Experienced Allen leads Arkansas' return to prominence
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Brandon Allen joined an Arkansas program that was in the mix atop the Southeastern Conference.
After several tumultuous seasons following the Bobby Petrino scandal, the senior quarterback hopes to leave the school in exactly the same shape as when he joined it.
For Allen to think Arkansas is ready to return to the level of a combined 21-5 record over the 2010-11 seasons shows exactly the type of impact coach Bret Bielema has had entering his third season. It also shows just how far the Razorbacks have come since winning a combined seven games during the 2012-13 seasons and ending a school-worst 17-game SEC losing skid last year.
''For me and some of the older guys, I think it's back to where we were when we first got here,'' Allen said. "For some of the younger guys that haven't been part of much winning, it could be a new thing to them, but I think this whole team has the same mindset that we're excited about the season.''
Allen's confidence is driven by a finish to last season that saw Arkansas win three of its last four games, including a dominating win over Texas in the Texas Bowl. The Razorbacks allowed just 59 total yards by the Longhorns, following earlier back-to-back shutout wins over LSU and Mississippi.
Whether Arkansas can repeat its defensive performance under second-year coordinator Robb Smith is uncertain following the departures to the NFL of SEC-leading tackler Martrell Spaight and defensive end Trey Flowers.
Bielema will at least have a roster retooled to his liking after three recruiting classes, one he feels is ready to finally compete from the outset of the season - led by third-year starter Allen.
No player has suffered as much criticism within Arkansas over the last two seasons as Allen, who - despite the pressure - finished with 20 touchdown passes and only five interceptions last season. Still, Bielema is looking for improvement from his quarterback as Arkansas tries to complete its return from bottom feeder to the upper echelon of the SEC.
''He's got to be big in big moments,'' Bielema said.
Some things to watch as Arkansas looks to continue its return to SEC relevance:
INJURED WILLIAMS: Arkansas thought it would enter this season with a pair of 1,000-yard running backs in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. However, Williams injured his left foot during a preseason scrimmage and will miss the regular season. That leaves Collins (2,126 yards rushing in his first two season) as the primary option, with freshman Rawleigh Williams and junior Kody Walker to fill the void.
ELLIS' MOVE: Junior Brooks Ellis spent the last two seasons at middle linebacker, finishing with 72 tackles last year while serving as one of the primary play callers for a unit that finished 10th in the country in total defense. Ellis has moved to outside linebacker this season, replacing Spaight, and his transition is key if Arkansas is to resemble last year's dominating defense.
DEEP THREATS: Only one wide receiver had more than 20 catches last season for Arkansas, leaving Allen without reliable play-making options to stretch the field. Senior Keon Hatcher returns this season after finishing with 43 catches for 558 yards a year ago, but much is needed and expected out of the rest of the group - including junior college transfer Dominique Reed and freshman Jojo Robinson.
ENOS' IMPACT: Former Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos takes over as offensive coordinator this season. He replaces Jim Chaney, who left for Pittsburgh after two seasons with the Razorbacks. While Chaney was an odd fit because of his history with the passing game, Enos' balanced approach appears to be a more logical match with Bielema.
LINE SHIFT: Arkansas returns four of five starters this season on an offensive line already touted as one of the top in the SEC, though some of the returners have moved to other positions. Former left tackle and towering (6-foot-10) Dan Skipper takes over on the right side of the line, while former guard Denver Kirkland moves to left tackle. Sophomore Frank Ragnow saw limited action last season and takes over at right guard.