The Razorbacks have finished strongly each of the last two seasons, winning 3 of their last four in 2014 and 6 of their final 7 in 2015. They will be hoping that this is finally the year under Brett Bielema that they can actually start well to take that next step. The difference between the two years though was their conference record, going from 2-6 to 5-3. Here we take a look at some of their top draft-eligible players to watch as they attempt to challenge for an SEC title this coming season:
THE TOP 5
Deatrich Wise Jr., rSr, EDGE, #48 – 6ft 5, 272 lbs
He’s always had promise, but it took quite a while for Wise to start producing the results that his talent and physical abilities ought to. Injuries have been a big factor in that. After initially getting involved in the rotation as a true freshman in 2012, a season ending injury set him back, receiving a medical redshirt, and has continued to miss time here and there since. In 23 games over the past two years, Wise has started just once, and doesn’t see a huge number of snaps generally. Things seemed to click in the second half of the 2015 season though – all 8 of his sacks for the year came during conference play against SEC opposition, including 7 over the final 4 regular season contests. 2.5 of those did come against LSU where he was matched up with a replacement left tackle that wasn’t up to the task. When faced with the much more polished Cody Whitehair of Kansas State in the bowl game to close out the season, Wise was comfortably shut down. Hopefully though he can build on what was his best season yet and have a more consistent senior year in 2016. If he does, he could cement himself as at least a day 2 draft selection. He’s got the desired length, and despite weighing in at over 270 lbs actually looks like there’s still plenty room to add more muscle to his frame. His ability to stay healthy and available is a concern that will be taken into account, so completing the full season will be as important as providing a consistent pass rush threat.
Jeremy Sprinkle, rSr, TE, #83 – 6ft 5, 255 lbs
Hunter Henry was the unquestioned number one tight end for the Razorbacks throughout his college career, but Sprinkle emerged last year as a dangerous threat himself, putting up some impressive numbers and big performances despite the recent second rounder being ahead of him. Sprinkle is actually bigger and more athletically gifted than his now former teammate, and it’s going to be exciting to see how he produces as the new top threat at the position in his senior season. While waiting for his chance, Sprinkle took a lot of pride in his contributions on special teams, and actually led the team in special teams tackles in 2014 with nine. There’s plenty rawness still in Sprinkle’s game as a receiving tight end, but he’s a smooth runner and can eat up chunks of yardage once the ball is in his hands and he has the opportunity to make plays in space. His long frame and wingspan makes him a natural target on jump balls and in the end zone, scoring twice as many touchdowns last year as Henry did. The hard worker has a lot of blocking experience, often lining up in the backfield as a lead blocker as part of his duties as a junior. There’s loads of upside that his rare physical traits provide.
Drew Morgan, Sr, WR, #80 – 6ft 0, 192 lbs
One of my early favourites so far during film study this summer, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Morgan on film; he’s the ideal slot receiver. After just the 10 catches in 2014, he exploded onto the scene with a breakout junior season, becoming Brandon Allen’s go-to target as he collected 63 receptions and scored 10 TDs for the year. Morgan is athletic with acceleration off the line of scrimmage, with excellent short area quickness and change of direction to shake off defensive backs and create separation if his initial burst didn’t get the job done. He’s got the natural hands to make tough grabs away from his body, with no fear over the middle of the field. Morgan is just one of those smart, aware football players with the understanding and uncanny knack for how to get open, so often finding that open space. Despite the production, he’s not received a lot of attention, but hopefully that will change in his senior season, despite having to establish chemistry all over again with a new quarterback, interestingly Brandon Allen’s younger brother Austin.
Josh Liddell, Jr, S, #28 – 6ft 1, 210 lbs
Perhaps Liddell ought to be placed in the “juniors to watch” section of this article, but in my opinion he qualifies as one of the five best draft-eligible prospects on this roster right now, even if he’s perhaps a long shot to declare early. Liddell began 2015 as a backup and rotational member of the secondary, but quickly proved himself worthy, ending up starting 10 games in total in the end. Liddell has the size and looks it too. On top of that, he’s a very imposing run defender and physical hitter, looking highly impressive flowing downfield into the box from deep. What is really encouraging though is that he’s not just adept at one area of playing the position, and though not as elite as some athletically, is more than competent playing in space and covering against the pass. It’s not a surprise to find out that he played some of both running back and quarterback in high school before joining Arkansas, as his understanding of both offenses and defenses is evident in his smart play that rarely sees him making glaring errors or getting out of position. He’s still relatively inexperienced, yet plays very well already. That’s very promising to build on a solid sophomore season which led to putting up 52 tackles, 3 pass breakups, a pair of interceptions and a force fumble.
