Five Key Questions Facing the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2012

Jan 4, 2011; New Orleans, LA, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks running back Knile Davis (7) is tackled by Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Jermale Hines (7) in the second quarter during the 2011 Sugar Bowl at the Louisiana Superdome . (Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE)

1. Will coach John L. Smith be able to continue the success that Bobby Petrino started at Arkansas?

After a bad run at Michigan State with a 22-26 record, John L. Smith’s ability to be a successful head coach at an SEC school is questionable. Bobby Petrino had a record of 34-17 at Arkansas while going 21-5 in his last two seasons before being fired. Smith has stated that he still plans for the Razorbacks to contend for the BCS National Championship.

Since the coaching change, Arkansas has not tallied very many recruits for 2013. The Razorbacks have just 12 players committed in a class ranked 44th according to Rivals.com, which is second to last in the SEC. However, Smith did land highly rated in-state recruits Hunter Henry (TE) and Austin Allen (QB). Recruiting will ultimately depend on winning and if success continues into 2012, expect more recruits to sign on.

Smith has also been tested early with multiple arrests of players this offseason that led to the removal of Marquel Wade, who was expected to contribute at wide receiver and on special teams.

However, Smith’s strange yet boisterous tone may be what Arkansas needs to distract them from the offseason issues. He was an assistant at Arkansas for three years and the players are comfortable with the transition. This is definitely the toughest question the Hogs have to answer in 2012. With all the talent on the roster, there are high expectations by fans despite the absence of Petrino.

2. Does the Arkansas Razorbacks’ offense have enough to make it over the hump against the SEC West elite, LSU and Alabama?

Yeah I know, I am questioning the Arkansas offense, but last year they only scored a total of 31 points against Alabama and LSU while scoring 36.8 points per game for the season (15th overall). It does not really matter how many points the Hogs can score against New Mexico if they can not put up enough points to beat their top conference foes.

The offensive line lost some experience in starters Grant Cook and Grant Freeman, but they do return three starters led by guard Alvin Bailey (6’5, 312) and have other valuable contributors returning, such as tackle Mitch Smothers (6’4″, 296 lbs).

[Related: 2012 Pre-Season College Football Rankings – Top 25 from a Fan’s View]

Arkansas has more wholes to fill with the departure of wide receivers Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, but they have talent coming back to catch and rush the ball. Wide out Cobi Hamilton will help fill some of the loss along with tight end Chris Gragg. In 2011, Hamilton and Gragg combined for 1,060 receiving yards.

More important for the Razorbacks is the rushing game which will improve as Knile Davis returns with backup playmakers Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. A consistent running game to go with the dynamic passing game led by top rated QB Tyler Wilson is what Arkansas needs to beat the top caliber teams in the SEC West. A good one-two punch could make the Arkansas offense near unstoppable.

3. Is running back Knile Davis ready for contact this season?

This spring, Davis ran a 4.33 sec 40-yard dash and squatted 570 lbs, but some may still wonder if he can handle being plowed by a 250 lb defenseman after he suffered a broken ankle last preseason.

A recent tweet from an Arkansas practice by Chris Bahn, editor of ArkansasSports360.com, may have answered this question, “LB Tank Wright carted off after collision w/Knile Davis during run drills. Appeared woozy.”

In 2010, Davis was superb with 1,322 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. This season, he will have a competent offensive line with plenty of talent in the passing game and backup running backs which will help keep constant pressure off him. Look for Davis to have another good season.

4. Is quarterback Tyler Wilson a Heisman Trophy contender?

To be a Heisman Trophy winner, or contender, a player has to win the big game. Last season, quarterback Tyler Wilson lost both pivotal games against Alabama and LSU with an average of just 196 passing yards versus them, but he still put up good numbers for the year with 3,638 passing yards and 28 total touchdowns.

In 2012, it looks like Wilson will have a healthy Knile Davis along with hot targets in wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg. The Razorbacks still have a difficult schedule, but it is more favorable than last season with the Crimson Tide and Bayou Bengals both playing in Fayetteville this year. If the Razorbacks win one of those games along with another good season, Wilson could be making a trip to New York in December.

5. Is the defense for the Arkansas Razorbacks worthy of the SEC elite?

For the most part, the Razorbacks’ defense played well in 2011, allowing 22.2 points per game (33rd overall), but they were no where close to the elite level of SEC rivals Alabama or LSU. Looking forward, the Hog defense should be solid this season with hope to improve.

Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes’ first game for the Razorbacks was in last season’s Cotton Bowl and the Hogs defensive effort against Kansas State gave fans optimism going forward. They held the Wildcats to just 87 yards rushing and 16 points.

Defensive tackle position is the deepest on the roster with Bryan Jones (6’2, 312) leading the pack. The linebacker core is not as deep, but has some of the top players on the Razorback defense in Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius “Tank” Wright. In 2011, Highsmith was the team leader in tackles for loss with 12.5 and Wright tied the team high in quarterback hurries. The secondary is experienced, which returns cornerback Darius Winston and safety Eric Bennett.

Though I’m not sold on it, the Razorback defense could gel into an elite unit this season. At the end of the day, Arkansas will most likely land somewhere around 20 points per game allowed in 2012. If the offense plays up to their skill level, then the defense does not necessarily need to be great to win, just consistently good.

Information from Rivals and ArkansasSports360 was used in this article.

Get Primed for 2012 >> 2012 Pre-Season College Football Rankings – Top 25 from a Fan’s View