FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema named in Monday’s spring football preview press conference the first-team offense and first-team defense for the first snaps at Tuesday’s start of the Razorbacks’ spring practice.
The first offense, Bielema said, includes fourth-year junior quarterback Austin Allen, sixth-year senior running back Kody Walker, senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. In the offensive line line of Frank Ragnow at center, third-year sophomore Johnny Gibson of Dumas and Hjalte Froholdt, the sophomore, convert from the defensive line, and January enrolled JC transfer Deion Malone as the guards and senior incumbent Dan Skipper at right tackle and redshirt freshman Colton Jackson of Conway and third-year sophomore Brian Wallace battling at left tackle.
Jackson’s progress to Wallace’s equal has surprised given that Bielema touted Wallace’s redshirt year in 2014 and his practices backing up turned pro left tackle Denver Kirkland last season.
"On the offensive line, probably the guy who jumped out the most is Colton Jackson," Bielema said, noting new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson was also impressed. "He was a guy that maybe was a little bit under recruited as we watched him unfold. Really pays attention to detail, smart and engaging. I know he’s had a huge impact in coach Anderson’s room just to what he has been able to bring to the table. I am excited to get him on the floor and with him Brian Wallace, those two will be competing for the left tackle spot."
As wide receivers, Bielema said he has "four or five" first-teamers with senior Keon Hatcher, the 2014 leading receiver, returned on hardship after missing the last 11 games of 2015 with a broken foot, to rejoin 2015 standout receivers Drew Morgan, Camden Fairview alum Dominique Reed, both seniors junior Jared Cornelius and senior Cody Hollister plus redshirt freshmen LaMichael Pettway, Deon Stewart.
Morgan will be limited in spring drills coming off shoulder surgery as will running back Rawleigh Williams coming off neck surgery.
Kody Walker, 250-plus as a fullback/backup tailback to turned pro Alex Collins last year, is listed 251, but actually in the 240s now Bielema said working to be "an every down back."
End to end on the defensive line, Bielema started with junior incumbent Tevin Beanum of Forrest City and senior Deatrich Wise, emerging late in 2015 as an All-SEC candidate, on the opposite flanks with senior Taiwan Johnson and junior two-year letterman Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado battling at nose tackle.
Moving Jeremiah Ledbetter from end to tackle sacrifices some heft but accelerates the explosive quickness not seen in the interior line since 281-pound tackle Darius Philon played so well in 2014 he turned pro as a third-year sophomore to play in the NFL for San Diego.
" We’ve let him know the production that we had out of Darius Philon a year ago that we thought we missed with an explosive player," Bielema said.
Bielema said the defense relies heavily on returning starters middle and weak side linebackers Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw, both of Fayetteville. Randy Ramsey, the linebacker banished from the team last year and OKed for transfer, so committed to the cause returning as a walk-on that he starts spring as the starting strong side linebacker.
"Randy Ramsey, the newcomer with the second time coming into our program, has been impressive and very eager and very energetic," Bielema said.
The secondary has three safeties that Bielema considers first-teamers: Josh Liddell, Santos Ramirez and Jacksonville’s Kevin Richardson. Richardson also is in the cornerback mix with first-teamers D.J. Dean (limited this spring coming off foot surgery) and Jared Collins and sophomore Ryan Pulley (especially praised Monday by Bielema) with Henre Toliver in there at corner and nickel.
"The back end probably has the best competition on the team," Bielema said.
Bielema said returning place-kickers/kickoff men Cole Hedlund, Lane Saling and Adam McFain have been told the spring practices will determine which two of the trio will be invited to the roster-limited August preseason practices before the roster expands with the start of the UA’s fall semester classes.
For disciplinary reasons, Bielema said defensive lineman Josh Allen, while still in school, will not practice with the team this spring and that defensive back Cornelius Floyd because of UA ineligibility isn’t in school but attempting to do the the required work to return.