Dan Skipper, Sr, OT, #70 – 6ft 9, 331 lbs
No question where to start with Skipper – that massive frame. Sometimes that amount of length can actually be a negative, with defensive lineman exploiting the leverage advantage. However, that’s not often the case with Skipper. Sure, his body position is inconsistent, but overall he uses his long reach well and rarely loses a rep. His footwork and co-ordination is very solid and makes himself tough to beat either by power or speed rushes. He’s played a lot of football, with 34 starts already, that should see him finish his college career just a few shy of 50 starts; great experience against mostly quality opposition. His experience extends to his ability to play at multiple spots across the line. Skipper played guard as a freshman, before moving to left tackle the following year, then to right tackle in 2015. He may not be outstanding in any area, but he knows what his strengths are and how best to utilise them.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Jeremiah Ledbetter, rSr, DL, #55 – 6ft 3, 280 lbs
One of the key reasons that Wise and a couple other talented defensive ends couldn’t break into the starting line-up last year? Credit that to the excellent play of Ledbetter. The community college transfer, playing his first season at the FBS level, earned a start in the second game of the season and didn’t relinquish it for the remainder of the year. He may lack ideal length, and isn’t the explosive type that will limit his ability to get many sacks, but is powerful, physical and very smart in his play. He wins with leverage and technique to get into position to create some pressure and does a very disciplined job setting the edge and defending the run. His skill set might make for a good fit as a 3-4 defensive end, and he did play the nose tackle position in high school, but even if his ceiling is perhaps fairly low, this is an intelligent football player with the motor and physicality to find a role.
Dominique Reed, Sr, WR, #3 – 6ft 2, 180 lbs
Pure speed. Reed is far too skinny, but he has legit blazing speed with the potential to make huge plays on any touch, backed up by his very impressive average of over 19 yards per catch last season. The vast majority of his touches go for first downs or touchdowns. However, Reed did suffer a frightening injury in the season ending bowl game against Kansas State, resulting in a long delay and eventually leaving on a stretcher. Reportedly there are no long term issues expected, and he should be back to his best in 2016. Hopefully that does indeed prove to be the case.
Kody Walker, rSr, FB, rSr, #24 – 6ft 0, 256 lbs
When Jonathan Williams went down with a season ending injury last year, it was Walker who took on a complimentary role in the backfield in relief of Alex Collins. That led to some solid contributions as a runner, but ultimately, Walker probably is a full back for the next level. Not many get drafted or even make rosters these days, so at least he’s proved he can be trusted to contribute with the ball in his hands as well as a blocker. Durability is a big concern though. Walker is a 6th-year senior, as a result of two seasons being ended by injury, and he’s currently recovering again this off-season, requiring surgery on a broken foot. His medicals mean he’ll be a 25-year-old rookie. Given his age, durability questions, and the position he plays, Walker almost certainly isn’t drafted, but could get a look as an undrafted free agent.
Keon Hatcher, rSr, WR, #4 – 6ft 1, 214 lbs
Another who has had issues with injury. Hatcher has a strong build and is a good athlete, but he missed most of 2015 with a foot injury and has apparently had to have further surgery on the foot this off-season again with an unknown return date. When he is on the field, Hatcher has the ability to create big plays, but has also struggled with drops and general inconsistency in his play. In his best year in 2014, he put up solid numbers with 43 catches for 558 yards and 6 scores.
D.J. Dean, Sr, CB, #2 – 5ft 11, 198 lbs
Dean has potential, but just seems to underwhelm too much in each element of his game. Despite a sturdy build on his frame, he doesn’t put up good tackle numbers when supporting the run, and when watching on film, the reason is clear with some poor attempts that sees him miss too many makeable tackles. In coverage, he doesn’t attack the ball enough, allowing far too many comfortable completions when he’s targeted in the pass game. He’s been used as a returner on special teams, without making a big impact in that role. There’s the foundations of a solid player; hopefully he can show that a bit more in his final collegiate season.
