In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
Bret Bielema shocked college football with his decision to leave the University of Wisconsin to take over at Arkansas. While the sirens of the SEC are alluring, Bielema had a lot going for him in Madison. He'd successfully guided the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and worked under Barry Alvarez, who hired him as an assistant coach in 2004 and as a head coach in 2006.
As is, the Razorbacks may possess greater team speed than any group Bielema coached while at Wisconsin. There are, however, significant holes to fill, especially on an offense that saw four skill-position players, including star quarterback Tyler Wilson, get drafted into the NFL in April.
The turnover could wind up working in Bielema's favor, as his power-running offense is quite different than the one former Razorbacks head coach Bobby Petrino installed (and the Razorbacks continued to use following his dismissal).
Fortunately for Bielema and Arkansas fans, the Razorbacks are talented, including at a position the new head coach has a history of developing.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 13
2013 NFL Draft picks: Four - RB Knile Davis (third round, Kansas City Chiefs), QB Tyler Wilson (fourth round, Oakland Raiders), WR Cobi Hamilton (sixth round, Cincinnati Bengals), TE Chris Gragg (seventh round, Buffalo Bills)
Top Arkansas prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
1. OC Travis Swanson (6-4, 314, 5.26)
Since redshirting in 2009, Swanson has started the past 38 consecutive games, emerging as a Rimington Award and All-SEC candidate along the way. Stout and possessing long arms, Swanson gives Bielema yet another dominant interior offensive lineman to build his run-heavy offense around. Bielema, himself, welcomed the comparisons of his newest protege to past stars Travis Frederick and Peter Konz, whom he'd coached while at Wisconsin.
"I've had two centers at have jumped out early in the draft, both in their junior years the last two years," Bielema told reporters when asked about Swanson. "I had one go first round to the Cowboys [Frederick], one second round to the Falcons [Konz]. I think Travis is any good as either one of those players, if not better."
Swanson's size, durability and proficiency in pass protection are impressive and he'll enter the 2013 season as NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated center. He is a reliable shotgun snapper, who is very stout in pass protection, showing the power, balance and strong hands to latch and control opponents. Swanson is effective but less impressive in the running game. He understands blocking angles and generally seals off opponents from the action effectively in the running game but can be beaten inside by quickness and too often drops his head on contact when blocking on the move, leading to experienced defenders occasionally swimming over the top to break free.
2. DE/OLB Chris Smith (6-2, 266, 4.76)
Arkansas' ability to win up front should extend to the defensive side of the ball, as well, especially if Smith, a talented pass-rusher who led the Hogs with 9.5 sacks a season, continues to make strides.
Smith worked his way up the depth chart at Arkansas, initially playing in six games as a true freshman after choosing the Razorbacks over several other prominent programs as a highly regarded prep from the state of North Carolina. He played in all 13 games as a sophomore (starting three times) and collected 31 tackles, including six for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Smith broke out in 2012 to earn honorable mention all-conference honors with 52 tackles, including 13 for loss to go along with his quarterback carnage. He and South Carolina superstar Jadeveon Clowney are the only returning pass-rushers in the SEC with nine or more sacks a season ago.
As his size suggests, Smith attacks opponents with his burst off the snap, though he does possess enough upper body strength to effectively bull-rush when tackles get off-balance. Smith has good initial quickness and overall athleticism and is willing to jab-step outside and rush inside, showing the toughness to compete within the box rather than simply remain on the flanks. He closes on the ball smoothly but doesn't arrive for the hit with as much pop as his bulked up frame suggests. Turning some of those tackles behind the line of scrimmage into turnovers (one forced fumble over his career) could go a long way in boosting Smith's stock this fall.
3. DT Byran Jones (6-2, 310, 5.12)
Plenty of things went wrong in Fayetteville last season but the battle-tested Jones helped provide some stability inside at nose guard, collecting a career-high 52 tackles. Jones, a three year starter who enters his senior campaign with 35 career games under his belt (including 29 starts) is well known throughout the SEC as one of the stouter run-stuffers in the conference.
He appeared in 10 games (starting five) as a true freshman in 2010, recording 23 tackles. His production doubled a season later (47 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and one sack) as he started the entire season.
Jones possesses a wide frame conducive to playing in the trenches. He can surprise with his initial quickness but relies mostly on power and leverage to build a pile on the inside against the run. Most his quarterback hurries and occasional sacks (career-high 1.5 last year) come as a result of Arkansas' speedy pass rushers forcing passers to step up into the pocket.
Jones' inability to consistently affect quarterbacks limits his value in the pass-happy NFL. His dependability as a run-stuffer, however, should earn him plenty of attention from scouts, however.
4. OT David Hurd (6-5, 309, 5.34)
With his only playing experience coming in two blow-out victories a season earlier, Hurd stepped up to play pretty well in 11 games at tackle for the Razorbacks in 2012. He switched back and forth between weak and strongside tackle in Arkansas' blocking scheme, demonstrating enough length, strength and leverage to help the Razorbacks' prolific offense slice up SEC defenses.
Hurd lacks the foot speed and flexibility scouts are looking for as a future NFL left tackle but he positions himself well for a player with limited experience. He gains surprising depth on his kick-slide and can side-step laterally to remain square to the defender. He also uses his hands well to latch on and control in both pass and run blocking. Hurd is typically a patient blocker. Occasionally, he'll get over-aggressive and shoot his hands to the defender, causing himself to get off-balance.
The new scheme will ask Hurd to hold blocks longer and play with more physicality in the running game. If he's successful in doing so, Hurd could make a significant jump up draft boards this fall.
Other Arkansas prospects worth watching:
DE Trey Flowers (6-4, 256, 4.84)*
His teammate on the other side (Smith) posted the gaudier statistics in 2012 but Flowers could be on the verge of blooming into a legitimate All-SEC candidate himself. He started three games in 2011, earning a spot on the conference's All-Freshman team with 28 tackles, 5.5 for loss and a sack. Those numbers grew to 50 tackles, 13 for loss and six sacks in 2012 as Flowers started all 12 games for the Razorbacks. They are a bit deceiving, however, as 3.5 of his sacks came against Auburn. Flowers can make plays behind the line of scrimmage due to his quickness off the ball but he's inconsistent in this area. His length, strength and closing ability, however, makes him a sounder run defender than Smith and potentially a better prospect in the long run.
CB Tevin Mitchell (6-0, 181, 4.52)*
Mitchell emerged as a starter as a true freshman, playing in each game and earning the nod in the Razorbacks' final six on his way to 56 tackles and a spot on the SEC All-Freshmen team in 2011. He showed more big play flair in 2012, intercepting his first pass and forcing two fumbles in just seven starts after missing four games early in the year with an injury officially declared "above the shoulders." Fluid and alert in coverage, Mitchell should emerge as one of the conference's better corners in 2013.
FB Kiero Small (5-10, 238, 4.86)
Despite his name indicating otherwise, Small possesses a burly frame and is a physical tone-setter with a knack for breaking face masks as a punishing lead-blocker. He missed all but the season opener a season ago after sustaining a foot injury which required surgery. Small signed with Arkansas as a JUCO All-American fullback and linebacker from Hartnell Community College, where he scored a combined seven touchdowns and led the team in tackles in each of his two seasons of action.