FAYETTEVILLE — Coming off a nine-win, top-25 season, expectations for Arkansas football are the highest they’ve been in a decade.
Depending where you look, the Razorbacks are being picked as high as second in the SEC West and could win as many as 10 games. They have their most star power and depth in recent history.
Playing an insanely difficult schedule in the toughest division in college football, though, means things could easily get derailed by an injury or two.
With that in mind, here are the five Razorbacks who Best of Arkansas Sports believes are the most indispensable this season…
5. Drew Sanders
We start our countdown with a bit of a surprise, as we believe Drew Sanders is a more indispensable linebacker than Bumper Pool. Don’t get us wrong, Pool is a vital piece of the defense and is racking up preseason All-SEC accolades for a reason.
However, the skill set Sanders brings to the table is much different than anyone else on the roster. He’s expected to be the second starting linebacker alongside Pool, but he will also probably get some reps as an edge rusher. In fact, the media saw a few plays during a recent team period when Sanders essentially lined up as a stand-up defensive end with Pool and Jackson Woodard also on the field — a rare three-linebacker set for the Razorbacks.
That is the position Sanders played at Alabama before hitting the portal and landing at Arkansas, where his goal was to play a more traditional linebacker spot. He’ll get plenty of snaps like that, but the Razorbacks would be silly not to try to utilize his elite pass-rushing skills. Teammates have raved about his swim move and Sanders also has very good speed, which was on display in the spring showcase when he chased down Malik Hornsby in the open field.
If something were to happen to Sanders, Arkansas doesn’t have anyone else who can replicate what he brings to the table. It would probably have to scrap certain packages designed specifically for him and make do with much less of a pass-rush threat. On the flip side, Pool would be a significant loss, but the Razorbacks have options — Woodard, Chris Paul Jr. and Jordan Crook — to replace him that wouldn’t significantly change the defense from a schematic standpoint.
4. Jalen Catalon
After the previous coaching staff bungled his redshirt year, Jalen Catalon burst onto the scene with a huge season in 2020 that had some fans comparing him to the likes of Ken Hamlin and Steve Atwater.
That naturally created some lofty expectations heading into last season and he added to the hype with a couple of interceptions against Rice, but his season was derailed by injury. Playing with a broken hand and tears in his labrum that eventually needed season-ending surgery, Catalon was obviously not at full strength against Ole Miss — a game the Razorbacks lost 52-51.
In its first game without him entirely, Arkansas had its most disappointing performance of the season in a 38-23 loss to Auburn. Although Myles Slusher filled in admirably, he was admittedly nervous going into the Auburn game, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think a healthy Catalon could have been the difference in those back-to-back losses.
Not only did the Razorbacks miss Catalon from a talent standpoint, they also missed his leadership. As a team captain, his voice was just as important as linebacker Grant Morgan in terms of being a “quarterback of the defense.” Having Pool back will once again take some of the pressure off of him in that aspect, but Catalon’s presence on the back end of the defense is immensely important to Arkansas’ success this year.
It’s also a nice mental boost to the defense knowing you have someone on the field capable of delivering bone-crushing hits like this:
3. Cam Little
It may seem a little odd to have a kicker ranked ahead of a preseason All-American safety on this list, but Cam Little is the ultimate confidence boost for both sides of the ball.
A top-ranked kicker coming out of high school, the Moore, Okla., native immediately lived up to the hype by putting together one of the best freshman seasons by a kicker in UA history. He made all 46 of his extra points and 20 of 24 field goals. His 106 points tied for third on Arkansas’ single-season list, while his 83.3% success rate on field goals ranks fifth.
On top of being extremely consistent as a true freshman, Little proved to have ice in his veins when he booted the game-winning field goal to beat LSU in overtime at Death Valley and then promptly executed his own rendition of the “Griddy” dance.
Now a year older, his leg is even stronger and he said he feels confident from anywhere within 56 yards, meaning the offense needs to just get to the 39-yard line to give him a chance. Pittman said that knowledge makes him invaluable to the team because the defense and offense both know he can get at least get them 3 points.
Backup kicker Jake Bates has shown a solid leg in limited attempts in front of the media and appears to be more consistent on field goals than last year’s backup and kickoff specialist Vito Calvaruso, but he’s never attempted a field goal or PAT in a real game. That uncertainty would make losing Little quite the blow, both on the field and mentally, for the entire team.
2. Ricky Stromberg
Similar to Catalon, Ricky Stromberg had an NFL decision to make after last season and opted to return to school for his senior season. That meant Arkansas returns four of five starters from an offensive line that graded out among the best in the SEC and helped it lead the Power Five in rushing.
While some football fans believe left tackle is the most important position on the line, Pittman has been vocal with his opinion that center is the most vital because he touches the ball on literally every play. He likes to have as many as seven or eight different players capable of snapping and filling in at any given moment.
Having a player back at that position who has started 32 games over the past three seasons is huge, especially considering the talent Stromberg possesses — he’s a preseason first-team All-SEC selection and viewed as a legitimate NFL Draft prospect — and the fact he’s entering his third year in Kendal Briles’ system. At this point, he should know all of the calls, which helps the communication up front run smoothly.
An injury to Stromberg would be pretty tough to overcome. Marcus Henderson is projected as the backup center, but he spent all of fall camp in a green non-contact jersey because of a pectoral injury. In his absence, walk-on Josh Street took the second-team reps. When Street went down with an ankle injury, true freshman Patrick Kutas filled in and struggled with getting snaps back to the quarterback.
Of course, in the unfortunate event Stromberg goes down, it’s likely that right guard Beaux Limmer would slide over because he has gotten a lot of first-team reps at center in camp to prepare for such a scenario. That would likely force someone like Ty’Kieast Crawford, Jalen St. John or one of the freshmen into action. While immensely talented, those players have very little playing experience.
1. KJ Jefferson
Simply put, an injury to KJ Jefferson would be devastating to the Razorbacks. His return as the starting quarterback is a huge reason Arkansas football finds itself in the preseason top 25.
With a unique dual-threat skillset that has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton, some have identified Jefferson as a legitimate Heisman Trophy dark horse candidate and the key to the Razorbacks potentially reaching double-digit wins for the first time in more than a decade.
Last season, he took the SEC by storm, completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,676 yards, 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions while also leading the Power Five’s top rushing attack with 664 yards and six more scores. It was the second-most rushing yards an Arkansas quarterback has ever had in a single season (behind Matt Jones’ 707 in 2003) and the second-best completion percentage in UA history (behind Feleipe Franks’ 68.5% in 2020).
Considering that was his first year as Arkansas’ starter, expectations are through the roof for Jefferson entering 2022 — even with the loss of Treylon Burks. The Razorbacks seem to have a deep group of talented receivers, including guys who can still stretch the field and take advantage of Jefferson’s strong arm.
To get an idea of what things would look like without him, just pull up the stint he missed against Texas A&M. Forced into action, Malik Hornsby did not look comfortable running the offense. Hornsby has a different unique skillset, as he’s more of a speedster, but his passing is not particularly close to the level of Jefferson. In fact, walk-on transfer Cade Fortin — who spent time on scholarship at North Carolina and South Florida — has been the more efficient quarterback in fall camp, according to Briles.
Regardless of which backup comes into the game, it would be a significant step back from the potential All-SEC quarterback Jefferson gives them.
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