Time to turn the page for a new Hog season

There is a certain mystery surrounding the Arkansas Razorbacks this season, maybe more so than any Razorback team that I can remember since the first Hog game I remember attending way back in 1974.

At the tender age of 6, I knew nothing about the Hogs. I doubt I even knew where we were going that day, decked out in red and white when we got into the car in West Memphis to drive to Little Rock. All I knew was that I had to stay out of the fried chicken my mom had made that morning before we left that was sitting next to me in the back of our station wagon.

I miss my mom’s fried chicken. I miss everything about her since she died Jan. 25 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. This will be my family’s first Razorback season without her since she and my dad married in 1955.

The Razorbacks have always meant more to my family than just football, basketball, and baseball. The Hogs are a family affair for us. Other than our faith, the Razorbacks really are the tie that bound my family together.

That may seem silly to even the most ardent Arkansas fans, but the Razorbacks have always been about family, friends, and fun to me back to my earliest memories. The Razorbacks have been in the background for many of my best family memories.

A good friend of my dad’s family, an elderly lady, told my mom during my parents’ rather short engagement — they only knew each other six weeks before getting married — that she should try to learn as much about football as she possibly could because it was the one thing my dad really loved outside of friends and family.

Mom learned to love the Razorbacks, too, win or lose. I can still see her in her red blouse with a white crocheted sweater with a big, red hog on the back and two smaller red hogs on the front. That or something similar had been her game-day attire for the past 20 years. Her snowy white hair and collection of various pieces of Razorback jewelry accented the look perfectly.

Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012, and her life became more and more complicated each year since for the most gregarious, outgoing woman you’d ever want to meet, but she was of fairly sound mind until this time last year when a fall left her bed bound for the rest of her life.

While caring for her last year, my dad and I watched Razorback games in the hospital, a rehab center, an assisted living facility, another hospital, and finally hospice.

It was a grueling experience that so many others have also endured.

Mom nursed for 20 years and then owned and ran a catering service in West Memphis for two more decades before she and my dad retired to her hometown of Fayetteville in 1996 to be close to her mother who also died with Alzheimer’s.

Mom’s favorite thing in life was taking care of people, and my dad, brother, sister-in-law and I did all we could to try and return the favor as her needs progressively grew over the years and particularly last fall.

One of the loneliest days of my life was sitting with her and my dad on the day after Thanksgiving. My dad and I were too worn out to talk much, and mom, who was suffering from an infection that would send her back to the hospital and eventually on to hospice care, slept most of the day.

The light of our family was growing very dim, and our beloved Razorbacks offered us no comfort, taking it on the chin from Missouri, 38-0, to finish off the worst Razorback season in my memory if not in school history.

Sorry for the digression. Last year was brutal on all Hog fans, but at 3 p.m. Saturday we all get to turn the page if we already haven’t.

I am optimistic about the upcoming season compared to last year. I don’t think a six-win season is too much to expect, but that might be maximum. We’ll just have to see how it goes. It seems second-year coach Chad Morris has made positive changes after last year’s debacle. We’ll get to see those changes in action starting tomorrow, and I can’t wait.

I’m expecting a much improved defense this season. In the second year under defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis, the Hogs should be more certain of their assignments, which should allow them to play with more confidence and speed.

My hope is that the Hogs’ front seven will be up to SEC standards this season. That would help cover for the lack of experience in the secondary, which will feature a bevy of freshmen and sophomore contributors along with junior leader Kamren Curl at safety.

While Portland State isn’t a good litmus test for the talent and speed in the SEC, it would not be a good sign for the Razorbacks if they struggle to contain the Vikings.

Offensively, it will be a new-look unit, featuring graduate transfer Ben Hicks at quarterback and a bevy of young talent at wide receiver spot. Like everyone else, I can’t wait to watch Treylon Burks or Trey Knox, if he is able to play after an extended illness, take one to the house, but what I really want to see is the offensive line and Arkansas’ running back mesh and impose their will on the Vikings. The better Rakeem Boyd, Devwah Whaley, and Chase Hayden rush the ball, the more opportunities the Razorbacks will have to take shots downfield.

Like with the defense, if the Hogs’ running game can’t wear down and then wear out the Vikings, it’s not a good sign for the rest of the season.

Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock aren’t going to throw the entire playbook at Portland State Saturday for future opponents to scout, but my hope is for clean execution of whatever plays are called.

As for special teams, as much as I’d love to see a return for a touchdown, what I’m really looking for is effective and smart kickoff and punt coverage. That will help every other unit greatly.

Some have characterized this game as glorified scrimmage because of Portland States’ FCS stature. I’ve been guilty of the myself to a degree, but the Razorbacks do have the chance to make a statement on Saturday that the malfunction junction that was Razorback football in 2018 is over in 2019.

Every team makes mistakes, particularly in a first game, but the sharper the Hogs appear against the Vikings the better the outlook is for the rest of the season.

Though it’s early, the Razorbacks play one of their biggest games of the season Sept. 7 at Ole Miss. They need to use Saturday’s game against the Vikings to improve as much as they can before heading over to Oxford, Miss. for the battle to stay out of the SEC West’s basement.