson, a former four-star prospect, has 4.4 speed and could find his way into the rotation, too.

"They’ve seen what [Henry] can do," Allen said. "So it’s going to be up to a lot of people to step up and make plays besides him."

For Arkansas, it’s all about finding the right complimentary weapons. The receivers must open up things for the tight ends. The tight ends and the receivers must then open up things for the running backs. And at the end of it all, Allen must execute.

"We have three great running backs," Allen said, counting sophomore Korliss Marshall along with Collins and Williams. "I feel like them pounding the ball is definitely going to be tough on a lot of defenses and cause them to put more people in the box and try to stop them. That, in turn, is going to open up the passing game.

"Our passing game has come a long way from last year. We have receivers making plays, understanding the routes and how to win one-on-ones. I feel like our passing game is night and day. It’s much better, and we obviously have a great running game to go with it."

Video: X factor for Arkansas

June, 25, 2014
AM ET reporter Alex Scarborough discusses who might be Arkansas' X factor this season.

SEC position rankings: WR/TE

June, 11, 2014
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.

Injury impact: SEC

October, 24, 2013
The injury bug has been sucking the life out of teams in the SEC this season. The SEC East has been hit especially hard this season, and here are the three teams in the league that have been affected the most:

1. Florida: Not exactly what the Gators want to be ranked first in, but Florida runs away with this one. The 4-3 Gators lost starting right tackle Chaz Green (shoulder) and wide receiver Andre Debose (knee) for the season during fall camp and have seen six more season-ending injuries since, including quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Matt Jones and defensive tackle Dominique Easley. They dressed only 13 healthy defenders in the loss to Missouri. Quarterback Tyler Murphy is still dealing with a lingering shoulder injury.

2. Georgia: The 4-3 Bulldogs lost top receiver Malcolm Mitchell for the year to a freak ACL injury in the season opener and then lost running back Keith Marshall and Justin-Scott Wesley to ACL injuries against Tennessee. Starting running back Todd Gurley (ankle) has been out since the LSU game (Sept. 28) and receiver Michael Bennett hasn't played since the Tennessee game (Oct. 5) due to a knee injury. Receiver Chris Conley (ankle) and safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons (foot) and Tray Matthews are questionable for next week's Florida game.

3. Arkansas: The Razorbacks, who have lost five straight, felt the injury bug before the season when top receiver Demetrius Wilson was lost for the year with a preseason ACL injury while linebacker Otha Peters has played in only five games after breaking his arm during fall camp. Coach Bret Bielema estimated that 10-12 players went down with injuries during fall camp. Quarterback Brandon Allen suffered a shoulder injury early this season and starting defensive tackle Robert Thomas is out for the season with a broken leg.
Bret Bielema is the epitome of a man's man.

His personality and bravado would be welcomed at any fraternity party, while his barrel-chested frame and grittiness is perfect for a cage fight.

It's the latter persona that Bielema hopes his new team adopts during his first season as Arkansas' head coach while he tries to bring his more physical style from Wisconsin to Fayetteville, Ark.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBret Bielema is hoping his fiery personality carries over to his new team.
His players aren't exactly ready for the Octagon, but Bielema likes how guys have adapted to a more rugged style. For a team used to finesse on both offense and defense, the transition wasn't easy, but with the Razorbacks a day away from their first game under a new regime, Bielema is pleased with the strides made in the toughness department.

"They've embraced everything we've asked them to," Bielema said. "They train a certain way, they eat a certain way, they sleep a certain way and they recover in a way that allows them to be at full strength when they're playing. I couldn't be happier with the results."

To Bielema, everything is very much a work in progress, but the Hogs' baby steps have really impressed him. This team had to prepare for more hitting and contact in practice and harder training sessions. Bielema wanted players to hurt physically and mentally before they could fully appreciate his new brand of ball.

And it wasn't for everyone. Bielema saw -- and expected -- transfers before heading into fall camp and expects other issues as the fall progresses.

"With the style of play that we like to do, you're going to have a little bit of a spike in injuries," Bielema said. "The good fortune is that only one has been season-ending."

But that season-ending injury came at a position already suffering to find an identity: wide receiver.

The relatively inexperienced unit took a major blow when senior Demetrius Wilson, who was the team's top receiver this spring and fall, went down with an ACL injury. Linebacker Otha Peters (broken arm) and tight end Austin Tate (shoulder surgery) could also miss six weeks, while receiver D'Arthur Cowan could also miss significant time after breaking a bone in his foot.

