FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- A few notes, thoughts and observations after chatting with Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, a few of his coaches and some of the Hogs' players:
Junior running back Knile Davis is up to 228 pounds after playing around 218 last season. Davis told me he recently maxed out at 415 pounds on the bench-press and ran a 4.29 in the 40-yard dash. The big thing for Davis is that he’s finally healthy, the first spring he can say that. He broke his collarbone in last year’s spring game and broke his ankle two springs ago. “I think what Knile really needs to understand is that the harder and more physical he runs and the faster he plays, that’s how you stay healthy,” Petrino said. “That’s what he did when Dennis (Johnson) got hurt last year. He just said, ‘I’m going to make sure the coaches know that I’m going to be the guy by finishing every run in practice and being more focused.’ It jumped out. We’re watching video of practice, and there’s not one coach in the room who doesn’t say, ‘That’s a little different No. 7 right there now.’ ”
When you start listing the top returning defensive ends in the SEC next season, don’t forget about Arkansas senior Jake Bequette, who had 7.5 sacks last season. Arkansas defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell said there’s no ceiling for Bequette, and Caldwell knows a star defensive end when he sees one. At Tennessee, Caldwell coached the likes of Shaun Ellis, Leonard Little, Parys Haralson, Will Overstreet and Robert Ayers, all of whom played or are still playing in the NFL. “Jake has as much talent as anyone I’ve ever coached. We just have to get it all put together,” Caldwell said.
Speaking of the defensive line, the Hogs’ top two tackles are out this spring with injuries -- Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones. That's meant a lot of quality reps for junior college newcomer Robert Thomas. “Man is he active and probably as good an athlete as we’ve had inside with the combination of size and power,” Petrino said. The other thing about Thomas is that he’s just a sophomore. He redshirted one year at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
A guy who’s really exploded in the Hogs’ strength and conditioning program is sophomore defensive end Chris Smith, who’s bulked up to 250 pounds and recently ran just a shade under 4.5 in the 40. Smith’s another guy the Hogs hope to turn loose rushing the passer next season.
You don’t see very many 17-year-old true freshman offensive tackles who look like Brey Cook, the Hogs’ top recruit in this class who enrolled early and is going through spring practice. The 6-7, 317-pound Cook is working with the first team in DeMarcus Love’s old quick tackle spot. Cook had his struggles last Saturday in the scrimmage going against junior defensive end Tenarius Wright, but Cook sure looks like one of those guys you can build around in the offensive line. Petrino says he’s not sure he’s ever played a true freshman offensive tackle. “That makes you nervous, but he’s a special young man,” Petrino said. “Sometimes when you’re out there at practice, you forget he’s 17 years old and should still be in high school. But I’ll tell you what: He’s very talented. He’s very strong. You very seldom get a young man who has that type of strength. He was very well-coached in high school and cares a lot, so competitive and a perfectionist. He’s in here studying, trying to get better, taking his lumps against those experienced defensive ends, but keeps coming back and keeps competing and is going to be real special before it’s over with.”
The Hogs have built enough depth that they’re not going to be counting on nearly as many first-year players coming in and playing right away next season. “The nice thing is that they’re really going to have to be good to come in and compete because we do have so much depth coming back,” Petrino said. That said, he thinks at least one of the defensive ends will have a chance to come in and play. Lonnie Gosha of Lake Butler, Fla., was one of the Hogs’ most prized signees. Petrino said junior college linebacker Alonzo Highsmith, Jr., has the kind of speed Arkansas is looking for at that position and is a strong candidate to play early. Highsmith is the son of former NFL running back Alonzo Highsmith, Sr., who played collegiately at Miami. Also, Petrino said it would be nice if one of the freshman cornerbacks (Tevin Mitchell and Kelvin Fisher, Jr.) could come in and be a part of the secondary rotation next season.
I asked Petrino if he's ever been around a more talented collection of pass-catchers than his top four of Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton. He smiled and said he's been around some good ones, mentioning the group with the Jacksonville Jaguars when Petrino was there as an assistant that included Jimmy Smith. He also mentioned his Louisville receiving corps, but I think it says something that he brings up an NFL receiving corps when offering up comparisons. Replacing tight end D.J. Williams won't be easy, but junior Chris Gragg has made his share of plays down the field and over the middle this spring. The bottom line is that it's difficult to imagine a deeper, more talented receiving corps in all of college football than what Arkansas will put on the field this fall.