Donald W Reynolds Razorback Stadium
When Bobby Petrino’s Arkansas Razorbacks walk off the field following their nationally televised Spring Game on April 16th, they aim to be more optimistic about the 2011 season than they have any other.
The Hogs entered this offseason after winning six of their last seven games—the only loss coming on a nail-biter to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. (Side note: if you’re a jewelry collector, search eBay for “Buckeye Sugar Bowl rings.” I hear their players have built nice seller reputations.)
As most teams in college football can expect, key positions must be replaced if Arkansas wants to set its sights on consecutive BCS bowl bids. Most notably, the Razorbacks lose three starters on the offensive line, the Mackey Award winner for nation’s best tight end in D.J. Williams, three defensive starters and, of course, the SEC’s leading passer from a year ago, quarterback Ryan Mallett.
Though refilling these shoes will clearly be on the minds of Coach Petrino and his staff, fans in the state of Arkansas see the big picture, and that picture remains flooded with talent.
Despite the buzz surrounding Fayetteville, the holes vacated must still be filled and enhancements must continue to be made on both sides of the ball. The defense improved from 89th nationally in 2009 to a respectable 36th in 2010, while the offense returns a 1,300-yard tailback in Knile Davis and four receivers who each amassed at least 600 yards and five touchdowns last season.
But with every new day comes an opportunity for improvement, and what better time than spring to see who’s ready to step up? In the spirit of inquiry, here are some looming questions the Hogs look to answer before heading into the grind of summer.
S Tramain Thomas
While “mature” might be the wrong word if it’s assumed I mean physically (they could all steal my lunch money, with or without me resisting), the past several years have seen their fair share of lapses in Arkansas’ defensive backfield.
If these young men, now a year older and still mostly intact as a unit, can forget the past and move forward, chunk yardage plays for opponents’ passing games might seem like distant memories. Learning to prevent the deep ball, running with SEC receivers in space and getting their heads around when the ball is in the air wouldn’t hurt either.
After losing both tackles and one guard to a lifetime of creating a wake in swimming pools, Arkansas welcomes some new faces up front this spring.
Early enrollee Brey Cook (who should technically be taking the head cheerleader to prom this month) stepped onto campus and immediately found himself battling for one of the starting tackle spots. At 6’7", 317 pounds, he sure looks the part. Also competing are 6’8” sophomore Anthony Oden (Greg’s younger brother), senior Grant Freeman and junior transfer Jason Peacock. No matter who fills these spots, the question remains over how early this unit will mesh—it waited until game seven last year.
Because spring camp is all about competition, junior quarterback Tyler Wilson is in the midst of a preseason “battle” with highly regarded dual-threat sophomore Brandon Mitchell.
Most expect Wilson to win the job based on his stellar performance filling in for Mallett at Auburn last year and his experience in Petrino’s complex offense. Beyond those assets, his practice performances show a routinely consistent, mobile, intelligent, accurate quarterback.
But can Tyler—once known for his timid presence—take control of the huddle, step into a leadership role, and become the point guard of this high-powered offense? The ball is in his capable hands this spring.
WR/PR Joe Adams
Zach Hocker won the starting place kicker job last summer as a true freshman and went 16-19 on field goals with a long of 51.
At punter, Dylan Breeding closed a solid year with a magnificent Sugar Bowl performance, having four punts downed inside the opponent’s 20.
Arkansas also led the SEC in punt return average at 15.5 yards per return.
So wait, where’s the liability? Well, we can’t forget they were last in the SEC in kickoff returns and kick coverage. In a game of precious inches, they must address the field position issue by finding the right guys to be on the field for these units (and pray they don’t get injured).
D.J. Williams finished his career as the second leading pass-catcher in school history
Though not a household name around the country, D.J. Williams was Fayetteville’s gem.
His impact on the community might never be matched, but his on-the-field role will be assumed this season by junior tight end Chris Gragg.
Gragg has good-enough size (6’3", 240), great speed (sub-4.4 in last month’s testing) and the hands to get the job done, but questions still remain as to what his impact will be this fall. Will he be able to block from different positions along the line, in the slot and from the backfield? Will he be able to read defenses and settle into underneath zones? Will he make the tough catch in traffic? For his sake, I would suggest a few springtime film sessions studying the last three years of Razorback offense.
Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor ran for 115 yards against the Hogs in the Sugar Bowl
As soon as opposing quarterbacks entered scramble mode last season, Arkansas crowds were overcome with a sea of gasps and murmured expletives in fear of what might soon happen. Against the four most successful dual-threat quarterbacks the Hogs faced last year, the team gave up an average of 250.5 rushing yards per game, including 330 yards in a loss to Cam Newton and Auburn.
Even though a few of those defense shredders have moved on, some remain, and Arkansas’ defense might want to take a snap or two against one of their athletic backup quarterbacks this spring to prepare.
MLB Jerry Franklin had 100 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2010
While a classified advertisement might be a little overstated, the Razorbacks’ linebacking corps is noticeably thin this spring and in need of some extra bodies.
That being said, the first unit looks solid and ready to accumulate as many helmet gauges as they can. But who fills in for Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Terrell Williams when they need a breather? As of now, it looks like they’ll be a well-conditioned crew, no matter what—coaches are providing plenty of reps already.
Since Coach Petrino’s arrival, fans have been waiting to see a swarming defense to match the excitement of his electrifying offense. There have been glimpses, but nothing consistently dominant to speak of.
This spring, a veteran group on defense has shown up with a purpose: Be as nasty as you can be, and attack the ball and its carrier. While this may not be the best way to make friends in the real world, it’s working on the field. Let’s see if they can carry that tone through the offseason and into the fall.
RB Knile Davis
Plenty of guys are leading by example. That’s how talent works.
But who will be the guy on each side of the ball to step up and be a vocal leader as well? Will it be the quarterback, Tyler Wilson? Or maybe Knile Davis, the SEC’s leading returning rusher? On defense, isn’t it time senior defensive end Jake Bequette takes on that role?
Whomever it may be, the veterans in their fourth year under Petrino’s system will be vital to this year’s success—and probably accustomed to some intense “constructive criticism.” Right now would be an ideal time for a few of those guys to adopt leadership positions.
In 2010, the Hogs went 10-3 and received their first-ever BCS bowl bid. Since the BCS’s inception, college football has seen several teams reach that level of success, then hit a wall and crumble in the years following.
This Arkansas team needs to discover the belief within their own locker room that they are not one of those teams. They need to be convinced that their success has not reached a plateau, and there are higher mountains they are capable of climbing. After all, they are in the SEC—if they can avoid the early mishaps from last season and finish strong like they’ve been known to do, a trip to Atlanta and a return to New Orleans are not unlikely.
As cheesy as it sounds, the 2011 Arkansas Razorbacks must instill a sense of confidence in their coaches, and more importantly, in each other. It all begins this spring.