Great football teams are excellent at every facet of the game. This spring, the Hogs set out to improve an area that has been lacking for yearspunt returning.
Arkansas was eighth in the SEC last year, averaging only 8.4 yards per return on punts.They were 63rd in the country. The problems with punt returning go all the way back to the Houston Nutt era. There hasn't been a dynamic punt returner on campus for some time.
A skilled punt returner can completely change the momentum of a football game and electrify the fans. However, the standard of excellence for the last couple of years has been not dropping punts. Arkansas has been so shaky at the position that a fair catch and a chance to keep possession is viewed as a success.
This spring the Hogs will be auditioning six different players for the position. Also, this spring will feature live tackling punt return drills, something that is unusual for spring practice anywhere.
Wide receivers Joe Adams, Lance Ray, and Cobi Hamilton get their chance along with running backs Ronnie Wingo, Knile Davis, and Dennis Johnson.
Lance Ray has impressed early with his punt returning skills. Ray graded out highly on his 40 time and is one of the fastest players on the team, running a blazing 4.35 (second fastest on the team). Coaches are also impressed by his sure hands.
Punt returning might be a great way for Ray to see the field on a regular basis, since the Hogs are loaded at the wide receiver.
Joe Adams has had a rougher time in practice fielding punts. Adams was a punt returner in high school at Central Arkansas Christian and was excellent at the position. In the first day of practice Adams let a couple of punts hit the turf however, which must have enraged Coach Petrino and John L. Smith.
Dennis Johnson has proved to be one of the most, if not the most, exciting kick returners in the SEC (especially since LSU's Trindan Holliday has completed his eligibility). I personally would like to see Johnson focusing on his RB and kickoff returning duties, but if he is the most reliable person at the job I'll put my personal feelings on the back burner.
If the Hogs can improve on their average from last year, it might make an already dangerous team even more dangerous.
Hog fans will settle for a reliable option at punt returner. The defense will once again have their work cut out for them. With the offense's ability to score points quickly, the defense's time to rest will be important. A muffed punt putting the defense right back on the field might prove costly to a defense that is still developing depth.
Hopefully, one of these six players will be able to flourish in their new opportunity to change a game.