During the Arkansas Razorbacks 5-7 2008 campaign, it seemed as if everyone but Joe "the plumber" was used at the linebacker position on the Hogs' 12th rated defense. Not 12th in the nation...12th in the SEC.
Therein lies the biggest problem that Bobby Petrino and the defensive coordinator, Willy Robinson, must get fixed for the Hogs to have a better season in 2009.
Not that the defense was the only thing that must be fixed. If you wrote down all the areas of a football team and threw darts at a dartboard, you would have hit a problem area, in fact.
The special teams were anything but special, with the exception of a game-winning kickoff return against Tulsa—knocking the Golden Hurricane out of the Top 25.
The offense? In spite of ranking a respectable fourth in total offense in the SEC, the Hogs ranked near dead last in the nation in sacks allowed last season.
Boss Hog Bobby Petrino attributed many of the sacks not just to the offensive line, but to receivers running the wrong routes—and especially to the inability of quarterback Casey Dick to get rid of the ball in a timely manner.
Regardless of what unit was responsible, that number must significantly decrease for the Hogs to reach a bowl in 2009. I believe it will.
In an era in which staff shakeups after a losing season are the rule rather than the exception, Petrino elected to go against the grain and keep the staff intact.
Then, in what has become an annual ritual, Steve Spurrier raided the Arkansas staff shortly before national signing day, naming the Hogs' secondary coach, Lorenzo Ward, as his defensive coordinator.
Everyone knows Darth Visor changes defensive coaches like most change underwear. Most observors suspect that veteran defensive coach Ellis Johnson will really be running the Gamecocks' "D", but Ward was offered the title and a raise, so Ward will increase his chances of moving up in the coaching ranks.
John L. Smith, Petrino's mentor and former head man at Utah State, Louisville, and Michigan State, was out of football, and has a reputation as a special teams guru, so he was brought in to fill the vacancy with the responsibilities of some other staff members being shuffled around.
Therefore, with so many areas in need of repair, Petrino reached into his Kobalt tool box (you didn't think he would use tools from Home Depot, founded by Arthur Blank, did you?) and instead of finding duct tape and paper clips like last year, actually has something to work with.
80's Handyman MacGyver couldn't have done anything with what Petrino had at his disposal in 2008. Mostly freshmen receivers, an indecisive QB with average talent at best, one undersized back and the rest freshmen, 270 lb defensive tackles, and a crew of linebackers whose lack of size was only exceeded by their lack of experience.
Then, there was a lack of speed and experience in the secondary—with one safety, no longer in the program, who could have taken tips from after Thanksgiving Day shoppers at Wal-Mart when it came to tackling.
Among the tools at Petrino's disposal in 2009 are a Mallett and a sledge hammer. The Mallett is not of the variety that former astronaut Lisa Nowak used to stalk her romantic rival a while back, but rather huge quarterback Ryan Mallett—a transfer from Michigan by way of Texarkana, TX.
Mallett was the No. 2 rated QB coming out of high school in 2007, and has the strongest arm of any Arkansas QB since Joe Ferguson. To give you some idea how long it's been, Ferguson used to handoff to some guy in the NFL named Simpson back in the Nixon administration days.
The hammer is USC transfer Broderick Green, a 248 lb Little Rock native who didn't even consider the Hogs under the former coach. Even though Green was lost in a glut of Trojan runners, in the one game in which he saw extended action, the former Parade All-American gained over 160 yards and scored three TDs.
If one failure epitomized UA football in 2008, it was consistently getting stuffed on the goal line and short yardage situations. The failure to get a yard or two in those situations was worsened by terrible field goal kicking. Thus Petrino gambled more often, not having confidence in the kickers.
Nearly all of the shortfalls from 2008 were addressed in recruiting, transfers, or with the offseason emphasis of adding muscle and bulk in the lines and at linebacker. Instead of Sam Houston State, or the Colorado School of Mines, Arkansas is now getting transfers from the likes of Michigan, USC, and Oklahoma State.
Junior college safety Anthony Leon started out at Florida State before ending up at a California JC. There were a trio of JC defensive backs recruited in all—Rudell Crim being the top rated corner in the JC ranks by Rivals.
Along with freshmen Darius Winston, an Army All-American, and Oklahoma sprint champion David Gordon, there has been a major infusion of speed into what was a less than stellar secondary the last few seasons.
All that said, in my opinion the story of the 2009 Arkansas Razorbacks will be written on the defensive line. Malcolm Sheppard, at tackle, is a standout, Adrian Davis and Jake Bequette are solid at the ends, but there is not much proven depth.
Redshirt freshman Alfred Davis brings needed size, and true freshman D.D. Jones has great potential inside. Both will be needed to play above their ages.
The linebackers have noticeably gained weight without losing speed. Jerry Franklin was freshman All-SEC, and one of only two players to intercept a Tim Tebow pass in the 2008 regular season. Franklin has a chance to be one of the top 'backers to play at Arkansas.
On offense, anyone who doubts Petrino's prowess take note: in spite of losing Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis (all now in the NFL), and the only receiver of consequence in Houston Nutt's Groundhog Day offense in Marcus Monk, the Hogs still ranked fourth in the SEC in total offense.
Nathan Dick started against Mississippi State by default after an injury to his older brother Casey Dick, and Tyler Wilson's bout with mono. All Dick did was pass for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the only game of his college career in which he played extensively. Dick saw the writing on the wall, and transferred to Central Arkansas.
The writing on the wall for the 2009 Arkansas Razorbacks is likely seven or eight wins due to a brutal series of games; with a home game vs. Georgia, followed by road games at Alabama, Florida, and Ole Miss in a six game stretch. Then, the regular season ends vs LSU at Baton Rouge.
The schedule and Arkansas' youth, with so many newcomers in the mix, will make it hard to win more in 2009, but you read it here first: look out for the Hogs in 2010, as this team will have a legitimate shot at winning the SEC a year from now.