SEC: Martrell Spaight

Opening spring camp: Arkansas

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
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Schedule: The Razorbacks open spring camp with their first practice on Sunday. They conclude with the Red-White Game on April 26 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. The spring game is free to attend.

What's new: Arkansas hired former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers coach Robb Smith as defensive coordinator to replace Chris Ash, who left for Ohio State. Prior to working in the NFL, Smith was the defensive coordinator at Rutgers. The Razorbacks replaced defensive line coach Charlie Partridge with Rory Segrest, who coached the same position at Samford. They also hired Clay Jennings, who coached at TCU for the past six seasons, to replace defensive backs coach Taver Johnson, who went to Purdue. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon was promoted to senior associate head coach.

On the mend: The Hogs are healthy heading into their first practice this weekend. Just one player is out for the spring, junior tight end Mitchell Loewen (torn ACL).

On the move: Arkansas has a challenge in finding a replacement for center Travis Swanson, who started all 50 games of his career. Luke Charpentier was Swanson's top backup as a junior last season, but sophomore Cordale Boyd is moving from guard to compete for the job this spring. With the departure of senior fullback Kiero Small, the Razorbacks will move junior tailback Kody Walker and could also look to shift junior Jonathan Williams from tailback in order to stack the backfield. Williams has put on 15 pounds without sacrificing speed.

New faces: There are eight early enrollees who will participate this spring: quarterback Rafe Peavey, wide receivers Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister, cornerbacks Chris Murphy and Cornelius Floyd, linebacker Khalia Hackett, offensive lineman Frank Ragnow and defensive tackle Armon Watts.

Question marks: There are a lot after the Razorbacks went 3-9 in Bret Bielema's first season. Arkansas was also winless in conference play for the first time since 1942. So, is the head coach's honeymoon over already? Clearly some of the luster has worn off of Bielema's star just a year after Arkansas was widely praised for its surprise hire. Another question concerns his pace-of-play crusade. Was the intent to deflect attention from his team's performance? Now that the 10-second rule has been shelved, the focus shifts back to making progress on the field. Bielema will be under more scrutiny from a restless fan base in Year 2.

The next question, therefore, is how much can the Hogs improve? They've got a lot of work to do on a defense that gave up an average of 6.1 yards per play last season and allowed more than 30 points a game for the second straight year. On offense, Arkansas averaged just over 20 points a game in 2013, their lowest production since 1997. There are pieces in place on both sides of the ball for Bielema to engineer a quick turnaround, however, and he'll spend this spring building his players’ confidence.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesAlong with its improved communication, Bret Bielema said Arkansas can make strides by getting physical.
Key battle: The competition at quarterback will be a classic case of an underperforming veteran trying to fend off some talented newcomers. Brandon Allen struggled as a sophomore in his first go-round as a full-time starter. He threw for just 1,552 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but it was the 49.6 completion percentage that has Bielema looking for more. Last season, juco transfer AJ Derby got a start and some playing time but failed to impress. This spring Allen will be the favorite to keep his job, but he'll have to beat out his younger brother. Austin Allen was a four-star prospect who redshirted last season. One more challenger is Peavey, the true freshman. He's another four-star prospect whom ESPN ranked the No. 10 dual-threat QB prospect in the Class of 2014.

Breaking out: Linebacker is the other big position battle this spring, as it was a sore spot in 2013. Five different players made starts at linebacker last season. Braylon Mitchell tied for second on the team with 77 tackles as a junior, and juco transfer Martrell Spaight will have to improve on his 22 tackles. But the player whom Bielema has the most praise for is Fayetteville's own Brooks Ellis, who started the last four games of 2013 at middle linebacker as a true freshman. Look for Ellis to pick up where he left off in November.

Don't forget about: Arkansas' defensive line could be a strength and key the turnaround that is desperately needed on defense. Trey Flowers, who had a breakout season at defensive end in leading the team with 13.5 tackles for loss, resisted the lure of the NFL to return for his senior season. He's also put on 15 pounds and should play faster and more aggressively in Smith's defense. Defensive tackle Darius Philon was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after recording 46 tackles and three sacks. He stepped into the starting lineup due to an injury and never looked back.

All eyes on: Alex Collins was the crown jewel of Bielema's first recruiting class and lived up to expectations with an SEC Freshman of the Year performance. He became the first true freshman in Arkansas history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing. Making such a splash means that Collins is now the most visible Razorback and will be held to a higher standard. That's why Bielema suspended him from football activities and social media for a week in February. The head coach says Collins has responded well to the discipline, but Bielema is clearly keeping an eye on his star tailback.
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."

Opening camp: Arkansas

August, 2, 2013
8/02/13
3:00
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Schedule: The Hogs will open preseason practice on Monday. Their first day in full pads is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 9.

On the mend: Sophomore linebackers A.J. Turner (wrist) and Otha Peters (hip) didn’t do much in the spring while recovering from injuries. Senior safety Eric Bennett battled through an assortment of injuries last season, but is healthy heading into camp.

Key battle: Sorting things out at linebacker is at the top of the Hogs’ to-do list this preseason. A pair of junior college newcomers will factor in prominently -- Myke Tavarres and Martrell Spaight. Tavarres enrolled in January and went through spring practice. True freshman Brooks Ellis could also get an early look. The spring ended with fourth-year junior Daunte Carr, a former safety, listed No. 1 at middle linebacker along with fourth-year junior Braylon Mitchell at strongside linebacker and senior Jarrett Lake at weakside linebacker. Turner and Peters both had their moments as true freshmen and will almost certainly climb back into the rotation as long as they’re healthy. Former Miami head coach Randy Shannon is the Hogs’ linebackers coach, and he will mix and match to get the right combinations on the field.

Of note: Bret Bielema won 12 games in his first season as head coach at Wisconsin (2006), but it wasn’t until his fifth season that the Badgers won a Big Ten championship, the first of three straight Big Ten titles on Bielema’s watch.

Predicted order of finish: Picked seventh in the West at SEC media days.

They said it: “It’s a spread world right now, so seeing a coach who’s going to come in and run the football and play a physical brand of football is something we were all excited about.” -- Arkansas fullback Kiero Small
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.

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