Bielema estimated that 10-12 other players went down with nagging injuries during fall camp, but were all able to return. Bielema considers the injuries "a true blessing in disguise" by allowing younger players get more reps, especially at receiver. Guys like Eric Hawkins, Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield have been able to get their feet wetter than expected and will make their Arkansas debuts Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette.

"It's going to be fun to see the next man in," Bielema said. "That's all that good football teams do. They continue to improve, even though people leave the lineup."

Losing receivers hurts, but in order for Bielema's offense to go, he needs a bruising back to take the reins and he one in sophomore Jonathan Williams, who possesses a ferocious downhill running style at 6-foot, 222 pounds.

He'll get help from fullback Kiero Small and freshman Alex Collins, but Bielema has no problem handing Williams the keys to the offense.

"He definitely has the shoulder pads over his toes," Bielema said. "He goes and gets the 4 yards. He takes advantage of a hole that might turn 4 (yards) into 40. On the flip side, he isn't looking for anybody to give him any freebee or anything. He wants to earn every inch and when you get that combined with a lot of ability, you usually get something good."

Defensively, Bielema has one of the SEC's best defensive lines, but he's had to find depth at linebacker by rotating a lot of bodies, especially in the middle where Bielema said Austin Jones and Martrell Spaight have really developed. He's also been pleased with Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell outside.

There are still hiccups here and there, but Bielema likes where his players' heads are. The Hogs have been through so much turmoil in the last year and a half, but they're trying to pave their own way out of the darkness that was 2012. They know their past has everyone counting them out, but Bielema embraces low expectations. He and his team are motivated by being told what they can't do.

"Prognosticators are going to think what they think," he said. "The ones that really matter are the people that are in our room and our kids have worked very, very hard to achieve a certain level of success and they expect to get it. They don't expect anyone to give them anything they didn't earn. They just want to go out there and earn what they can see where that can take them."
On the surface, the departure of wide receiver Mekale McKay looks like a big blow to an Arkansas team in major transition mode.

McKay, who was granted his release from his scholarship by head coach Bret Bielema over the weekend, was Arkansas' top returning receiver heading into the 2013 season. But that doesn't mean this receiving unit is in major trouble at all.

There will be some nice qualities that McKay possesses that the offense will miss. Last season, McKay was Arkansas' second-leading wide receiver with 21 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns. McKay had all the measurables and ability to be the Hogs' go-to guy this fall, but he battled injuries throughout spring and wasn't listed on the team's two-deep depth chart.

What improvements he could have made this fall with the Hogs, we'll never know, but Bielema has plenty of options to work with at receiver.

Missing someone who stands 6-6 and weighs nearly 200 pounds hurts from a matchup stand point, but Bielema should at least feel good about his team's options. Are any of them on the same level as the receivers who have recently passed through Fayetteville? Not right now, but there's good potential sprinkled all around.

Things will start with senior Demetrius Wilson, who really impressed the staff this spring. Bielema has already said that he was the team's best receiver this spring and was arguably the most consistent player, too. Wilson only caught nine passes in 2012, but he picked up this new offense quickly. He could become quarterback Brandon Allen's top target if he continues on the track he's on.

Wilson won't be a lone by any means. Fellow seniors Javontee Herndon, who was right behind McKay in receiving last season, and Julian Horton, are also in the mix. Herndon displayed a high level of physical play this spring, which should help him fit in nicely in Bielema's more smash-mouth offense. Horton has the speed and elusiveness to be a real playmaker for the Hogs as well.

Sophomore Keon Hatcher will also get a chance to help this offense. Plus, Arkansas should be much more run-oriented this season, which will take some heat off the receivers.

Allen has slowly improved through the early stages of fall camp. While he's certainly getting more comfortable, he's also getting help from his receivers. It would have been nice to have McKay out there, but the Hogs still have a solid group coming back. It hasn't been the most productive unit (Herndon, Horton and Wilson have combined for just 67 receptions), but the skill is there to make this a good group for Allen to grow with.
Cobi Hamilton isn't walking through Arkansas' doors in 2013.

He may come back for a visit or two, but he won't be suiting up for the Razorbacks, which means that his single season school-record 90 receptions and 1,335 receiving yards aren't returning, either.

With a relatively inexperienced quarterback in Brandon Allen taking over and a brand new coaching staff in town, the Hogs will surely miss a top-flight receiver like Hamilton, but things aren't totally bleak in Fayetteville. The good news is that the Hogs will be able to replace Hamilton with numbers -- veteran numbers.

