2021 NCAA Top 25 Preview: No. 14 Arkansas
Last year: 11-5
Final ranking: No. 14
Coach (record at school): Dave Van Horn (700-389, 18 years)
The good news: Arkansas has a ton of high-end pitching talent at its disposal. For evidence, look no further than the fact that righthander Connor Noland and lefthander Patrick Wicklander are the two most experienced starters on the roster, but they’re not just being penciled into the Friday and Saturday spots by default. They face competition in the rotation from fourth-year sophomore righthander Caleb Bolden, who shined in the fall, and fourth-year junior righthander Zebulon Vermillion, who mixes a fastball up to 95 mph with a high-80s slider. The quality depth continues from there and includes third-year sophomore righthander Elijah Trest and second-year freshman righthander Peyton Pallette, who will both be key relievers with fastballs up to 97 mph. Then there’s graduate transfer lefthander Lael Lockhart, who has experience starting on Fridays at Houston. To top it off, the Hogs also boast a group of freshmen pitchers with mid-90s fastballs, and don’t forget veteran righthanders Kole Ramage and Kevin Kopps, who have been around the block a time or two at Arkansas. It will be a challenge for the coaching staff to find consistent innings for everyone.
The bad news: Outside of third-year sophomore center fielder Christian Franklin, who projects to be one of the most dynamic players in the SEC and a potential first-round pick, there is relatively little established star power in place. In the lineup, the departures of outfielder Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin will be felt deeply. Franklin will do the heavy lifting, but the Razorbacks will also need others, perhaps second-year freshman second baseman Robert Moore, fifth-year junior left fielder Braydon Webb, both of whom were off to fast starts in 2020, or slugging junior college transfer first baseman Brady Slavens, to offer support. It’s a similar story on the mound, where Arkansas is looking for a workhorse in the rotation to give the team what Isaiah Campbell gave it in 2019. Noland and Wicklander both have experience, with Wicklander also possessing plenty of stuff and prospect buzz, but neither has announced himself as that type of ace. Simply put, Arkansas goes into 2021 very much looking for its next crop of program-defining stars.
Player to know: Christian Franklin, OF.
Overshadowed by Kjerstad and Martin in the lineup, Franklin has been productive the last two seasons in his own right. In 75 career games, he’s a .301/.389/.470 hitter, and last year, he did an excellent job sliding over into center field after the departure of Dominic Fletcher. He’ll enter this coming season as the clear focal point of the Arkansas lineup, but he looks ready for the challenge. He has more than enough arm and speed to continue to handle center field ably, and that speed combined with strength at the plate makes him a unique threat as someone who can hit the ball out of the ballpark and swipe bases. The next step for him is to cut down on his strikeouts, and if he can do that, he has SEC player of the year potential.
Path to Omaha: Arkansas has a couple of plausible paths to Omaha. There is enough raw talent in the projected lineup that you could see several players stepping up to support veterans Franklin, fourth-year junior DH Matt Goodheart and fourth-year junior catcher Casey Opitz in hitting their way to the College World Series. But also, the talent level on the mound is extremely high, and if those roles solidify as the season goes on, it’s not difficult to see Arkansas pushing a pitching-centric team to Omaha. But if neither of those developments quite take hold and Arkansas is left with an inconsistent and top-heavy lineup supporting a pitching staff without workhorses on the front end, it may not be enough to get there.
Casey Opitz Has No Regrets About Returning To Arkansas For Senior Season
The No. 185 draft prospect opted to return to school for his senior season, to the best baseball environment he's experienced.
|C||Casey Opitz, R-Jr.||.302||.561||.509||53||1||11|
|1B||Brady Slavens, R-So.||Transfer -- Johnson County (Kan.) JC|
|2B||Robert Moore, R-Fr.||.317||.403||.444||63||2||17|
|3B||Jacob Nesbit, R-So.||.259||.348||.397||58||1||9|
|SS||Jalen Battles, R-So.||Transfer -- McLennan (Texas) JC|
|LF||Braydon Webb, R-Jr.||.340||.452||.400||50||1||6|
|CF||Christian Franklin, R-So.||.381||.467||.619||63||3||11|
|RF||Cayden Wallace, Fr.||HS -- Greenbrier, Ark.|
|DH||Matt Goodheart, R-Jr.||.302||.400||.492||63||3||18|
|RHP||Caleb Bolden, R-So.||1||0||1.12||16||15||0|
|LHP||Patrick Wicklander, R-So.||2||2||6.32||16||17||0|
|RHP||Connor Noland, R-So.||2||0||2.00||18||19||0|
|RP||Elijah Trest, R-So.||0||0||1.93||9||10||0|
|RP||Zebulon Vermillion, R-Jr.||1||0||0.00||7||12||1|