Let's be honest with ourselves: The 2013 season for the Arkansas Razorbacks is one that no one wants to dwell on. It's hard to see past the mess of a year it was for the Hogs, but believe it or not, head coach Bret Bielema has a solid foundation to build around.
I know, I know. How could there possibly be a solid foundation when Arkansas just completed its first winless campaign in the SEC and endured its first nine-game losing streak in the program's history?
The answer is in the abundance of young players that had key roles for the Razorbacks this past year.
Bielema was forced to put in a lot of underclassmen. In fact, the Hogs had 25 underclassmen on the two-deep depth chart (cornerback Will Hines not listed) by the end of the 2013 season, with 12 of them being freshmen. Whenever you have to play that many young guys, let alone in the toughest conference in the country, it's going to be hard to win a lot of ball games.
Many of the freshmen that played significant roles showed they are going to be very special in the years to come, including tight end Hunter Henry, running back Alex Collins, offensive tackle Denver Kirkland and defensive tackle Darius Philon.
All four were recently named to the 2013 SEC All-Freshman Team, tying Arkansas with Ole Miss for the most freshmen on the team. Collins and Henry were also named to the 2013 Sporting News Freshman All-American Team, which consists of the best freshmen from across the country.
So, whether you looked past the Hogs record or not, there clearly is evidence that Bielema has some solid pieces to build around heading into the offseason.
It wasn't just those four guys either that made big impacts as youngsters either.
Middle linebacker Brooks Ellis earned a starting spot late in the year and didn't disappoint with his play. Of course he had some hiccups, but Ellis finished the season tied for ninth on the team with 33 total tackles and 2.0 tackles for loss. If Bielema and linebackers coach Randy Shannon can get him to have a mean streak about him, Ellis could end up being one of the better middle linebackers Arkansas has had over the last decade.
The Hogs could end up moving Otha Peters, who was listed behind Ellis. The sophomore is simply too talented to be a backup and a broken arm derailed much of his season before the opener.
Other young guys that really came on during the season included freshman offensive tackle Dan Skipper, sophomore receiver Keon Hatcher and sophomore defensive tackle DeMarcus Hodge.
At 6'10" and 305 pounds, Skipper is a mammoth of a man and the coaching from O-line coach Sam Pittman quickly lifted him into a starting role. Skipper is a future All-SEC lineman and has huge potential. Hatcher showed he's the leader to be the go-to receiver in 2014 by finishing the last four games with 221 yards after just 125 in the previous eight. Hodge is under the radar because he's behind Philon, but nonetheless, he's shown some glimpses of being a very solid player.
It's hard to be optimistic about the future after a year like the Hogs had in 2013. But when you look past all the negative publicity and the overall record, there is a lot to be excited about. Bielema has a very solid group to build this program around in the coming years.
It's going to be up to the players, though, to make sure that foundation doesn't crumble.
For more information on the Arkansas Razorbacks, follow Bryan Heater on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.
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