FAYETTEVILLE – Summertime is football time in Arkansas.
Baseball finished early. Track and field continued its dominance. But those are finished. All eyes are turned toward Razorbacks fall camp now. Practice begins in about two months and the season not for another month beyond, but make no mistake, it’s football season across most of the state.
Accordingly, this is the Arkansas News Bureau’s start to offseason analysis. It begins with a series of counting down the 25 most important players Arkansas’ success this year. A year, by the way, that has seen prognosticators proclaim as many as nine wins and as few as four for the team.
ANB’s proclamations come later in the summer.
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?’
25. JaMichael Winston, defensive end
A year ago Winston was a team captain, the most stable on a defensive line oozing with potential. As 2015 passed, Winston was leapfrogged by a few of those high-potential bodies. By the end of the year, his snaps had decreased by half from the start of the season.
Winston is a player better against the run than the pass. In fact, he’s arguably the best end on the roster against the run. Rub is, the best teams Arkansas plays are more passing threats. And a team that was 99th in the nation in sacks needs all the help it can get there.
So it’s unclear where Winston fits into the plans in 2016. Team captains don’t get completely removed from the rotation and no one would suggest Winston is terribly far behind some of his counterparts at the position. But he will likely find himself in a reserve role, or, at least, a spot he’s seeing fewer snaps than Deatrich Wise Jr., the player in front of him.
Note: This is pending the return of Tevin Beanum, who missed most of the spring with personal issues. Winston would likely slot into Beanum’s spot opposite Wise.
24. Jared Collins, cornerback
For a third straight year Arkansas will spread its playing time among at least three cornerbacks. Collins is an exterior one largely playing the field side. A fundamental senior – not exceptionally fast or strong – Collins was the most stable cornerback on the roster two seasons ago, but his numbers went down across the board last year.
His job did not appear to be any danger through the spring, even after the Arkansas secondary was the 117th-ranked in the nation against the pass. That could be, however, because DJ Dean, the other exterior cornerback, missed most of the spring with injury and are there are few experienced options behind Collins.
Expect a season closer to his sophomore year than his junior one. If there is any expectation of growth in the secondary, anyway, it might have to happen.
23. Dan Skipper, offensive line
It might look odd to see arguably the most well-known, and perhaps best, offensive player on the Razorbacks roster this far down. But like Denver Kirkland in these rankings last year, Skipper is so solid, a determination of his play is easy.
Now, where he plays is a mystery, though.
Skipper spent the spring at right tackle, the same spot he played last year. Two years ago he was on the left. Arkansas’ current left tackle has precisely zero Football Bowl Subdivision snaps to his resume. What’s more, Arkansas is unsettled at guard, a position Skipper has played in the past and one coaches talked among themselves about returning him.
No matter where he is, Skipper will likely be the rock of the line. Nevermind his 6-foot-10 stature, Skipper turned his junior season into a solid, unseen one, a far cry from his sophomore year of seemingly consistent trouble among officials and from flags.
22. Cheyenne O’Grady, tight end
Don’t call him C.J. Cheyenne has grown up. Or he’s trying to, anyway. Bret Bielema won’t call him anything unless he keeps making bounds.
O’Grady is loaded with pass-catching potential. His build is prototypical for elite tight ends in football. But he has had difficulty grasping the intricacies of the position, nevermind mastering them. Off-the-field trouble (he had an arrest for drunk driving a year ago and missed the team’s first pre-spring meeting.
In an ideal world, to Bielema, Arkansas would roll with dual tight ends more often than not. Such was the case the last two years with Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle and the look was a staple when Bielema was at Wisconsin, too. Sprinkle’s moved up with Henry gone to the NFL and now the search is on for his replacement. O’Grady is an option.
21. Will Gragg, tight end
Gragg is an option there, too.
His pedigree fits the mold. The younger brother of Chris Gragg, an NFL and former Razorbacks tight end, Will hasn’t had to be moved to the position like older brother.
His blocking was a strength in high school at Dumas, a 2A school. It’s been what’s held him back at Arkansas, though. Of the three tight ends recruited as part of the 2015 class, Gragg seemed to fit that role best with his strength set. But like Austin Cantrell, another member of the class, playing against small high schools seems to have slowed his readiness.
Gragg is an alternative to O’Grady more than a supplement to. There are not enough snaps to spread between the two of them and returnee Jack Kraus behind Sprinkle. Someone is going to be the odd one out.