When a new coach takes over a college football program, typically the third season is when it’s fair to make the first real evaluation of where that program is headed.
This will be Bobby Petrino’s third season at Arkansas. It’s been a steady climb so far. The Hogs went from five wins to eight wins last season, including a win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
Suffice it to say that Year No. 3 under Petrino brings with it some heavy-duty expectations. This will be his most talented team, his most experienced team, and the schedule turns a little bit in the Hogs’ favor.
Arkansas could start the season ranked in the top 20 of the preseason poll, something the Hogs haven’t done since 1999.
Junior quarterback Ryan Mallett returns as one of the most feared passers in the country, and the arsenal of playmakers surrounding him is as stocked as any Petrino has ever coached.
If the defense comes through, it could be a season to remember in Fayetteville.
Granted, that’s a big if when you look at the Hogs’ defensive numbers from the past two seasons, but Petrino is confident they will be improved on that side of the ball.
Petrino talked about his defense and a lot more in a recent Q&A I did with him heading into the spring. The Hogs open practice on March 30 and play their spring game on April 24:
Even though Mallett’s going to be sidelined this spring with the broken bone in his left foot, how important are these next three or four months for him if he’s going to become a truly great quarterback?
Bobby Petrino: The one thing you know he’ll do is work real hard at it. He just won’t get the 15 practices in, but should be good to go for all the summer work. He’ll certainly be in the classroom doing everything he needs to do to get ready and take that next step.
What gives you hope that your defense will be better next season and more consistent?
BP: We’ve recruited hard the last two years on defense and really tried to address issues in the secondary and the defensive front. So I think we’re going to be more talented and more physical on defense this year. We have to tackle better, and we have to stop the explosive plays. That’s what really hurt our defense a year ago. We would play good and play good and then give up a big play.
Sort of like the Alabama game last season when you were within a touchdown in the third quarter and then give up an 80-yard touchdown pass?
BP: Our defense had played great, and they hit an 80-yard touchdown. And we’re right there. We just don’t make the play on the ball. So we’ve got to do a better job of playing the ball in the air and just stopping the big plays. The deep play-actions and screens are what hurt our defense more than anything.
How important is getting Isaac Madison back at cornerback after he missed all last season with a knee injury?
BP: He’ll be back and is doing real well (with his recovery). That was a huge loss for us because he’s our fastest, most experienced, smartest secondary player. He should be back at full speed and ready to go. He’s doing everything right now. I’m not sure I’ll let him do the contact part of spring ball. He’ll do everything else.
How would you assess the rest of your defense?
BP: Our defensive front will be good, and we’ll have depth. We’ve got [Jake] Bequette coming back and Damario Ambrose and Tenarius Wright at the defensive ends and then inside a lot of guys with a lot of experience coming back with [Zach] Stadther and D.D. Jones, Pat Jones, [Lavunce] Askew and [Alfred] Davis. All those guys have played a bunch of football, which is new. We haven’t had guys who’ve played a bunch of football before. At linebacker, I’m a little concerned about depth. That’s been an area where we’ve been hurt by a lack of depth. We have to have a good spring in developing depth at linebacker, but we do have a lot of experience in Freddy Burton and Jerry Franklin. Jerry has started every game since I’ve been here, and he’s just a junior. But I am worried behind those guys.
As you look at all the intangibles it takes to compete for a championship, do you believe you guys are closer to being there?
BP: We’re definitely closer. Experience is something that really helps, the understanding of what we want to do and then our expectations. I think we took a huge step last year from the Alabama game to the Florida game. We went into the Alabama game and didn’t execute and didn’t play as well as we could. But also, I don’t think we expected to win, and I don’t think we executed because we were a little intimidated. Then when we went to Florida, our guys competed really, really hard and did everything they could to win the game. Mentally, we grew up and matured.
Your new offensive line coach, Chris Klenakis, was on staff at Nevada last season where the Wolf Pack led the country in rushing with an average of 344.9 yards per game. They were third nationally in 2008. What kind of dimension does he bring to your running game?
BP: He’s the guy who invented the Pistol [offense], he and coach Chris [Ault] together. I coached with Coach K before [at Nevada] and put together an offense before with him and were very successful. He’s a very good teacher in the offensive front, but he also understands every other aspect of the offense. I think we’ll be much more physical in the run game next year. We actually ran what everybody wants to call the Pistol last year and executed the passing game really well out of it. Now, we need to run the ball better out of it.
When you look at your running game, you appear to have all the different pieces in place in the backfield?
BP: I’m really excited about our backfield. This spring will be very, very competitive. Ronnie Wingo has sprinter speed. He won the 100 and 200 meters in the state of Missouri in high school and today weighs 230 pounds. He really excites me. The other guys are all capable. Broderick Green is 248 pounds and the big guy we need back there. Knile Davis is up in the 220s. We have a chance now where we can be much more physical running the ball and running the ball downhill. That’s so important in this league. When you get into a battle with Alabama, you have to be patient and run the ball and not give up the negative plays. That’s what they’re so good at, causing you to have negative plays.
You’ve obviously had some potent offenses during your career. Where do you think this one stacks up in terms of playmakers and the ability to score in a variety of ways.
BP: When you look at the overall picture, it’s the deepest group [of playmakers] I’ve had. We have to prove that we can do it up front. That’s where we have to make great improvement. But when you have a Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright all coming back with two years of experience, and they’ve all made a lot of plays in this conference, that’s exciting. Our young guy, Cobi Hamilton, might be better than all of them. He’s a special, special talent and made a lot of plays last year as a freshman. But we’ve got to take care of business in the offensive front so we can be consistent.
How much do you feel the fans’ expectations?
BP: I feel good about the expectations of our players, the expectations of our team. That’s the key. We’re hoping everyone expects us to win, and if the fans do, then obviously that’s great. But the best part of it is when our players expect to take the field and win, and I think we’ll be that way this year.