In the final installment of the five-part series, these players will have the biggest impact on the field for the Razorbacks.
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?’
These are the top five most important players on the team next year.
5. Dre Greenlaw, linebacker
There is not a more technically divisive player on the Arkansas on the roster than the sophomore linebacker. It isn’t that people dislike him - by all accounts Greenlaw carries a winning personality. It’s just that along with his All-SEC Freshman honors last year, he was also the cog in some of the most boneheaded defensive errors the Arkansas defense had all year.
To an extent that’s to be expected. The phrase “Freshman Mistakes” is a common one no matter the locker room, no matter the sport. And Greenlaw had those. He was too often caught out of position, especially late in games when his being forced to play so many downs had clearly been a fatiguing factor. There were times, too, when he could make up for it. His speed - Greenlaw is a converted safety (another reason, perhaps, for the adjustment) - could occasionally overshadow the spatial errors.
Still, he was second on the team in tackles with 95. He had a sack and two forced fumbles, as well. Greenlaw can be a playmaker, though if you ask people close to the program - including me - lots of those tackles were a product of defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s system, a system built to funnel ball carriers to Greenlaw’s (should-be) position on the field.
This isn’t a drag on Greenlaw. More experience will yield superior results. And, really, the first year wasn’t bad, anyway. But getting him an occasional blow would be helpful.
4. Austin Allen, quarterback
The easy way to make a list like this is put the quarterback at No. 1 overall. After all, if the quarterback stinks, the rest of the offense isn’t likely to be very good and then the team likely to follow the same path.
Given the options at Allen’s disposal in his first-year as starter, though, and some of the pressure is immediately relieved. There isn’t a deeper receiving corps in the league. Really. He has the best tight end, or, at worst, second-best. He has a stable of potential ball-carriers behind him. He has a preseason All-American protecting him.
Yes, Allen will have to be good. Average is only going to give Arkansas an average record. But he doesn’t have to his older brother, either. Of course, those comparisons aren’t going to be made even more often now that Austin is in Brandon’s shoes. With everything around him, the question becomes what “average” is. Twenty touchdowns? Twenty-five-hundred yards? Those totals may seem lofty, but they’re likely necessary if Arkansas wants to raise its bar the same as the Razorbacks have done every other season under Bielema.
3. Cole Hedlund, kicker
Why a kicker? Easy.
If you go back and watch the 2015 Arkansas season, game by game, you could come to the conclusion the Razorbacks should have had three more wins had it not been for field-goal misses from Hedlund. Such a proclamation assumes best-case scenarios otherwise in those games, but a case could theoretically be made.
The No. 3 kicker in the country in his recruiting class, Hedlund was the second worst kicker in the Southeastern Conference last year. Only Florida’s Austin Hardin, who made 5 of 14 tries, had a worse percentage or fewer makes than Hedlund. More than once Bielema’s decision to avoid Hedlund and make an attempt on fourth-down was questioned. Not even questioned with negativity. More like, “Man, how little faith does he have in his kicker?”
Justified. Hedlund made precisely one field longer than 30 yards last year. Misses against Toledo, Texas Tech and Mississippi State were game-changers. And while Bielema praised Hedlund during the spring, none of it matters unless things change in the fall. If Arkansas loses three close games like that, because of kicking, again in 2016, nevermind finishing with potentially eight or nine wins, they’ll be lucky to crack .500.
2. Rawleigh Williams III, running back
Two running backs remain. The reason is clear.
RWIII, as he’s colloquially known, is the No. 2 most important player on the Arkansas roster. Supposedly back to full health by the fall, Williams is the closest thing to an experienced feature-back on the entire roster. A roster built, as Bielema’s rosters have been in his career, to maximize strength in the running game, is sorely lacking practical application.
That is to say, none of the major players at the position have really done anything of consequence in their careers. Williams has the most potential. Readers may have otherwise noticed Kody Walker, a sixth-year senior running back, has not yet made the countdown. That’s because if he is the primary back in the offense, it’s going to be a difficult season. Williams, on the other hand, could carry the load. He looked the part during a couple games, after he got his feet wet, as a true freshman last year before a broken neck ended his season and threatened to end his career.
Recovery was apparently quick as he participated lightly in the spring and is expected to be full-go when the season starts. Whether Bielema handles him with kid gloves might be the thing to watch. If Walker and another running back can prove to combine as a competent duo, Williams can be eased back. If they can’t and Williams is otherwise ready, he’ll be flushed in quicker. How his body reacts to whatever the role may hinge what the entire backfield looks like come the season.
1. Devwah Whaley, running back
Here, however, is where the magic lies. Potentially. Maybe. Perhaps.
Whaley is the highest-touted running back recruit Bielema has brought to Arkansas. Higher than Alex Collins, even, and Collins just left for the NFL a year early and in the top five of almost all the significant Arkansas rushing records. Whaley can be Collins Redux, only with more speed and more power (though less dancing). It’s possible the Texas native arrives completely ready and is an SEC starter from the word ‘go.’
It’s also possible he is far from that, even if the former is the far more likely scenario. But figure he’s somewhere in the middle. Ready to contribute, but not ready to carry the ball 250 times. That’s probably ideal, anyway, assuming Williams and Walker are healthy enough help share the load. But that’s a big ‘if’ for a coming off a scary broken neck and another player who has a reason he’s in his sixth year of eligibility - Walker’s never gone a full season without getting hurt.
So many things have to go right in the Arkansas backfield. A slight deviation with Williams or Walker could perhaps be overcome by a fantastic Whaley season. But Whaley arriving ill-prepared would be a dagger, if only because the other two are so unpredictable.