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2020 NCAA Top 25 Preview: No. 11 Arkansas



Last season: 46-20 (20-10 in SEC); reached College World Series.
Final ranking: No. 8.
Coach (record at school): Dave Van Horn (689-384, 17 years).

Top 100 draft prospects: SS Casey Martin (No. 13), OF Heston Kjerstad (No. 35), C Casey Opitz.

The good news: With Martin and Kjerstad back, Arkansas has a pair of superstars at the heart of its order. They are the best pair of position players in the country and give the Razorbacks plenty of firepower to build around. Arkansas also returns Matt Goodheart, its leading hitter last year, and Opitz, who is known more for his glove, but may be able to take a step forward offensively as a junior. The Razorbacks also added Robert Moore, the son of Royals general manager Dayton Moore, at the break, after he graduated high school a semester early. He was considered a potential top-three round pick this June but will instead man second base for the Razorbacks. On the mound, Arkansas returns righthander Connor Noland, who has been solely focused on baseball for the first time after this year quitting football, and lefthander Patrick Wicklander. That gives it a pair of experienced starters to go with powerful reliever Zeb Vermillion.

The bad news: While Arkansas returns some superstars, it loses others. It has to replace All-Americans in its rotation (Isaiah Campbell) and bullpen (Matt Cronin). The lineup is missing do-everything center fielder Dominic Fletcher and second baseman Trevor Ezell, the team’s second-leading hitter. Offensively, the Razorbacks have the pieces to fill the gaps, especially with Kjerstad and Martin ready to shoulder a significant load. In addition to Moore, junior college transfer Braydon Webb should be ready to step right into the lineup and Christian Franklin, coming off a solid freshman season, will slide over to center. The pitching staff’s answers aren’t as certain, however. Arkansas for three years has had an elite Friday starter in Blaine Knight (2017-18) and Campbell (2019). Between Noland and Wicklander, the Razorbacks may have that again, but neither have the pedigree Campbell did last year when he moved to the front of the rotation. Cronin was one of the best relievers in the country over the last two years and saved 26 games. Vermillion has the stuff to take over as closer, but the Razorbacks will need him and a couple other relievers to step up to keep the bullpen an area of strength.

Player to know: Casey Opitz, C.

While he hasn’t produced the gaudy offensive numbers his classmates Kjerstad and Martin have, Opitz has also established himself as a crucial part of the Razorbacks’ lineup. He is known for his defense and stands out both for his receiving and plus arm strength, which shuts down opponents’ running games. That alone is a significant asset for the Razorbacks and if he has another level to get to offensively as a junior, he’ll shoot up draft boards this spring.

Path to Omaha: After back-to-back trips to the CWS and a powerful offense returning, expectations are high in Fayetteville. To return to Omaha, Arkansas will need to find replacements for Campbell and Cronin. It certainly has the talent to do so, and a full year with pitching coach Matt Hobbs, who last year was hired in November after Wes Johnson left to take the same job with the Twins, will benefit the whole staff. If the Razorbacks find those solutions, they’ll be right back in contention at the top of the SEC and for the CWS.

Nick Gonzales Billmitchell

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LINEUP
POSName, YearAVGOBPSLGHRRBIAB
CCasey Opitz, Jr..243.379.311333177
1BJacob Nesbit, So..255.333.344342212
2BRobert Moore, Fr.HS -- Overland Park, Kan.
3BCole Austin, Sr.Transfer -- Arizona State
SSCasey Martin, Jr..286.364.5481557283
LFBraydon Webb, Jr.Transfer -- Grayson (Texas) JC
CFChristian Franklin, So..274.361.413635201
RFHeston Kjerstad, Jr..327.400.5751751266
DHMatt Goodheart, Jr..345.444.517547203
PITCHING
POSName, YearWLERAIPSOSV
RHPConnor Noland, So.354.0278550
LHPPatrick Wicklander, So.624.3267900
RHPKevin Kopps, Sr.633.8942520
RPCaden Monke, So.0018.00350
RPZeb Vermillion, Jr.413.6322211
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