FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson knew the Razorbacks were eager for preseason practice to begin last year.
He said it was clear the Razorbacks viewed the long, hot camp as a welcomed way to finally get away from the distraction of the tumultuous offseason.
Johnson said late last month there was just as much anticipation from the group as Arkansas approaches its first practice this preseason. But Johnson — the only coach remaining from the 2012 staff — thinks there’s a different motivation behind it.
“Now our players can look forward to get going just in the season,” Johnson said. “That speaks volumes. It takes a lot of pressure off of you mentally because you have one thing to worry about. That’s just playing for each other, practicing hard, learning the system, get ready to go out and have some fun.”
Arkansas’ first preseason under coach Bret Bielema begins Sunday, when players report to campus. The new-look Razorbacks step on the practice field for the first time Monday afternoon, kicking off four weeks of work leading up to the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette on Aug. 31.
The first week of Camp Bielema will be closed to the public and it’s not clear how many — if any — of Arkansas’ workouts will be open this month. But whether they’re practicing in front of spectators or working behind closed doors, the Razorbacks have plenty to address if they hope to make 2013 more memorable than 2012.
Below are 10 key questions Arkansas must answer as preseason practice begins:
1. Is QB Brandon Allen ready to take charge? — There won’t be a battle for the starting quarterback job when preseason practice begins Monday. Sophomore Brandon Allen is Arkansas’ starter after a successful spring. But August remains an important month for Allen, whose growth, maturity and command in Jim Chaney’s offense will be key to Arkansas’ success this fall. Allen waited two seasons for his opportunity to lead the Arkansas offense. What will he do with it?
2. Who will become the Hogs’ best five up front? — Arkansas, which was shaky at best along its offensive front last season, vows to be much improved under the new staff. Bielema believes Arkansas is off to a good start with center Travis Swanson, but must develop a strong starting unit. Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers sit atop the depth chart at guard, while David Hurd and Grady Ollison man the tackles. Keep an eye on newcomers like Dan Skipper, Denver Kirkland and Reeve Koehler, though.
3. Can DE Chris Smith/D-Line live up to summer hype? — The team’s defensive star has earned plenty of publicity this summer, landing on numerous watch lists and All-SEC teams. Now it’s time for Smith to prove the recognition is well deserved this month. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge wants his star pupil aiming to be among the best in the country. He can start with taking the lead for a veteran first-team defensive line that must serve as one of the team’s biggest strengths in 2013.
4. Which newcomers are ready to help immediately? — Bielema and his staff can’t wait to work with the newcomers this month and for good reason: Arkansas will need several to contribute in various roles this season. Running back, linebacker and offensive line appear to be positions where new faces can compete for starting jobs or help with depth. So the preseason is key for guys like Kirkland, Koehler, running back Alex Collins, and linebackers Brooks Ellis and Martrell Spaight.
5. Can Randy Shannon mold a strong LB unit? — Bielema has put together a strong staff and there’s no doubt his biggest splash came when Shannon’s hiring was announced. The former Miami head coach is known for his work with linebackers and has, perhaps, his toughest task with a unit lacking experience. Daunte Carr (MLB), Braylon Mitchell (SLB) and Jarrett Lake (WLB) enter camp as Arkansas starters, but the competition is wide open and the group’s growth is critical.
6. Who will earn punting duties? — Dylan Breeding was one of Arkansas’ most consistent performers the past few years. Now the outgoing senior’s departure has left an important hole on special teams. Place kicker Zach Hocker has volunteered to add punting duties to his job description, but can the senior handle the extra workload? Will signee Sam Irwin-Hill — who was expected to arrive in time for camp — step in and show he can do it? Arkansas will find out this month.
7. What is Arkansas’ offensive identity? — We know what Arkansas wants to accomplish offensively under Bielema: a run-first approach behind a strong offensive line and a passing attack that thrives on play-action. Does Arkansas have the personnel to fit the style as it transitions out of the Bobby Petrino era? Or will the Hogs have to lean on other strengths? Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney believes there was progress late last spring and will find out if it can continue this preseason.
8. Do the Razorbacks’ have a go-to receiver? — Arkansas had no trouble identifying its go-to receivers the past two seasons (Jarius Wright, Cobi Hamilton). But who steps into that role in 2013 for a new-look offense? Senior Javontee Herndon looked most capable in the spring, but the title remains open this preseason. Demetrius Wilson, Julian Horton Mekale McKay, Keon Hatcher and D’Arthur Cowan all have a shot to become Arkansas’ go-to guy with a big month.
9. Is there enough depth for success on defense? — The Razorbacks spent the spring trying to identify a staring 11 on defense. But Arkansas knows the first-team group isn’t the biggest question this preseason. Depth is the concern. Who can be counted on outside of the first-team defensive line, which can’t go every snap? Who else can contribute at linebacker? Who are capable backups at safety? Developing defensive depth is one of Bielema’s biggest goals this preseason.
10. Who can make plays on special teams? — Arkansas did nothing in the return game last season, struggling to make big plays after netting six touchdowns in 2011. Selecting a confident kick and punt returner wasn’t at the top of the spring list for Arkansas’ new staff, but that changes this preseason. Expect several candidates — both veterans and newcomers — to audition for the roles over the next few weeks.