FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Like Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, Austin Allen remembers all too well how depleted the roster was when he arrived on campus as a freshman four years ago.
So limited were the number of players, and their overall talent, that Arkansas was unable to field two teams to take part in full 7-on-7 summer workouts.
With Allen now finally ready to lead Arkansas at quarterback after a three-year apprenticeship under his older brother, both he and Bielema believe the program is ready to compete in the brutal Southeastern Conference West Division on a yearly basis.
”You can just see the depth they’ve built everywhere,” Allen said. ”The whole mentality of the team has changed since my freshman year, from `I think we can’ to now we know we have a great team.”
The Razorbacks had their second straight winning season last year under Bielema, finishing 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC – with victories in six of their final seven games.
They are wary of that being the conclusion to their journey back to respectability, especially after losing a host of players to the NFL. Thankfully, Bielema, who has steadied the program after a winless first season in the SEC in 2013, believes he finally has the team to withstand turnover in his fourth season.
”I know this team better than I’ve known any roster of players that I’ve had here at Arkansas to this point,” Bielema said.
Giving Bielema reason for optimism is the growth and maturity of Allen – as well as a defense that believes it can return to one of the top 10 in the country like it was two years ago. The Razorbacks struggled early a year ago with their defensive pass rush, an area they expect to correct this year. Senior Deatrich Wise leads a group Bielema has praised for its overall talent and depth, having led Arkansas with eight sacks last season.
While optimism and depth might not be enough earn the Razorbacks the SEC championship Bielema promised when he was hired just yet, this could just show Arkansas will always be a factor among the SEC’s elite with Bielema in charge.
Some other things to watch as Arkansas tries to earn its third straight winning season under Bielema:
The Razorbacks turned a position that had been a weakness into one of the stronger units in the SEC last season, with playmakers like Drew Morgan and Dominique Reed emerging to grab a combined 16 touchdown catches. Both return this season, and the receivers receive another boost with the return of season Keon Hatcher. Last year’s top wideout missed much of the season with a foot injury.
After having had to replace a coordinator in each of the last two seasons, Bielema enters this year with a welcome bit of stability with his signal callers. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith returns for his third year, while Dan Enos returns to run an offense that was 29th in the country last season with an average of 465.5 yards per game.
As good as Arkansas’ backfields have been under Bielema, the Razorbacks enter this season unproven there. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams departed for the NFL, leaving sixth-year senior Kody Walker as the starter to begin preseason camp. However, sophomore Rawleigh Williams – who played well last season before an injury – returns and highly recruited freshman Devah Whaley could challenge the 1,000-yard mark his first season.
Arkansas opens the season at home against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 3, facing a team that went 9-4 with a bowl win last season. It gets tougher the next week with a trip to TCU. Four of their toughest games (Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and LSU) all come at home in Fayetteville over a five-week stretch.
The SEC schedule leaves little margin for error and the Razorbacks need their defense to improve to hope for an 8-4 finish this season.