Entering Bobby Petrino's second season as Arkansas head coach, many expect the Hogs to be the surprise team in the entire SEC. With a year for the team to adjust to Petrino, the Hogs are anxious for the 2009 season to get started, none more than senior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard.
Sheppard is the clear leader of a Razorback defense that was very suspect last season and will have to improve for a run at an eight-win or better season.
"We're, as a team, anxious about getting started, on improving what was done last year," Sheppard said Wednesday. "Our team chemistry is much better. There are things we worked on in the offseason that will work. Guys are faster, stronger. We're definitely a more physical team, guys are getting bigger and faster."
In the SEC, being bigger and faster is a necessity to improve on a defense that gave up more than 370 total yards per game in 2008.
The bar is extremely high in the SEC and Sheppard knows it.
"It's tough because you have to have your mindset right every week. Every week, you're in a battle," he said. "Our defense knows if they don't put pressure on the quarterbacks that they can pick us apart, so we're definitely working on that, and it starts with run stop so that we're prepared for the pass."
One of the toughest things to do for a team is adjust to a new head coach, especially a coach like Petrino who is a very demanding coach who expects everything to be done a certain way or it will be done over again.
Not to mention new offensive and defensive systems that you better not be learning on the fly in the SEC or you will have a season to forget.
"It was an adjustment. The whole system was different," Sheppard said. "From academics to practice. I think we're used to it by midseason, and it's been just getting used to it after that."
For the Razorbacks to get back to Atlanta, though, it will take more than improvement on defense. What most SEC teams are lacking right now is what Arkansas is hoping to showcase in 2009, and that's a primetime quarterback in Ryan Mallett.
Mallett was a transfer from Michigan who had to sit out last season, but is ready to go this year after dropping almost 30 pounds and walking around now at a solid 238 pounds.
"He definitely brings a lot to the team," Sheppard said about Mallett. "He's a great quarterback with a strong arm. He's a great leader in the weight room as well."
So with many media people and fans picking the Hogs to be the potential breakout team in 2009, how does Sheppard see his team's expectations and how close are they from winning the SEC?
"I've been here since 2006, and we've beaten all those teams (in the SEC West) so we're definitely capable this year. We try not to pay attention to preseason polls. You can't get caught up in that. We're just preparing to be the best team in the SEC West."
So count Sheppard among those who believe the Hogs do have what it takes to win the conference not just in the future, but right now. It won't be long until we all find out just how good the Hogs will be in Petrino's second season, but if Sheppard has anything to say about it, the SEC West race favorites will have company in Arkansas.