The Arkansas football season starts in late August and spring practice is underway. There are plenty of questions that will surround the team on offense.
One big question is around the quarterback position. The team lost their starting quarterback Feleipe Franks to the draft after this season.
At QB, will there be a drop off from Feleipe Franks to KJ Jefferson?
The presumed starter is redshirt sophomore KJ Jefferson. He started the 2020 game against Missouri while Franks was out. In that game Jefferson threw 3 touchdown passes and Arkansas scored a season-high 48 points in the 2 point loss.
In 2019, Jefferson appeared in three games and made one start against the top ranked LSU Tigers. Jefferson completed just 45% of his passes in 2019 and 49% in 2020. He has completed 34/72 passes in his career for a 47% career mark.
After a rocky first game in Fayetteville, Franks completed at least 62% of his passes in his last 8 games of the year and threw 16 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions in those games.
There is a difference in passing ability between Franks and Jefferson, but Jefferson is a more mobile quarterback.
Outside of the Missouri game, Jefferson had 15 rushing attempts compared to just 8 pass attempts over 4 games for 35 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“Right now, KJ is our starter and we certainly anticipate a really nice battle,” head coach Sam Pittman said in a recent press conference. “And all that’s going to do is make you better. And the kids understand it and it’ll make KJ better, it’ll make Malik better, I’ll make Cole, Refro, whomever. John, Stephens, it’ll will make everybody better.”
“The team believes in him and heck I believe in him, but he’s done a nice job. Again, his work ethic has been leadership in itself and he’s becoming more vocal. He’s vocal as he needs to be, to be honest with you.”
What can we expect from Malik Hornsby this spring?
Redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby and true freshman Lucas Coley present possible starters as well if Jefferson doesn’t work out.
Hornsby made two rushing attempts against Auburn for -1 yards as his only in-game action.
In his last season of high school, Hornsby led his team to a 14-2 record and lost by 3 in the state championship game. He passed for 2279 yards and 29 touchdowns on a 57% completion and ran for 1587 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Jefferson put up better passing numbers his senior year, throwing for 3180 yards and 37 touchdowns on a 60% completion rate. He had less running numbers than Hornsby with 916 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns.
Hornsby is the more mobile quarterback, but Jefferson is the more accomplished and experienced passer. Hornsby provides a versatile backup to Jefferson for the time being, but with both of them being dual threat quarterbacks, he could step into the offensive scheme at any time.
What kind of running back depth can we expect around Trelon Smith?
Another position with question marks around it is running back. The Razorbacks currently have nine running backs listed on their roster, with five being freshman or red-shirt freshman. Junior Trelon Smith and Rakeem Boyd were the backfield duo for Arkansas in 2020 before Boyd opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft after playing in 7 games.
With the experience of 2020, Smith is the obvious starter on the team. He had the most rushing attempts on the team in 2020 with 134 for 710 yards and 5 touchdowns. He also had 22 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown.
“Obviously Smith has earned that spot to this point and we’re going to let him go and see if he can continue to improve on what he’s done this far,” the Head Hog said.
Redshirt-senior T.J. Hammonds is the only other running back on the roster who had a rushing attempt last season. He only had 14 rushes for 101 yards and 3 receptions for 63 yards over 8 games.
“We have a lot of kids that are very similar,” Pittman said. “With Oglesby and Treylon and TJ, they’re all smaller, quick, shifty, fast guys.”
“We need to find a big back and so we have moved Rocket Sanders to running back and of course, Dominique’s in there as well. But because of the way we’re doing it with J.B. Hunt come in and … because the way we’re doing it, I think they’re going to get plenty of reps and we’ll be able to find it, but we’re looking for that guy.”
Arkansas football will have 2019 All-American track star Josh Oglesby in the backfield. He is listed as a redshirt-junior. Oglesby competes in the 60, 100, 200, and 4 x 100 relay.
Also in the backfield will be 4-star recruits from the class of 2021 Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and AJ Green. The Razorbacks will also have a pair of 3-star recruits in class of 2020’s Domonique Johnson and class of 2021 Javion Hunt.
There are a number of good athletes that could potentially get reps for Arkansas at running back, but there is a lack of college experience at the position.
“We’ve got to come out of spring ball with the ability to think that we can run the football,” Pittman said. “And then after that … and that could be a quarterback run as well. But I think we have to do a better job of running the football. And that takes us out of those third down situations where we either didn’t protect it well enough, we didn’t find the open receiver or we couldn’t get open.”
Highlights of AJ Green:
How big of a difference will a spring of practice under Sam Pittman and Brad Davis make for the O-line?
Head coach Sam Pittman will get his first spring practices this year after having to do online practice over Zoom in 2020. Pittman will get to oversee the o-linemen in person before the fall now.
“Coach Davis has been absolutely harping about our physicality and being the baddest offensive line in the SEC,” Dalton Wagner recently said. “That’s his goal and that’s what we need to practice like, and that’s what we’ve been practicing like. He pushes us to our absolute limit everyday… We need a guy that’s like that to light a fire under us and get us going. Coach Pittman puts a lot of strain on us to make sure we really do our job.”
The offensive line was arguably the weakest position group Arkansas had last season in a promising year.
The team was 10th in the SEC with 11 rushing touchdowns and there were 34 sacks allowed.
Sam Pittman is a former o-line coach as many Hog fans know so the extra practice time should be very valuable for this Arkansas football squad in 2021.
