A healthy Keon Hatcher can help the Hogs reach the end zone.
Note this is not a list of the best players on the roster and is not counting them down as such. It is not a list of players most likely to win All-SEC awards or play in the NFL. Players are instead ranked by significance to the team this season. Not the future, not the past. For example, to use the same phrase as last year, ‘If Player X went down with an injury and was lost for the year, how detrimental would that be?’
10. Keon Hatcher, wide receiver
‘What might have been.’ Imagine if Arkansas had a healthy Hatcher all of 2015. The now fifth-year senior, through a game-and-a-half, was one of the highest-performing receivers in the country until a broken foot finished his season. He was granted another year of eligibility and his return in 2016 provides Arkansas with a proven option for first-year quarterback Austin Allen.
Hatcher was the No. 1 last year until his injury. In his stead Drew Morgan led the Southeastern Conference in touchdown receptions and Dominique Reed in yards-per-catch. Jared Cornelius had an efficient year as a No. 3. All three healthy last year are back, as is Cody Hollister, who also had a broken foot. That means Hatcher likely won’t be able to simply slot right back into the No. 1 job. It does mean, however, the Razorbacks have the best receiving corps in the league.
Really. Say Hatcher keeps up his 2015 form. Even if it drops to levels on par with what it might have given the schedule, 60 grabs and seven or eight touchdowns isn’t out of the question. If 2016 is a repeat of his 2014 season, that would be acceptable, probably, too. But a star-making performance might force the opposition to play in the nickel and dime and make Arkansas’ offense truly dangerous.
9. Colton Jackson, offensive line
Not many teams in the country, nevermind the SEC, are looking at a redshirt freshman starting at left tackle. Jackson is (currently) pegged to do that for Arkansas. And that can be taken both pessimistically and optimistically depending on your preference.
The good news would be he is theoretically good enough to force coach Bret Bielema’s and offensive line coach Kurt Anderson’s hand. He “played his way in” to the lineup or what-have-you and Arkansas could get three years with the same left tackle. Or, it could be no one is good enough to beat a 19-year-old out for the job and not a soul along the entire front five knows exactly where he is going to be playing come the season-opener September 3 against Louisiana Tech.
Football brass are saying the right things about Jackson, but he who was rarely mentioned among those that redshirted in 2015 until spring camp. It’s possible some of the newcomers who weren’t in for spring overtake him. It’s possible a guy like Dan Skipper moves back to the left. Or it’s possible Jackson really is everything the staff imagines/hopes and everything shakes out around a young anchor. To-be-determined.
8. Deatrich Wise Jr., defensive end
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone around the program say Wise isn’t the most talented player on the Arkansas roster. It was Dan Skipper who earned preseason All-American honors earlier this week, but it’s Wise who is likely to get the most come the postseason and be the earlier Arkansas player taken in next year’s NFL Draft.
Truth is, he’s an animal. Once he committed to football (Bielema’s words), everything clicked. He was second in the SEC in sacks during league play and that for a team that was 99th in the country overall in getting to the quarterback. He went up against Skipper most of the spring and won the battle enough to cement his status as surefire choice at rush end.
Wise’s output, especially with sack totals, are contingent on other factors – namely whether the rest of the defensive line can keep him from being constantly double-teamed – but expect impressive totals by season’s end, and expect him to be a nationally-recognized name before November.
7. Brooks Ellis, linebacker
It’s hard to believe Ellis’ career at Arkansas is almost done. Dr. Ellis, as he’ll likely be known in a few years, has been steady as they come in the middle of the Arkansas linebacking corps. He’s been a starter every year at school and is supremely counted on as the brains of the defense.
And he has that. He tackles everything he gets his hands on when he gets his hands on it. He doesn’t have the speed or strength of most of the other linebackers in the SEC, but he’s been a borderline Honorable Mention all-league type player for most of the last season-plus. Last year’s ill-advised move of him to the outside was quickly and rightfully scrapped, but it played games with the corps all year.
Simply put, Ellis has to be good. There aren’t options behind him. At least not yet. Either a returnee has to have made a huge leap – a really huge leap, honestly – or one of the newcomers has to lock into being a competent reserve early in his career. Ellis cannot play practically every single defensive snap again in 2016 and the Razorbacks defense make the necessary jump it needs to propel the team into the upper-tier of the SEC.
6. Josh Liddell/Santos Ramirez, safeties
Maybe it’s cheating to list two players at one spot, but the two here are almost indistinguishable.
Sure, they look different. They have different names, frames, numbers and skill-sets. But both went on absolute roller coaster rides as alternating first-year starters at safety last year. And now, with the moving on of Rohan Gaines, the two are all but locked in as starters at free and strong safety for 2016.
It was the safety play, at least more than the cornerback play, that caused Arkansas to be ranked so low (117th in the nation) in pass defense last year. Time and time again opposing quarterbacks could throw openly to the middle of the field. Things didn’t always result in a big play, but almost always positive yardage. Liddell would start then make a mistake and Ramirez would take over next game. Then Ramirez would mess up and Liddell would go back in. It was a carousel and one that must be fixed.