September 01, 2015

(AP) - Although No. 18 Arkansas lost four top defensive players to the NFL, coach Bret Bielema still thinks the unit can pick up where it left off last season.

The expectations remain the same for Bielema heading into Saturday's opener against UTEP.

''I think it's a defense that's built on a system, not a name,'' he said. ''It's the sum of 11 parts.''

Leading the way for Arkansas' resurgence in 2014 was a defense that was ranked 10th-best in the country at 323.4 yards per game, second in the SEC behind LSU. It improved dramatically during the season, earning shutouts of LSU and Mississippi in two of its final three regular-season games and then holding Texas to 59 total yards in a 31-7 win in the Texas Bowl.

The Razorbacks, who finished 7-6 a year ago, begin this season with similar defensive hopes under second-year coordinator Robb Smith, though they lost defensive stalwarts Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight and Tevin Mitchel to the NFL.

Bielema's continued confidence is fueled by the presence of Smith at the top as well as the added depth and experience that comes with having three of his recruiting classes on campus.

And that depth starts on the defensive line, where Bielema said the Razorbacks have more talent than at any other time in his three seasons.

Among those options, only two of Arkansas' top defensive linemen - DeMarcus Hodge and Mitchell Loewen - are seniors. The rest are either juniors or underclassmen, including freshman Hjalte Froholdt, and all are eager to show they can follow in the footsteps of Flowers and Philon.

''The guys that played behind those guys learned so much from them that even though those guys left, we aren't going to miss a beat,'' junior defensive end Deatrich Wise said. ''That sense of proving people wrong is going to be a big thing with us.''

Regardless of who takes over, the Razorbacks believe they won't have a letdown following last season - when they ended a school-worst 17-game SEC losing streak.

''We always said 'We want to taste that first win,' and once we did, we realized what we were capable of and what we had to do to get it,'' sophomore defensive end Tevin Beanum said. ''Now that we realize it's well within our grasp to accomplish that, I think we're just steamrolling now.''

To complete its return from bottom feeder to the upper echelon of the SEC, Arkansas' offense must develop some playmakers at wide receiver for quarterback Brandon Allen. First-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos believes that group has made huge strides.

''The first part of spring, I've got to be perfectly honest, I thought, 'We've got some work to do here,''' Enos said. ''You look ahead to now ... That area is trending toward becoming an area of strength for us, hopefully in the near future.''

That future needs to be sooner rather than later for the Razorbacks, who learned in late August they'll be without Jonathan Williams - who rushed for a team-best 1,190 yards last year - for the entire regular season with a left foot injury.

Even without Williams, the ground game figures to still be Arkansas' bread-and-butter with Alex Collins, who rushed for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago, running behind an offensive line that is touted as one of the top in the SEC. But if the Razorbacks ever needed additional playmakers to make their case as reliable options through the air, now is the time.

Senior wideout Keon Hatcher led Arkansas with 43 catches last season, and he's earned the consistent praise of Bielema throughout the preseason. However, no other wide receiver had more than 18 catches last season for the Razorbacks.

"I do see the improvement,'' said Allen, who threw 20 touchdowns and five interception last season. ''They've done a lot from this time last year until this year. It's a night and day difference.''

UTEP is picked to finish third in Conference USA's West Division after going 7-6 and losing to Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl.

The Miners are led by running back Aaron Jones, who finished fourth in the league last season with 1,321 rushing yards.

"We are going to ride Aaron Jones," UTEP coach Sean Kugler said. "He is going to catch the ball out of the backfield. He may line up in the slot. There's no question that he's our top playmaker. He'll be the focus of every defense that we play."

Arkansas is 2-0 in the all-time series, winning 58-21 in the last meeting in 2010.

The Miners are 1-8 against SEC teams and have lost 28 straight road games against ranked opponents since beating Arizona State in 1974.

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