FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith can’t help the Razorbacks on the field the rest of the season after suffering a foot injury on Oct. 6.
The senior had no trouble expressing Arkansas’ goal for the final five games, though.
“We’re going to get to a good bowl game,” Highsmith said last week. “I’m totally confident we’re going to get to a good bowl game. We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to come out and get to the best bowl game possible we can get to.”
Arkansas, after enjoying its off week, will get back on the field against Ole Miss on Saturday in hopes of taking another step toward bowl eligibility. It’s not exactly what Arkansas (3-4, 2-2 in SEC) was aiming for when it opened the season with a 49-24 win against Jacksonville State on Sept. 1. But the Razorbacks were forced to adjust plans after losing four of their first five games under coach John L. Smith.
Not much went right for Arkansas during the first half of the 2012 season. The Razorbacks’ defense was carved up in September. The offense struggled to score points in the redzone. And injuries ravaged a team already thin at key positions.
The reality now? Nothing is guaranteed for the Razorbacks after limping out to a 1-4 start. But quarterback Tyler Wilson said earlier this month Arkansas intends to salvage as much as possible this season and the Razorbacks have taken steps in the right direction lately, beating Auburn and Kentucky in consecutive weeks.
“We have been growing by leaps and bounds the last couple of weeks,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “It’s fun to watch as a coach to see young guys climbing that ladder and getting better and better. I told them what we have to do again is take this week, they bye week, and continue to get better. I think we can do that.”
Before Arkansas pushes on, though, it’s time to take a look back at the first seven games. It may not be the midway point with just five games left, but it’s an appropriate time to hand out midseason grades with Arkansas in its open week.
MIDSEASON REPORT CARD
Tyler Wilson entered the season with Heisman Trophy hopes, but the 1-4 start quickly wiped those away. He missed six quarters because of a concussion and the offense struggled under backups Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell. Wilson wasn’t sharp when he returned, either, but has done much better the past two weeks. He is averaging an SEC-high 326.2 passing yards a game and has thrown 14 touchdowns with 5 interceptions. It includes a school record-tying 5 TDs last week.
RUNNING BACKS: C+
Knile Davis’ return was supposed to make Arkansas’ run game explosive, but Dennis Johnson has been the best back in averaging 5.9 yards a carry. He also has been reliable around the goal line with five touchdowns. Davis, meanwhile, is struggling to break free (3.4 yards a carry). Freshman Jonathan Williams, who has Arkansas’ longest rushing play (32 yards), is a second half wildcard after two big plays in the Kentucky win. Arkansas needs production from all three down the stretch.
RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: B-
Senior Cobi Hamilton has enjoyed a big first half, which included his SEC record 303-yard performance in the Rutgers loss. Arkansas’ No. 1 receiver leads the conference with 46 catches for 754 yards. The Hogs needed the production because No. 2 receiver Chris Gragg missed three games with a bone bruise in his knee. Brandon Mitchell, Mekale McKay and Javontee Herndon have also helped fill the void, combining to catch 37 passes for 603 yards with four touchdowns.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C
Arkansas endured another erratic start up front, which caused plenty of problems in the 1-4 start. Pass protection was shaky. Run blocking was poor. So the Razorbacks were dominated up front. But there has been improvement lately. Arkansas has allowed one sack in the past three games and the ground game is improving. Jason Peacock has been the only change in the starting group from the season opener, sliding back into the lineup in place of Brey Cook after opening the year as a reserve.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C+
Arkansas knew it was going to have to lean on its defensive front entering the season, but the group was disappointingly quiet early on. While opponents didn’t gash the Hogs on the ground as much as 2011, there was very little pressure put on quarterbacks and it contributed to the pass defense’s woes. It changed at Auburn, when Trey Flowers and Chris Smith combined for five sacks. The Hogs have controlled the game in the trenches since and need the success to continue.
Arkansas opened the year with Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright starting at linebacker. Both are out for the season with injuries. It has left the Razorbacks relying on Terrell Williams to lead the way the past two weeks and the senior, who has been inconsistent throughout his career, is holding up so far. Two freshmen – A.J. Turner and Otha Peters – are also being relied over the final five games of the season. How well the three perform now will be key to Arkansas’ defensive success.
Arkansas’ depth and experience in the secondary were big question marks entering the season. It didn’t take long to see why. The Razorbacks have struggled on the backline and have failed to stop opponents with decent passing attacks. Injuries haven’t helped with starters like Tevin Mitchel and Eric Bennett missing time. The good news? There have been signs of improvement the past two weeks, especially in young cornerbacks like Will Hines and Davyon McKinney. But more tests loom.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Arkansas was dangerous on special teams last season largely because of Joe Adams. That big-play potential hasn’t been present in 2012, although new kickoff rules have limited Dennis Johnson’s chances. Punter Dylan Breeding has had a strong season (46.2 yards a punt). Zach Hocker has struggled on field goals (5 of 9), but 72 percent of his kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. Keante Minor has taken over for freshman Nate Holmes on punt returns after some fumble issues and is averaging 9.2 yards.
Arkansas looked like a rookie staff in the ULM loss, failing to find a way to wrap up a win without its starting quarterback despite a three-touchdown lead. There have been other troubles for John L. Smith and his staff, too, with 52-0 and 58-10 losses to Alabama and Texas A&M. The 1-4 start has basically guaranteed Smith and company won’t be back in 2013. But give the group credit for other reasons. They stuck to their philosophies on both sides of the ball despite the struggles. They’ve also kept players motivated during a season that hasn’t met anyone’s expectations.
OFFENSIVE MVP: QB Tyler Wilson. Arkansas knew Wilson was critical to its success this season. Anyone uncertain saw it firsthand during the six quarters the senior sat out with a concussion when the Razorbacks managed seven points without him. It prompted Wilson to challenge teammates publicly and, while it was met with mixed opinions, Arkansas has continued to work behind the team’s leader since.
DEFENSIVE MVP: S Ross Rasner. The senior hasn’t been flawless by any means. No one has defensively. Although teams have targeted Rasner in the passing game, the safety remains Arkansas’ most important defensive player. Rasner ranks second in tackles (51) and has 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. His play will be even more critical after season-ending injuries to Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith.
SPECIAL TEAMS MVP: P Dylan Breeding. There haven’t been many bright spots for the Razorbacks this season. But Breeding is definitely deserving of recognition for his performance. The senior is enjoying his best year, averaging 46.2 yards a punt. His average, which includes a career-long 72-yarder, ranks seventh in the NCAA.
FRESHMAN MVP: CB Will Hines. Arkansas is relying on a freshman cornerback for the second straight season. Hines has learned some lessons the hard way, but is settling in as a starter. His best performance came at Auburn, when Hines grabbed his first interception and also recovered a fumble in Arkansas’ 24-7 win.