The Arkansas Razorbacks head into this upcoming season with two critical questions to answer on offense:
1. Can Ryan Mallet shake off the gameday cobwebs and finally live up to the hype that has surrounded him since transferring to Arkansas from Michigan in 2007 and sitting out the 2008 season, as required by the NCAA?
2. Can Coach Petrino and company develop a core nucleus of running backs to take the pressure (and punishment) off an ailing Michael Smith, or at least enough to keep him healthy and productive after coming off a serious hamstring injury in 2008?
Hopefully these questions can be answered during spring practice, which kicked off for the Razorbacks on Tuesday.
Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino sounded very optimistic after the second day of practice speaking to the media inside the recently expanded Donald W. Reynolds Razorback stadium.
“There are a lot of bright spots and definitely the guys understand the offense a little better, so it is letting us put some more in,” said Petrino. “I think [Ryan] Mallett has had a good first two days, and has done some nice things. Jarius [Wright] made some big plays out there today, and I saw Joe Adams moved around and caught the ball."
Mallett (6-7", 248 lbs.) will be competing for the starting QB job against redshirt freshman Tyler Wilson (6-2", 202 lbs.) and true freshman Jim Youngblood (6-2", 202 lbs.).
Wilson was used sparingly in 2008, but was granted a redshirt after battling mononucleosis for much of last season, and will be looking to take advantage of the knowledge he has of the offense to give him an edge in the spring drills.
Youngblood passed for 2,022 yards and 22 touchdowns, and added an additional 820 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, earning All-State and All-Conference honors for his efforts as a junior for Camden Fairview.
He was considered by many in Major League Baseball scouting circles as a promising draft prospect, but ultimately decided to become a football Razorback after coach Bobby Petrino worked his recruiting magic on the would-be slugger.
Michael Smith, the leading rusher from last year, has been held out of spring practice due to a hamstring injury, so there should be plenty of opportunity for faces new and old alike to emerge and show why Arkansas has one of the most prolific running games in the SEC over the past few seasons.
“You see the depth at running back, which is real exciting,” said Petrino. “You see them on film from yesterday’s practice and today. They know there are more guys so they are all competing against each other and that makes them work harder. That is really our ultimate goal at all positions. When you get enough talent and enough competition that they all know you really don’t have to say a word to them. You can pull a guy out and put the next guy in that is when you know you are where you want to be.”
Two running backs in particular to look out for are sophomore Dennis Johnson (5'7", 200 lbs.) and senior Brandon Barnett (5'7", 209 lbs.).
On defense, the Razorbacks return nine starters, including the front seven.
A more important stat for the Hogs, however, might be the fact that all ten of the top tacklers statistically are back this year.
“I think defensively when you are not in pads it is all about communication, aligning and playing fast,” said Petrino. “I thought we did a good job with the linebackers getting us lined up."
"We are way ahead of where we were last year defensively, and we should be because all those guys back had a lot of reps and played a bunch. The secondary gave up some deep balls, but they were without a pass rush so sometimes that happens.”
In my opinion, the defense will hinge on two players this year—senior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard (6-2" 280 lbs.) and sophomore linebacker Jerry Franklin (6-1" 237 lbs.).
This defensive duo racked up 132 tackles and seven sacks combined in 2008, and I look for much of the same this season. Both are defensive generals that possess great balance and solid fundamentals. Both also seem to have an uncanny sense of where the ball is going on each and every play.
The secondary for the Hogs, however, is still lacking the all important seasoning factor.
Junior Isaac Madison (5'10”, 181 lbs.) is the only returning starter at cornerback, but watch out for senior Matt Harris (6'2”, 192 lbs.) and sophomore Jerico Nelson (5'9”, 197 lbs.) as these two players are primed to make an impact at the free safety and strong safety positions respectively.
Harris logged 52 tackles and an interception for the Hogs in 2008, while Nelson recorded 38 tackles and three sacks.
If the supporting cast can step up their play and compliment Sheppard and Franklin in the front seven, this could develop into an exciting and effective smash-mouth style defense for the Razorbacks, even if they aren't being hyped up in the national media.
Fortunately for the Razorbacks, they have never been bothered by flying undetected under the radar.
So, as long as they are flying around the ball and silently wreaking havoc on enemy offenses in 2009, then here’s to being overlooked and underrated.