Blue Ribbon Preview: Arkansas
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The Arkansas Razorbacks played on Thanksgiving weekend at No. 1 LSU as the No. 3 team in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, with a shot at playing for all the marbles. Less than five months after that loss in Baton Rouge, which featured less-than-gentlemanly actions by coach Bobby Petrino, the Razorbacks were looking to replace the man who built Arkansas into a national title contender after his ill-timed wipeout on his Harley-Davidson on April Fool's Day.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long pulled a bit of a stunner when he responded to a feeler by former Arkansas assistant John L. Smith by re-hiring the affable Idaho native away from his alma mater Weber State for an uncommon 10-month deal worth $850,000.
The return of Smith, who had left in December just before the Razorbacks' Cotton Bowl preparations, was a big winner in the locker room. The team's large core of veterans lobbied Long to keep the coaching staff intact and the Hogs' momentum rolling for at least the 2012 season, and Long obliged.
Smith inherited a coaching staff with whom he had previous working experience, with the exception of assistant head coach Taver Johnson, who re-joined fellow former Ohio State assistant Paul Haynes, the new defensive coordinator, as the Razorbacks skewed younger with defensive staff changes in the offseason.
Smith's presence should ensure that the defense gets plenty of attention and personnel considerations, whereas in the past Petrino sometimes made decisions in the best interest of the offense. Haynes said priority No. 1 in the fall is to become a more rugged run-stopping unit, and the Razorbacks' wealth of defensive tackles should help toward that aim.
Smith conducted a raucous, high-energy introductory press conference on April 24, during which he proclaimed the Razorbacks to be on the cusp of something big.
"I want to say that our expectations are the same, OK?" Smith said. "Nothing's going to slow down. In fact, we're going to speed up.
"Our expectations are that we're going to go ahead and we're going to battle and fight for a national title. It was that way when I walked in the door three years ago, and it's going to continue to be that way."
Quarterback Tyler Wilson said Smith obviously has fun in front of the cameras, but he also has the respect of the team.
"The guys love him. The guys will want to play for him," Wilson said. "That's probably the No. 1 thing, is guys are going to want to take that field, proving to everybody that we made a great decision."
Star tailback Knile Davis said the hiring of Smith was roundly welcomed in the locker room because the team's schemes won't be overhauled. "I love it," Davis said. "I'm glad he's back. It's a great relief. Like he said, he's going to let his coordinators coordinate. It's going to be pretty much the same."
Head Coach: John L. Smith (Weber State '71)
Record at School: First year
Career Record: 132-86 (18 years)
• Taver Johnson (Wittenberg '94) ASSISTANT HEAD COACH/LINEBACKERS; Paul Petrino (Carroll College '88) OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR/QUARTERBACKS; Paul Haynes (Kent State '92) DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR/SECONDARY; Bobby Allen (Virginia Tech '83) CORNERBACKS; Steve Caldwell (Arkansas State '77) DEFENSIVE ENDS; Kris Cinkovich (Carroll '84) WIDE RECEIVERS; Tim Horton (Arkansas '90) RUNNING BACKS/RECRUITING COORDINATOR; Chris Klenakis (Carroll '86) OFFENSIVE LINE; Kevin Peoples (Carroll '95) DEFENSIVE TACKLES
Tyler Wilson (6-3, 220) gave the NFL Draft a long look before deciding on returning for his senior season in one of college's most prolific offenses.
Wilson, who might have been a first-round pick considering the value placed on quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, should benefit from an extra year at the controls, particularly in footwork, accuracy, pre-snap reads and decision-making under pressure. Wilson, who described himself as a more "introverted" and somewhat reluctant leader heading into 2011, has taken a more demonstrative role throughout the offseason, and the responsibilities increased even more after Petrino's forced leave and eventual firing.
