Arkansas retools offense for Bret Bielema's fourth season

Arkansas retools offense for Bret Bielema's fourth season

May 9th, 2016 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams rushed for 100 yards in last October's 24-20 win at Tennessee but suffered a season-ending neck injury three weeks later.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

The Arkansas Razorbacks have upped their victory total the past three football seasons from three to seven to eight under coach Bret Bielema.

Continuing that incline could be a challenge.

Arkansas was the only Southeastern Conference program to have its starting quarterback (sixth-round pick Brandon Allen) and top two tailbacks (fifth-rounders Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams) selected in the recent NFL draft. The Razorbacks also lost Hunter Henry, the top tight end taken, and Sebastian Tretola, an All-SEC guard last season.

Replacing Allen will be younger brother Austin Allen, who attempted just three passes last season, while the ground game now will be headed by sophomore Rawleigh Williams, sixth-year senior Kody Walker and touted freshman Devwah Whaley.

"From the outside world looking in, there is always going to be concern when you lose players of that caliber, but I have no concerns," Bielema said last week on a teleconference. "Rawleigh Williams is a very versatile player, and before he was injured last year, he was well on his way to being a 1,000-yard rusher. Kody Walker is in his sixth year and has lost 15 pounds, and he looked incredible in the first 12 practices, so he could easily be a 1,000-yard rusher as well.

"Something we've done throughout my career is not only have one but two very solid rushers, and I don't think this year will be any different."

Rawleigh Williams, who began teaming with Collins after Jonathan Williams suffered a season-ending foot injury last August, rushed 14 times for 100 yards in an early October win at Tennessee. He was lost for the year three weeks later with a neck injury against Auburn but was able to practice this spring with the exception of contact work.

Walker broke his foot late in spring practice, adding to an injury-plagued career that includes a season-ending shin injury in 2011, a season-ending broken leg in 2012 and a broken hand last year that caused him to miss multiple games.

Should either of those two suffer setbacks in August camp or once the season starts, Bielema would not hesitate to introduce Whaley to the league. The 6-foot, 209-pounder from Beaumont, Texas, committed to Georgia in November but quickly switched his pledge following the firing of longtime Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt.

Whaley is the first top-100 overall prospect at his position to sign with the Razorbacks since Collins in 2013.

"Devwah Whaley, in my opinion, is one of the most successful and impressive running backs I've ever signed in my career," Bielema said. "I think he could be special this upcoming season. Like I said, I'm not overly concerned."

Should the Razorbacks need time to develop offensively, they could have a defense to aid in that process. Nine of 11 starters return for third-year coordinator Robb Smith, who in 2014 oversaw the best statistical defense the Razorbacks have produced since entering the SEC in 1992.

Arkansas was not as dominant last year but in the offseason added Paul Rhoads, the former Auburn defensive coordinator and Iowa State head coach, to guide the secondary.

"The thing we had two years ago was that defense played itself into a pretty solid defense with a new defensive coordinator," Bielema said. "Now Robb has been here three years, and the addition of Paul Rhoads on the back end — our secondary improved more than any other positional group on our football team. You can't replace experience or have enough of that, and we definitely have a lot of depth on the defensive line and more depth than we've ever had at linebacker and with the DBs as well."

The Razorbacks have not ranked among the nation's elite since making Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl trips under Bobby Petrino after the 2010 and '11 seasons. They did have an impact on last season's national championship race, though — their 53-52 overtime upset of Ole Miss in Oxford cleared a path for Alabama to win the SEC West.

Arkansas has a schedule that includes three top-10 opponents — TCU, Alabama and Ole Miss — before the first open date. Florida, a program the Razorbacks are 0-9 against since joining the league, is the rotating, cross-divisional foe.

"Hopefully we can take another step forward in what we're trying to accomplish here," said Bielema, who is looking to lead the Razorbacks to their first league championship since the 1989 Southwest Conference title.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.