[+] EnlargeJavontee Herndon
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsThe toughness of Arkansas WR Javontee Herndon has caught the eye of new coach Bret Bielema.
Arkansas has three senior receivers -- Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Demetrius Wilson -- sitting atop the post-spring depth chart. Now, they might only have 67 combined receptions among them, but they've been around the game long enough to generate some confidence in the coaching staff this spring.

Their hunger to make things right again at Arkansas during their last go-round also excites Arkansas' coaching staff.

"When you have three seniors and it's as important to them as it is, the other guys can kind of take shape around them," coach Bret Bielema said. "I expect them to lead us."

Herndon will enter the fall with the most production of the three. He has 31 career receptions for 473 yards and three touchdowns. He caught 21 of those passes and all of his touchdowns last year. Herndon's on-field attitude and toughness really impressed Bielema this spring.

"Probably one of the more physical guys in our group," Bielema said of Herndon.

While Wilson, who came from the junior college ranks last year, only caught nine passes in his first year with the Hogs in 2012, Bielema said he was Arkansas' top performer at receiver this spring. The thing that really made him stand out was his consistency and he bought into the offense and what coaches asked him to do.

"Everything he does is 100 miles an hour," Bielema said. "He's very engaged, he's very hard on himself. If he makes a mistake or does something that he knows is wrong he's very critical, but is quick to rebound and make a great play after it."

Then you have Horton, who caught 14 passes last year. He has the physical ability to be a real playmaker in this offense with his speed and elusiveness. Bielema said he really came on during the last few weeks of spring practice.

It's not going to be easy to replace Hamilton -- or his production -- but the Hogs have bodies to work with. The next step is really developing that on-field confidence during game situations. It'll be tough with a younger QB taking over, but this is where coaches have to lean on their vets.

The Hogs will call upon youngsters like Mekale McKay and Keon Hatcher to help this fall, but to have three seniors clicking like they are exiting spring is a big win for this new coaching staff.
After a drama-filled, late signing day for ESPNU 150 athlete Davonte Neal (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral), the nation's No. 8 prospect finally made a decision.

He picked Notre Dame over Arizona, Arkansas and North Carolina, ending what had turned into quite the spectacle.

Now that Neal's recruitment is officially over, Arkansas' coaching staff can officially put the 2012 recruiting class to bed. And while Neal would have been a tremendous addition to the Razorbacks' class, it's not the end of the world that Arkansas didn't land him. In fact, missing out on both Neal and top receiver Dorial Green-Beckham won't set Bobby Petrino's team back.

Also, after the "show" that Neal put on with his recruitment, there are definitely questions about his mindset. We don't know every single detail concerning his recruitment, but from what I know about Petrino's offense, a me-first attitude doesn't work within a scheme that tries to spread the ball around as much as possible.

[+] EnlargeCobi Hamilton
Beth Hall/US PresswireCobi Hamilton should be among the top returning receivers in the SEC.
Arkansas lost three future NFL draft picks in Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright, but returns a handful of receiving targets in 2012. Two of those returning -- tight end Chris Gragg and receiver Cobi Hamilton -- ranked third and fourth, respectively, in receiving for the Hogs.

Hamilton, who will probably see his name near the top of the list of returning SEC receivers this fall, caught 34 passes for 542 yards and was second on the team with four touchdowns. Gragg, one of the top returning tight ends in the league, caught 41 passes for 518 yards and two scores.

That's a good foundation, but it doesn't end there for the Hogs. Arkansas' deep receiving corps hasn't accumulated a ton of stats, but that's because these players haven't had much of a chance with those vets in front of them. They've shown that to the coaches in practice, but haven't had the chance to do it for the public.

One of those players expected to make a big leap in 2012 is rising sophomore Marquel Wade. He only caught eight passes last fall, but the coaches are expecting big things from him in Year 2. Wade has big play ability, is shifty and the coaches think he resembles Adams in his movements and returning ability. He should receive a lot more attention from quarterback Tyler Wilson and opposing defenders. However, with his speed and elusiveness, he should be able to make a play or two next fall.

Juniors-to-be Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton, who combined for 17 catches in 2011, are also back and from what the coaches have seen in practice, they expect them to step right in this fall.

Also, keep an eye out on incoming juco transfer receiver Demetrius Wilson and freshman tight end Demetrius Dean. Wilson should certainly get a chance to compete early because coaches don't exactly bring in juco players to sit and watch. Dean (6-foot- 3, 240 pounds) could come in and line up opposite Gragg and has the ability to split out wide if needed.

Striking out with both Neal and DGB wasn't exactly part of Petrino's recruiting plan, but his teams have led the SEC in passing the past three years for a reason, so don't expect him to pout too much about losing these two.