FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes may be a bit biased after spending a year with the Razorbacks. So when asked about the future of the program after the season-ending loss to LSU last Friday, his answer was expected.
“This will be a good football team,” Haynes said. “This will be a good program.”
It won’t be long before a new head coach will get a chance to prove it.
Salaries, facilities, infrastructure and support are the biggest attractions for candidates as they contemplate opportunities at other school. But as Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long continues his search for the next Arkansas coach there is one other aspect to consider: What will the head Hog have to work with in 2013?
Haynes and the rest of the outgoing Arkansas coaches — who probably won’t be around the program much longer — are confident they haven’t left the cupboard bare as the Razorbacks try to rebound from a 4-8 record. Former Arkansas coach John L. Smith pointed to the number of young players that played key roles as a telling sign there is plenty of talent returning next season.
“There’s a lot of good young kids out there so this program has bright future and will hang together as well,” Smith said last Friday. “They are good young men and I love them all. There is a nice future ahead. Like I told them, whatever they do in life just go battle like you have this last year they have in everything you do.”
There’s no doubt Arkansas will face challenges.
Any time a team is coming off a 4-8 there are plenty of issues to address.
The biggest could actually come on Arkansas’ offense, which will be loaded with questions because of the departures of several instrumental seniors. Record-setting quarterback Tyler Wilson and receiver Cobi Hamilton are gone after grabbing several Arkansas career marks. So, too, are tight end Chris Gragg and running back Dennis Johnson. Knile Davis could join them if he opts to bypass his final season.
In all, Arkansas is scheduled to return players who accounted for 42.2 percent of its rushing yards and 49.3 percent of its receiving yards from 2012. Wilson’s departure means only 6.3 percent of the passing yards return with Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell, who are expected to compete for the starting job next season.
The numbers are small all the way around. But Wilson believes promise remains.
“I think what’s been instilled in here as far as an attitude, not only within the locker room, but what’s expected outside the walls of the locker room is greatly improved from the time that I got here five years ago and what it is today,” Wilson said last Friday. “I think that’s lot to be said for everything that’s happened since I’ve been here and a number of the guys in the locker room that have made sacrifices to make that happen. I’m extremely excited about that and proud of that moving forward.”
Arkansas also must replace three of its top four tacklers defensively in safety Ross Rasner, linebacker Terrell Williams and linebacker Alonzo Highsmith. Defensive end Tenarius Wright, who was hurt most of the season, is moving on as well.
But plenty of experience is back on the defensive front, where defensive ends Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, Byran Jones and Robert Thomas should return. Smith and Flowers combined for 15 ½ sacks in their first full seasons as starters, while Jones had a solid year, too, finishing sixth on the team in tackles (52).
They’ll join a young group in the back seven that suffered its lumps in 2012.
“I think everybody will learn from this situation,” Haynes said of the struggles. “Not just in football, in life. And any time you go through adversity, that’s the one thing you can you’ll learn from this. These guys will be ready down the road.”
Arkansas believes those young players, many of whom were thrust into key roles in 2012, are capable of leading Arkansas back to respectability. Seven different freshmen (both true and redshirt) started games on offense and defense in 2012.
The list included five defensive starters in safety Rohan Gaines, cornerback Will Hines and Davyon McKinney, and linebackers A.J. Turner and Otha Peters. Receiver Mekale McKay and running back Jonathan Williams logged starts on offense.
The 2012 signing class was not permitted to do interviews with the media throughout the season. But Williams’ thoughts on the future were clear after the LSU game when he said via Twitter: “Time to take over now.”
“I think the expectations are high,” Wilson said even though Arkansas suffered through one of its worst seasons. “There’s no reason why we can’t achieve success in the future. I think the guys in there know how to work and how to achieve that.”
The returning Razorbacks don’t know who will be leading the program next season, but have been assured it won’t take long for the next coach to be in place.
Hamilton said that next Arkansas coach will have plenty of talent to work with.
“There are a lot of great players still here,” Hamilton said last Friday.
“Whoever they’ve got coming in, I know they’re going to be excited about the players they’ve got still here. I know the future of Arkansas is always bright.”