FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Veterans Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis have dominated headlines in regard to Arkansas football.
And for good reason. The Heisman Trophy hopefuls are central figures in the Razorbacks’ plan of competing for championships in 2012. The same goes for other returning stars like wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, tight end Chris Gragg, linebackers Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith, and offensive linemen Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey.
But the big names aren’t alone in their importance to Arkansas as it opens preseason practice Thursday. Starting spots are up for grabs and key roles which must be filled before the Sept. 1 season opener.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five other intriguing players — not named Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, Tenarius Wright, Cobi Hamilton, etc. — we’ll be watching when preseason practices begin:
OT David Hurd - Junior - 6-6, 300
• Why we’re watching: Quick question: Which Arkansas tackle had the best spring? It was former walk-on David Hurd, according to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. The West Monroe, La., native is not a well-known Razorback after appearing in two games in three years. But the junior, who worked with the starting offense a good chunk of the spring, is one of five players vying for a starting job at tackle.
• What we expect: Arkansas wants the right fit in its starting group and will give Hurd and the rest equal opportunities to impress. While Brey Cook and Jason Peacock are the likely choices to be on the field to start the opener, it’s hard to rule anything out. After all, no one expected true freshman Mitch Smothers to start at tackle when 2011 began.
QB/WR Brandon Mitchell - Junior - 6-4, 230
• Why we’re watching: The veteran spent the spring sharing second-team repetitions with freshman Brandon Allen, leaving some rumblings about whether he was being passed on the depth chart. He’ll still be with the quarterbacks, but also is scheduled to practice at receiver this preseason. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said he was all for the idea when it was proposed by Mitchell and Tyler Wilson over the summer. Mitchell ran routes in voluntary work and will get an opportunity to show he can help the Razorbacks with the ball in his hands out wide.
• What we expect: Mitchell is a talented athlete who deserves a chance to get on the field this season. While it’s hard to count on Mitchell to become an every-down receiver, he can and should help in certain packages. At the very least he’ll give the Razorbacks more options on game days.
LB Otha Peters — Freshman - 6-1, 228
• Why we’re watching: Arkansas coaches were fired up when Peters spurned Tennessee and elected to become a Razorback during the recruiting process last winter. Now everyone will get a chance to see what their excitement was all about. Peters is said to have the size, speed and instincts to contribute immediately at linebacker While Arkansas is confident in its starting duo of Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright, depth is a concern at linebacker. Peters can ease those concerns with a strong camp.
• What we expect: Peters, like most freshmen, will benefit from practices separated between veterans and newcomers early in camp. Then Peters will get the chance to prove he’s ready physically when the pads go on. But determining how much Peters can help this year, if at all, largely depends on how quickly he learns and understands the defensive playbook.
S/LB Ross Rasner - Senior - 6-0, 212
• Why we’re watching: Rasner collected 53 tackles last season, sharing time with veteran Jerico Nelson at a safety/linebacker hybrid position. But he holds a much bigger role entering preseason practice after working as both a safety and linebacker in the spring. Arkansas needs Rasner’s experience to shine in a secondary loaded with plenty of question marks as practice begins. His ability to play sound at safety and what is now the star position will be a big factor in Arkansas’ defensive success.
• What we expect: Rasner may not have the same big-play ability as former Hog safety Tramain Thomas, who had a propensity to pull down acrobatic interceptions, but should be more sound overall as he provides leadership in a youthful secondary. There’s now doubt Rasner’s versatility will be key as he fills numerous roles for new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes.
WR Demetrius Wilson - Junior - 6-3, 180
• Why we’re watching: Arkansas needs help at wide receiver and the junior college transfer is the prime candidate for playing time. Wilson, who caught 51 passes for 927 yards with 10 touchdowns at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College, is being counted on to provide another valuable option for a group replacing Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs. Losing dismissed sophomore Marquel Wade hurt the group, but Arkansas will feel much better about its downfield passing attack if Wilson adjusts quickly.
• What we expect: Plenty of passes will be thrown Wilson’s way as Arkansas prepares for the season this month. The Hogs have wide receiver options, but most are untested so the preseason is critical. There’s not doubt Wilson will play in 2012. How much is still to be determined.