Allen's experience key to Arkansas' hopes as season begins

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Brandon Allen and Bret Bielema's careers have been closely linked since the moment Bielema was hired at Arkansas following the 2012 season.

And that just fine with Allen, the fifth-year quarterback who thanks his coach for turning around what was a nightmarish experience in Fayetteville.

Despite the turmoil following the Bobby Petrino scandal and eventual firing, Allen hopes to complete the program's dramatic turnaround in his third year as the starter - beginning when No. 18 Arkansas opens its season against UTEP on Saturday.

Allen has started 24 of 25 games for the Razorbacks since Bielema's hiring, missing one because of injury. During that time, Arkansas has finished at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference West twice - though a strong finish to last season has the Razorbacks believing their fortunes have finally turned.

While Allen is focused on ending his collegiate career in much the same way it started - an 11-2 season in 2011 - he knows Bielema is responsible for the turnaround following a combined seven wins during the 2012-13 seasons. And he's ever thankful for the former Wisconsin coach's arrival.

''I'm glad he's here, I'm glad I've had this time with him,'' Allen said. ''The development that, not only me, but our whole team has undergone with him here is something that I think everyone's thankful for.''

Arkansas finished last season 7-6, with three dominant wins in its last four games - including shutouts of LSU and Mississippi and holding Texas to only 59 yards of total offense in a Texas Bowl win to end the season.

The Razorbacks face 10 teams this season that made bowl games a year ago, including the Conference USA Miners. UTEP finished 7-6 last season, losing to Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl. Coach Sean Kugler is well aware of the challenge of opening on the road against an SEC team with a three-year starter at quarterback.

''If you really look at their body of work over the last four or five games, I don't think there was a hotter team in the country, maybe with the exception of Ohio State,'' Kugler said.

For his part, Bielema has embraced Arkansas' lofty expectations this season of rejoining the SEC's elite. Part of the reason for that is a talented roster restocked with three years of his recruiting classes, while having Allen under center also plays a large role. He threw for 20 touchdowns and five interceptions last season.

''I would say that's why a lot of people feel good about us from the outside world,'' Bielema said. ''I just think anytime you have a fifth-year quarterback that's a multi-year starter, there's a certain comfort level with what he's seen, what's he's done.''

Some things to watch as Arkansas looks to carry over its momentum from last season against UTEP:

BACKFIELD SHUFFLE: The Razorbacks suffered a setback during the preseason when last season's leading rusher, Jonathan Williams, was lost for the regular season with a left foot injury. Two-time 1,000-yard running back Alex Collins is expected to pick up part of Williams' workload, while freshman Rawleigh Williams and junior Kody Walker are also expected to see action.

LEFTWICH'S START: After a close competition with Garrett Simpson throughout the spring and preseason, Kugler said this week sophomore QB Mack Leftwich will start against Arkansas. Leftwich started four games as a freshman in 2013 before redshirting last year, and he's 44-of-75 passing (58.7 percent) in his career with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions.

LINEBACKER SHUFFLE: Arkansas ended last season with the 10th-best defense in the country, allowing 323.4 yards per game. This season, junior Brooks Ellis moves from middle linebacker to the weak side - replacing All-SEC Martrell Spaight's SEC-leading 128 tackles - while junior Josh Williams and sophomore Khalia Hackett are also expected to see extended action at linebacker.

PRODUCTIVE JONES: Junior running back Aaron Jones has led UTEP in rushing in each of his first two seasons, including 1,321 yards last season. He's rushed for 100 yards or more nine times in his career, but he had 62 yards on 22 carries against Texas A&M in 2103 - the only other time he's faced an SEC opponent.

MISSING PIECE: Bielema said Arkansas will be without freshman wide receiver Jojo Robinson for the first half because of a suspension. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Robinson redshirted last season, but he has shown the ability to make defenders miss in the open field in scrimmages.

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