September 08, 2015

(AP) - Arkansas didn't get off to the dominating defensive start it hoped for, but the potential is there to be as good if not better than last year's group that finished 10th in the nation in total defense.

The 18th-ranked Razorbacks gained some needed experience last week but have plenty to improve on before Saturday's matchup with a Toledo team expected to contend for the Mid-American Conference title.

Arkansas lost four of its top defensive players to the NFL following last season, a year they ended with a pair of shutouts over LSU and Mississippi and by holding Texas to 59 total yards in three of its final four games.

The transition from that dominating unit to this season's new group of players appeared to be a smooth one, as the Razorbacks held UTEP to 204 total yards and recorded 11 tackles for loss in last Saturday's 48-13 win.

''We came out trying to prove to everybody that we're a different defense,'' linebacker Brooks Ellis said. ''We're still going to be a great defense, even though we lost a lot of great guys.''

Ellis was involved in one of Arkansas' biggest position switches in the offseason, moving from middle to outside linebacker while replacing last year's SEC-leading tackler Martrell Spaight. The junior finished with seven tackles, including one for a loss, in his first start on the outside, while junior Josh Williams also had seven tackles at Ellis' old spot in the middle.

Despite the comfortable early win, coach Bret Bielema said the Razorbacks still needed to improve their tackling before facing Toledo.

Arkansas, however, doesn't have to worry about facing Kareem Hunt, who led the MAC last season with 1,631 rushing yards and an average of 8.0 per attempt. The junior running back was suspended for the season's first two games for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Toledo's season opener against Stony Brook last Thursday was canceled due to severe weather. The weather delays totaled three hours and the game was called off after midnight with the Rockets leading 16-7 after two quarters. The game will not be made up and no stats from the incomplete game count.

Damion Jones-Moore, who rushed for 471 yards last season, ran for 70 yards on five attempts before play was called.

The Rockets have lost seven of eight non-conference games against ranked opponents and this will be their first meeting with the Razorbacks.

"I happen to believe this Arkansas team is one of the best teams in the country in college football right now," coach Matt Campbell said. "They got a great offense, extremely explosive and really talented quarterback."

Brandon Allen threw for a career-high 308 yards against UTEP, though Bielema isn't quite ready to call the Razorbacks a passing powerhouse.

Allen did most of his work in the first half, finishing 14-of-18 passing against a UTEP defense geared toward stopping a rushing attack that produced a pair of 1,000-yard running backs last season.

''I do think we have better offensive personnel than we've had that can lead to explosive plays,'' Bielema said. ''We have some explosive players with some speed that I think can create big-play opportunities.''

The Razorbacks rushed for more yards than they passed for in each of Bielema's first two seasons, including last year when they averaged 218 yards on the ground and 188 through the air. Part of that was due to the production of running back Jonathan Williams, who was likely lost for this season with a foot injury last month.

Even without Williams, junior Alex Collins had 127 yards on only 12 carries in the season opener - leading a ground game that finished with 182 yards overall for first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos.

''We're trying to be an offense that makes people defend the entire field,'' Enos said. ''We want to help our team win either running the ball or throwing the ball on any given day.''

Allen had plenty of help through the air against UTEP, particularly in the form of big plays. The senior matched his career high with four touchdown passes, including a pair to Keon Hatcher, a 58-yarder to sophomore Jared Cornelius and a 26-yard strike to Drew Morgan to open the game.

Also, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle combined for four catches for 102 yards - with Sprinkle turning a short pass into a 42-yard burst in the first half.

The offensive options were enough to excite Allen, who extended his number of attempts without an interception to 108, but don't expect the third-year starter to embrace the notion of Arkansas as a passing-first school anytime soon.

''I personally think we're a balanced offense,'' Allen said. ''We can run and we can pass. When one's working, we'll go with that. When one's not working, we can go to the other one. Being a balanced offense is what it takes to win.''

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