Wilson took an active role in pre-game leadership for the Red-White spring game and even took charge of the call-up huddles before taking the field. The Razorbacks' first All-SEC first-team quarterback, Wilson completed 63.2 percent of his passes while leading the conference with 3,638 passing yards. He threw 24 touchdown passes and six interceptions and looks to improve on that 4:1 ratio this fall.
Wilson, who is considered a Heisman Trophy contender, spoke in the spring about his productive meshing with coordinator and quarterbacks coach Paul Petrino.
"I'm happy and thankful that he is my offensive coordinator and hopefully he'll be here for the long run," Wilson said.
"I think if there's one word to describe my spring, I was in control," Wilson said. "I wanted to come back to school to become a better football player and I've improved. I think we got better over the spring."
Petrino said any quarterback who had a better spring than Wilson "would have to be Superman" after Wilson completed 101 of 146 passes for 1,600 yards, with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions in scrimmages, with most of that work coming against the top defense.
"That's as great a spring as I've ever been around," Petrino said. "His confidence is just really high right now. Our job is to make sure we keep it there because if he has that little swagger about him, that confidence he's playing with, he's going to be a hard quarterback to stop.
Junior Brandon Mitchell (6-4, 230) and redshirt freshman Brandon Allen (6-3, 212) had a lively battle for the top backup role in the spring, and the competition might not resolve itself until late in camp. The reserves had only moderate success moving the second offense against the defensive starters through the spring, but they both conducted touchdown drives with the top offense in the second half of the spring game.
Mitchell had a pair of rushing and passing touchdowns from his spot duty last
The value of Knile Davis (6-0, 226) to the Hogs' offense was made clear when he averaged 148.2 rushing yards per game in the last half of 2010, leading Arkansas to a six-game winning streak, including road wins at South Carolina and Mississippi State. After having just 30 carries through five games, Davis erupted for 1,119 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns the final eight games and managed 6.48 yards per carry on the season.
The Razorbacks didn't have that same offensive balance in 2011 after Davis was lost for the season with a broken left ankle in the first scrimmage of fall camp. Overcoming a rap for being injury prone (three broken ankles, two broken collarbones) is critical this season for the junior, who was held out of live tackling in the spring. Davis' combination of speed, balance, vision and tackle-breaking acumen have put him in the preseason Heisman Trophy conversation.
Dennis Johnson (5-9, 213) led Arkansas with 670 rushing yards and a tidy 6.3 yards per carry. The short-legged senior breaks tackles with abandon and has a nose for the end zone with 11 career touchdowns, but he needs to cut back on his fumbling, which impacted key SEC road games last season.
Ronnie Wingo, Jr. (6-3, 231) is another senior whose 14 career touchdowns (seven rushing, seven receiving) speak to the Razorbacks' offensive firepower. Wingo doesn't have the vision of Davis, but he's a speedster, and his pass-catching skills are probably the best in the backfield.
Redshirt freshman Kody Walker (6-2, 240) scored five rushing touchdowns before suffering a stress fracture, so the big back has a leg up on newcomers like Jonathan Williams (5-11, 210) and Donovan Roberts (6-0, 204).
Trimmed-down fullback Kiero Small (5-10, 250) was a highly valued lead blocker last season, and senior might earn his way to more dive plays and pass catches in 2012.
Arkansas' vaunted "Big Four" receiving corps is down to one, senior Cobi Hamilton (6-3, 209), who has taken over the leadership reins from fourth-round NFL draft picks Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs. Hamilton has sprinter's speed, above-average hands and strong open-field skills. He owns a hefty career average of 17.9 yards per catch. Hamilton's rapport with Wilson in the spring showed he's among the favorites to lead Arkansas in receptions.
Sophomore Marquel Wade (5-11, 186) had a huge spring, leading the Hogs in receptions and showing the slot position should still be a dangerous weapon for Arkansas. Wade and junior Julian Horton (6-1, 194) look to be the premier inside receivers, while juniors Javontee Herndon (6-1, 204) and Maudrecus Humphrey (6-3, 185) and sophomore Keante Minor (6-0, 205) should see their production rise at the wideout spots. Herndon and Humphrey have stronger knowledge of the schemes, while Minor has shown better hands and better open-field skills.