Jared Collins, rJr, CB, #29 – 5ft 11, 172 lbs
Collins will be entering his third season as a full time start in 2016. Over his previous two years he’s had an impressive 22 pass breakups (including leading the conference in that stat in 2014), though just the one interception – he could do with turning more of those plays into turnovers. His very slight build is far from ideal for the NFL, but at least has good quickness to stay with speed receivers. More savvy receivers can find space and create some easy separation when matched up with Collins however, not reacting well enough to breaks in routes, and when receivers work back towards the QB, leaving enough of an open window for the completion.
JaMichael Winston, rSr, EDGE, #6 – 6ft 4, 262 lbs
Winston started 6 games in 2015, and 12 in 2014, playing in all 26 over that time, but has a grand total of 3 TFLs and zero sacks to his name in those two seasons. It’s frustrating, as he shows good effort and a high motor, with some smart and well-timed rush moves, including a decent looking swim move. There are a few factors in the low production. Despite the starts, he is actually rotated out of the lineup more often than not, usually only seeing 3 snaps at a time before heading back to the sidelines. When he is on the field, he’s frequently designated not to rush but set the edge and play the run rather than attack the backfield. His listed size is solid, but looks a bit small on film, if he can add a bit more strength, perhaps he gets more results.
Brooks Ellis, Sr, LB, #51 – 6ft 2, 242 lbs
So, why is a player who surpassed triple digit tackles in 2015 so low in this list of prospects? Because they just don’t reflect his play at all. The numbers can look good but the actual film is greatly flawed. Take the Alabama game for example. Against one of the best teams in the country, he finishes with 15 tackles (13 solo) and 2.5 TFLs. Sounds great. But watch the film, and it is packed with awful plays where time and again Ellis is taking horrible bad angles that frequently exposed the middle of the field for simple big yardage gains. He is constantly taking those terrible angles to the ball carrier, and also tends to guess too much, taking false steps in the wrong direction then failing to recover. He will get burned badly in the NFL with the way he plays. With his tackle stats, of 72 in 2014, only 29 were solo. Of his 102 in 2015 only 45 were solo. Maybe give him a look for his solid production and good size, but I just can’t see much of an NFL future in Ellis.
Taiwan Johnson, rSr, DL, #94 – 6ft 2, 290 lbs
Johnson has been a solid contributor in college, starting 26 straight games at nose tackle entering his final year. That experience in the SEC is something in his favour but though he does his job, he’s a low impact player lacking in standout traits. He lacks ideal measurables to play the nose at the next level with limited size and average athleticism. He did chip in with 28 tackles, 5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and a couple pass breakups in 2015.
JUNIORS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Frank Ragnow, Jr, OG, #72 – 6ft 5, 312 lbs
Arkansas have a never-ending production line of big, physical offensive linemen (albeit none bigger than Skipper). The next to watch is Ragnow who broke into the starting lineup at right guard last year, starting all 13 games, and will resume that role for a second season. To go with the height and weight measurables, Ragnow looks to have long arms as well. He finished the 2015 season strongly, not allowing a sack in the final 7 games, and not giving away any penalties in the last 9. He isn’t the best athlete which stands out when looking for blocks in space on the second level, and plays a bit too high out of his stance. If he can refine his technique a bit more, he should improve in year two as a starter this coming season.
Dwayne Eugene, Jr, LB, #35 – 6ft 1, 235 lbs
The linebacker position is a bit of a weakness this year, and Eugene is a guy who has under-achieved to this point for the Razorbacks, not developing as well as hoped. He has just the 1 start in his two seasons so far, but is expected to do so in 2016 at strongside linebacker. Up till now he has a total of 20 tackles in 22 games played, and no other statistics – no tackles for loss or plays in coverage or even a quarterback hurry, despite at times lining up to rush off the edge. He’s going to have to step up his contributions big-time this year; this is his chance if he can take it.