The offensive line will return pretty much the entire group of starters: Myron Cunningham, Ricky Stromberg, Ty Clary, Dalton Wagner, and Brady Latham. The line will be an experienced group and a full spring under Pittman should help make them a formidable unit.
Pittman and Davis are stressing weight a lot to the linemen. Nearly every O-Lineman is at or above 300 lbs. The extra size will help the line not get pushed around in the SEC.
“You can’t go out there and try to push someone around, especially in this league, weighing 270 pounds, 280 pounds,” Wagner said. ”Gotta be 300 plus pounds to be able to do anything productive in this league. Coach Pittman put a very strong emphasis on that and so has Coach Davis.”
Sacks and quarterback pressure were a killer to the Hogs’ offense, although some blame goes to Franks for holding onto the ball at quarterback, but the line needed to be better. Franks took 30 sacks over the season.
“Sacks have a lot to do with a lot of people, but we’ve got to trim that number down as well,” Pittman said. “And how you do it is when at first down, run or pass but I think we have to certainly do a better job percentage wise when we hand the ball off.”
It seemed the line got better as the season went on, besides the Alabama game, but they were National Champions. They allowed just 3 sacks in the final two games leading up to Alabama.
”Personal. Very personal,” Wagner said when asked how the line took Pittman’s challenge of running the ball on 3rd and 3. “He directly called us out. It’s what he wants to do and coach Davis takes it to heart. We take it to heart and it’s our goal to be a dominant, physical, running offensive line. That is our goal and we need to make sure that when we get in situations like that, that we can convert.”
There is depth to the line as well. There are three backups who saw action in 2020 in Austin Nix, Beaux Limmer, and Shane Clenin. Ryan Winkel is still there as well, after appearing in 11 games in 2019 and none in 2020.
Arkansas also has four-star recruit Marcus Henderson from the class of 2020 and six 3-star recruits from the classes of 2020 and 2021 who could potentially see action.
A full spring camp with Pittman will make a difference to the offensive line which will help the Razorbacks run a smoother offense.
Can Treyon Burks resemble what Davonta Smith was for Alabama?
Another potential point this season is Treylon Burks. He is the team’s best playmaker and potential first round draft pick in 2022.
After seeing what Devonta Smith did at Alabama in 2020, winning the Heisman at wide receiver and leading his team to the National Championship(albeit on a stacked roster), it begs the question if Burks could resemble that at Arkansas.
Burks did a lot for Arkansas in 2020, including bringing in 51 catches for 820 yards and 7 touchdowns. Besides receiving, he also ran the ball 15 times for 75 yards and threw the ball 4 times. However, he had 0 compilations and 2 interceptions.
Burks’ numbers do fall well short of Smith’s in 2020. Burks roughly averaged 5.5 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown per game. Smith averaged roughly 9 catches for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns every game.
A statistical comparison shows Smith to be well past Burks, but as Arkansas fans have seen, Burks is as talented a wide receiver as anyone. He is the go-to receiver for Arkansas.
Smith had the privilege of playing on a stacked roster where opposing defences couldn’t afford to focus solely on one player without the fear of getting beat by another.
If you look at Smith’s 2019 numbers they are pretty similar to Burks’ 2020 season. Smith averaged 5 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown per game. If Smith can make that leap in one season, then Burks could as well.
It is highly unlikely a wide receiver will win a second straight Heisman and Smith’s season was historic, but expect Burks to make a leap to a smaller extent in 2021.
Will the Hogs’ best, deepest position be at wide receiver?
Behind Burks is possibly Arkansas’ best position group at wide receiver. Arkansas will return Mike Woods, Devion Warren, Trey Knox, John David White and Tyson Morris. They also added transfer junior Jaquayln Crawford from Oklahoma and 4-star recruit Ketron Jackson Jr.
There is also redshirt freshman, 4-star Darin Turner and a couple 3-stars from the class of 2021 in Bryce Stephens and Jaedon Wilson.
Between Burks, Woods, and Warren there is a lot of speed to cover in this group. The speed helped Franks complete the highest percentage on deep balls in football last season. This group has breakaway speed.
The wide receiver position did not lose much between seasons and was a bright spot in 2020. There is speed all over the field and five former 4-star recruits in rotation.
This Arkansas offense lost the starting quarterback and running back in Feleipe Franks and Rakeem Boyd, but retained a lot of good players as well.
The receiver group did not lose much and gained a few potential big time players. The offensive line did not lose much and gained some valuable depth. It is also getting its first spring under Pittman which should make a big difference come fall.
The running back depth is a question mark behind Smith and Hammonds, who only gets a touch here and there, but there are a number of players who can step up.
The final and most important position, quarterback. KJ Jefferson is currently slated to start this fall. Jefferson has some experience as a SEC quarterback, but will get his first real, extended action. He has some talented depth behind him, but not much experience.
The offense this season is deeper, more athletic, and will be more prepared than in 2020.
The offense will be a more high fire power explosion this year rather than the inefficient grind it was last season.
Jefferson will probably not recreate the deep ball success Franks had, leading the country in deep ball completion percentage, but will keep defenses on their heels with his running ability and willingness to go deep.
The Hogs struggled on offense at times throughout 2020, but it should not be much of an issue in 2021 with a good mix of talent, experience, and athleticism.
More and more, it looks 2021 will showcase an explosive Arkansas offense that will put the SEC on notice.