Coming off its best season in a decade, Arkansas football is set to return 12 players who started at least four games on the team that won the Outback Bowl and finished No. 21 in the final AP Poll.
Several of those players — such as quarterback KJ Jefferson, center Ricky Stromberg and safety Jalen Catalon — can be penciled in as starters again in 2022 and are a large reason behind the high expectations entering the year.
However, the Razorbacks have continued to build depth through traditional recruiting and the transfer portal. As head coach Sam Pittman — and coaches everywhere — like to say, no spot on the depth chart is safe.
With that in mind, here are three players Best of Arkansas Sports believes most need to watch their backs or else they might lose their starting jobs…
RT Dalton Wagner (10 starts)
For Wagner, the need to watch out this fall camp isn’t just metaphorical. It’s not only a stretch to think someone else could challenge for the starting job at right tackle, but Wagner needs to literally watch his back. While a finger injury caused him to miss a couple of games last season, a lingering back issue limited his participation in spring ball.
To state the obvious, Wagner – a 6-foot-9, 337-pound super senior from Illinois – won’t be able to play as a returning starter if he’s not healthy. Even if he is 100 percent, though, there’s a chance he gets replaced.
His time away this spring allowed Ty’Kieast Crawford – a 6-foot-5, 347-pound Texas native – to get most of the first-team reps at right tackle. Now going into his second season with the Razorbacks after transferring from Charlotte, the former four-star recruit impressed the coaching staff during the 15 practices.
In fact, Crawford is expected to get a look at left tackle during fall camp. If he doesn’t stick there, where he’ll be battling the likes of Luke Jones, Brady Latham and Devon Manuel, don’t be shocked if he finds his way into the starting lineup in Wagner’s spot.
RB Dominique Johnson (6 starts)
It took about half of the season, but Dominique Johnson eventually overtook Trelon Smith as the starting running back last year. He ended up starting each of the last five games and six of the last seven.
Johnson’s emergence caught most people by surprise, as he didn’t get a single carry during his freshman year in 2020. Despite a small workload, Dominique Johnson produced in his limited opportunities early on. He scored a touchdown in each of the first three games and was averaging a whopping 6.6 yards per carry through the first seven games.
Pittman was very open throughout the season about wanting to get him more touches, but Johnson battled a leg injury down the stretch that required an offseason surgery — which, much like Wagner, kept him out of spring ball.
Johnson is probably deserving of retaining the starting job when he returns to the field this fall, but he can’t afford to get off to a slow start because the Razorbacks are loaded at running back.
Rocket Sanders was the backup to both Smith and Johnson all year and may be the best all-around player in the group, especially now that he’s had a full year at running back. He seems to be more comfortable and even better than he was last year.
That doesn’t even include A.J. Green, who never really got into a groove last year thanks to his late arrival on campus, and Rashod Dubinion, a true freshman who Pittman has already said will get significant playing time this year. Both of them, plus Sanders, were four-star recruits, so Johnson has his work cut out for him to remain the starting running back.
S Simeon Blair (7 starts)
Players like Grant Morgan, Blake Kern and Tyson Morris may have gotten more attention, but Simeon Blair is another in-state kid who came to Arkansas as a walk-on and eventually earned a scholarship.
The Pine Bluff native has steadily seen his role increase, from redshirting in 2018 to playing mostly special teams in 2019 to working his way into the rotation and starting a couple of games in 2020 to finally being an even more significant contributor last season, when he started seven games.
Throughout spring ball, Blair started alongside Jalen Catalon at safety and seems to be a frontrunner to at least enter fall ball as a starter. However, he faces some stiff competition in the secondary.
Myles Slusher was originally a safety, but spent most of the spring at nickel back and has also gotten some work at cornerback, so he could be the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife for the secondary. Jayden Johnson will be a sophomore and is pushing for a starting role at safety, too.
Another guy to watch, who may be the most primed to make a move in fall camp, is Latavious Brini. The transfer from Georgia was a second-team during the spring, but Pittman admitted that was likely due to him still learning the system. As he gets more comfortable, he could potentially move past Blair on the depth chart.
The exact positions where some of the defensive backs end up remain to be seen, but there is a lot of talent in the secondary that will push for playing time — and Blair might be on the outside looking in.
Returning Arkansas Football Starters
- QB KJ Jefferson – 13 starts
- OL Brady Latham – 13
- OL Ricky Stromberg – 13
- OL Beaux Limmter – 11
- OL Dalton Wagner – 10
- CB LaDarrius Bishop – 9
- S Simeon Blair – 7
- DB Myles Slusher – 7
- S Jalen Catalon – 6
- RB Dominique Johnson – 6
- CB Hudson Clark – 4
- DT Isaiah Nichols – 4
- DL Eric Gregory – 3
- WR Warren Thompson – 3
- DB Malik Chavis – 2
- DB Jayden Johnson – 2
- DE Dorian Gerald – 1
- LB Bumper Pool – 1
- DE Jashaud Stewart – 1
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