Oh my, it’s nearly football time for the Arkansas Razorbacks. And for the first time that I can remember, the Hogs are primed and ready to do big things this season. First off, the Razorbacks improved in many ways during Coach Bobby Petrino’s second year as head coach. We went from a 5-7 record in 2008, to an 8-5 record last year, we went bowling and won, and our offense posted insane numbers. Last year’s team showed us glimpses of what Petrino can do for our football program. Now it’s year three and it’s time to show where this apple cart is headed.
As mentioned, expectations for the Hogs are high in Arkansas. Even the media are giving the Razorbacks props in pre-season polls where we’re ranked as high as 17. Unlike in years past when Houston Nutt was the coach and our players shied away from the spotlight, this year’s crew is completely embracing the hype and, in fact, have higher expectations than most fans.
There’s good reason for such high ideals. Most reside in our high-flying offense and the return of our gun-slinging, Heisman candidate, quarterback Ryan Mallett. Last year, as a sophomore, Mallett was a one-man wrecking crew when it came to destroying records. His name is now on 16 of them in the Arkansas Razorback annuls, including most passing yards in a season (3,627), most passing yards in a game (408), most passing touchdowns in a game (5 – three times), most pass plays of 25 or more yards in a season, and most passing TDs in a single season (30). The Arkansas faithful breathed a sigh of relief when he said he was returning for his Junior year. And we all are now breathing a LOT easier since his foot is finally healed after some off-season surgery.
So Mallett’s back, awesome. But it’s not just Mallett that makes our offense so spectacular. Last year we finished in the top ten nationally in passing yards and scoring. That means we need people to catch the balls that Ryan throws. Luckily for us, we have a plethora of wide receivers that can do that. Hauling in catches for Mallett are Greg Childs (48 receptions, 897 yards, 7 TDs), Joe Adams (29 receptions, 568 yards, 7 TDs), Jarius Wright (41 receptions, 681 yards, 5 TDs), Cobi Hamilton (19 receptions, 347 yards, 3 TDs) and tight end DJ Williams (32 receptions, 411 yards, 3 TDs). Our receivers are a handful to opposing teams’ defenses. Add to that some new blood this season with newcomer Maudrecus Humphrey, and other talented freshmen, we shouldn’t miss a beat from last year.
While the passing attack is fine-tuning, our running back situation is a little different. As of Monday (aka, five days before the season kicks off), there wasn’t a starter named. It appears that our ground game will be attacked with four different runners — Broderick Green, Knile Davis, Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Dennis Johnson. According to the coaches, the back that does the best in pass protection will get the starting nod. Last year our running portion of the offense didn’t fare well — we only averaged 131.8 yards a game and, at times, struggled to make short yardage gains to keep the chains moving. It’s well-known that Petrino-coached teams are generally better passing teams, but that didn’t stop him from bringing in former Nevada Offensive Coordinator Chris Klenakis to shape up our offensive line and install his “Pistol” offense. Petrino is hoping he can bring the same focus to the Hogs’ running game that led Nevada to having the number one offense in college football during the 2009 season (and averaging a stunning 344 rushing yards a game).
Anchoring that running attack, and protecting Mallett in the backfield, will be the Arkansas offensive line that features several upper classmen and a few freshmen that will either start, or get extensive playing time: Ray Dominguez (senior), Alvin Bailey (freshman), Seth Oxner (junior), Wade Grayson (senior), and DeMarcus Love (senior).
One might say we’re stacked on offense. But that isn’t what has kept Petrino and Defensive Coordinator Willy Robinson up at night. It’s the unit that’s on the other side of the ball that holds the key to this team’s success. Last year our defense was, how do you say it, atrocious. Aside from being +15 in turnovers/takeaways last year, there wasn’t a whole lot to write home about when it came to our defense. The Razorbacks gave up 17 scoring plays of 25 yards, or more, last year — and 13 of those scores came through the air.
In 2010, our secondary has to step up and produce. With Ramon Broadway and Issac Madison Jr. (back from missing 2009) starting at corner, Tramain Thomas Jr. and Rudell Crim (recently moved from corner back to safety), the Hogs are already a LOT faster than they were last year. Add in some help from budding Darius Winston and Elton Ford, Coach Robinson might have an improved unit on his hands.
Our linebacking corps is still a bit on the lean side. Led by senior Jermaine Love, Juniors Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson. Also, recently added to LB is former safety Anthony Leon. Of all the defensive spots that I’ve heard concerns over this preseason, the linebackers are right there at the top of the list.
The defensive line took a hit when Malcolm Sheppard graduated, but this year’s line is nothing to scoff at. With Jake Bequette, Alfred Davis, DeQuinta Jones, and Demario Ambrose lining up, the Hogs will have a chance on almost every down. The key will be moving the line backwards and getting pressure on the opposing QB. If we let their offense loosen up, our secondary could be in for another long day/season.
Another weak point over the past season was our special teams unit. The punt and kickoff return teams are average and won’t require a lot of tooling. But the kicking side, that’s a different story. Now a senior, kicker Alex Tejada, has seen his ups and downs as a Razorback. Challenging him this year are freshmen newcomers Zach Hocker and Eduardo Camara. Hocker is also challenging Dylan Breeding on the punting side of the game. Whoever wins the battles will be counted on to make big kicks at important times (last year, alone, we lost games to LSU and Florida each by three points). It’s a game of inches, fellas.
Think about this Razorback faithful. In 2008, Coach Petrino’s first year, we started 16 freshmen. Sixteen! This year it sounds like only nine Freshmen will get extensive playing time, if not start. That’s a lot of experience for those kids who have stuck around. It’s time for the experience to pay off.
Many Hog fans will say this is our year to make great strides. The offense is ready. The defense says it has a chip on its shoulder and is ready to prove themselves. Here’s one Razorback fan that hopes our time is now.