AUBURN, Ala. — As we will every Thursday evening this season, the War Eagle Extra blog will try to track down a beat writer for Auburn's opponent for the coming weekend. Robbie Neiswanger (@NWARobbie), who covers Arkansas for the Arkansas News Bureau, took time to answer five questions about the Razorbacks before they make the trek down to Alabama for Saturday's meeting with the Tigers.
Ryan Black: Everyone seems to know about Alex Collins. Winning the SEC freshman of the year award builds up that kind of credibility. But with his success, it feels like Jonathan Williams' own contributions aren't recognized enough by those outside of Fayetteville. Do you agree with that take? Or am I simply overestimating how much publicity Collins receives in comparison to his backfield mate?
Robbie Neiswanger: There’s no doubt Collins was the poster boy, so to speak, of the Arkansas offense last season. He was the high-profile recruit in Bielema’s first class. He got off to a historical start with three straight 100-yard efforts. He topped the 1,000-yard mark. But Bret Bielema has said Williams was the back who got stronger every week in 2013. Williams may not get the headlines, but there’s no doubt he’s the leader of a talented backfield entering the season. I think he’s the most complete back on the roster as well. Collins and Korliss Marshall may get more notoriety, but don’t be surprised if Williams leads Arkansas in rushing.
Black: We've heard that at least one reason for Brandon Allen's ugly numbers in the passing game last year had to do with his shoulder not being 100 percent. Apparently, he's ready to go now. Getting to watch him in-person recently, have you noticed much more zip on the ball? And what kind of numbers do you think he's capable of putting up this season?
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Neiswanger: There is more zip on the ball. It’s clear. The shoulder injury was real. But it wasn't the only thing that led to the passing offense’s struggles last year.
Quarterback-receiver chemistry wasn't very good. Allen made his share of mistakes in his first year as a starter. So did Arkansas’ receivers.
Improvement was one of the obvious goals of the offseason and the Razorbacks believe they accomplished it. Allen looks more comfortable in the offense and there are more weapons around him. We’ll see what it means Saturday. As for numbers, Allen won’t put up All-SEC stats like Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson. This is a different offense. The key stats, to me, are Allen’s completion percentage (49.6 last year) and interception total (10). I think those two will determine how effective Allen was in his second season as a starter.
Black: With Chris Ash gone to Ohio State and Robb Smith now in as the Razorbacks' defensive coordinator, how have things changed schematically? Did Smith keep many of the same concepts/formations to help smooth the transition? Or did he blow everything up? And after allowing 30.8 points and 400-plus yards per game last year, is there reason to think there will be any statistical improvement in 2014?
Neiswanger: Bielema plays a role in the defense because of his background, so Smith wasn't asked to come in and blow everything up. But there are some differences we've seen from the few open practices. The best example is what Arkansas did in pass coverage last season, opting to lay off receivers at the line of scrimmage. It didn't work. Smith’s system is more aggressive, calling for press coverage. You can see more confidence from the defensive backs as a result. So that’s a good start. I wouldn't say Arkansas will transform into one of the SEC’s best defenses, but there should be improvement. The starting linebackers have experience — there was no experience on the depth chart last year. The secondary is more experienced. And Arkansas has added some young players that are talented enough to make a difference.
Black: I don't like putting others writers "on the spot" and forcing them to make a score prediction on the game they're set to cover this weekend. (Though if you want to do that, go ahead.) I'm more interested in this: With Arkansas being a 21-point underdog, give or take, what would the team consider a positive aside from a victory? A competitive, single-digit loss? Or after ending last season on a nine-game losing streak, is the only way any good vibes could be taken away is if the Razorbacks leave Jordan-Hare with a 'W' in hand?
Neiswanger: They want to win. They expect to win. They plan to win. I think part of the optimism is the history of Arkansas success down there. Another part is seeing what Auburn accomplished last year and believing it can happen again. Then there’s the improvement Arkansas felt like it made in the offseason.
Will it happen? We all know the odds aren’t good. But after losing nine straight to end last season — and 12 straight SEC games — Arkansas doesn't want to just come close. They want the losing streaks to end.
Black: A year ago, I could never fathom asking this; in light of last season, I feel I need to: Is there any way — short of Bielema committing major NCAA violations or crashing a motorcycle while riding with a woman who isn't his wife and then lying about it to athletic director Jeff Long — that he doesn't make it to Year 3? Is there a certain record, in theory, that Bielema needs to reach to show the administration and the fan base that the program is headed in the right direction? Or is he safe no matter what due to the massive buyout that would need to be paid if they got rid of him?
Neiswanger: He’s not going anywhere. There is a big buyout in the contract that basically makes it impossible to let him go — even if you felt it was necessary after year two. But Bielema has Long’s full support as well. I mean, we’re talking about an AD who recently choked up and thanked Bielema for making it fun to be around the football program again (subtle shot at Bobby Petrino). Arkansas points to the team’s GPA and incident-free offseason as a sign there is important progress behind the scenes in Bielema’s grand plan to restore the program. But we all know in this league progress is ultimately judged by the scoreboard. Going 0-8 in the conference won’t make anyone happy, but it’s not going to cost Bielema his job this winter.