There is no shortage of potential breakout talent in the ranks, with a large crop of signees, including junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson (6-3, 180) and highly regarded rookies Keon Hatcher (6-2, 195) and D'Arthur Cowan (6-3, 180).
Count senior tight end Chris Gragg (6-3, 236), whose good hands make him a quality third- and fourth-down option, among the favorites to lead the Hogs in receptions. The former high school classmate of Childs and Wright at Warren (Ark.) High heads a deep tight end corps that also features junior Austin Tate (6-6, 253) and a trio of freshmen in Demetrius Dean (6-3, 250), Andrew Peterson (6-6, 262) and Brett Weir (6-5, 250), who have large upsides.
Three starters are back, led by All-SEC guard Alvin Bailey (6-5, 312) and veteran center Travis Swanson (6-5, 305), a pair of juniors who have each started all 26 games of their careers. Bailey ran into academic issues in the spring and spent almost the entire session playing on the second string, allowing sophomore Luke Charpentier (6-4, 305) to receive advanced training with the starters at strong guard. Swanson has emerged as a leader on the unit called "The Union," and should be on the Rimington Watch List for a second consecutive year.
Senior tackle Jason Peacock (6-4, 305) started the final nine games at quick tackle, but he ran into the doghouse with a theft of property charge in the spring. He was suspended for three practices and came back as a second teamer, giving former junior walk-on David Hurd (6-6, 300) plenty of work with the starters next to another former walk-on, in senior guard Tyler Deacon (6-4, 300).
Mitch Smothers (6-4, 296) the first true freshman offensive line starter in a season opener for the Razorbacks, went four games at starting tackle before falling back with injury issues. Smothers is now seen as a top backup center, along with Charpentier, and a versatile cog who could fill in essentially anywhere on the line.
Arkansas' depth could take a hit pending the outcome of legal action against Wade, Humphrey and Peterson, who were arrested on residential burglary charges in May. All three were suspended from football activity pending late June court date.
The deepest area on this unit resides on the front, where the tackle rotation should go at least six deep with quality hands. The starters look to be juniors Byran Jones (6-2, 312), a somewhat hidden gem, and Robert Thomas (6-3, 308), who is looking for a bigger impact his second year out of the JUCO ranks. Thomas had a four-sack scrimmage in the spring against the first offense.
Reserves Alfred Davis (6-1, 318) and D.D. Jones (6-5, 299), both seniors, are good enough to be starters, and fifth-year senior Lavunce Askew (6-3, 290), who sat out last season to get his academics back in order, has been through many an SEC battle. Jared Green (6-0, 315), a short but stout senior who once played at Mississippi Valley, was ferocious in the spring. He could earn playing time in the fall, along with redshirt freshmen Horace Arkadie (6-4, 270), DeMarcus Hodge (6-1, 301) and signee Darius Philon (6-1, 280).
Senior Tenarius "Tank" Wright (6-2, 252) was a returning starter at end, but he moved back to his old middle linebacker spot in the spring to help out at a thin position because the coaches felt good about the remaining depth at end. Junior Chris Smith (6-3, 251) should earn one starting spot, while sophomore Trey Flowers (6-4, 243) and junior college transfer Austin Flynn (6-5, 260), who excelled in weight testing over the winter, should share time on the other side. Senior Colton Miles-Nash (6-6, 261), who was bounced back to tight end last fall camp, should finally stay at end to finish his career. The pass-rushing prospects of this crew look solid, but run- topping must improve.
One spring practice with inside linebacker Alonzo Highsmith (6-1, 233) sidelined by a pectoral tendon injury and the coaches rushed Wright back to the second level. Wright provided leadership to an inexperienced crew and is likely to remain in the middle to open fall camp next to Highsmith, who had a productive first season in the SEC.
Senior Matt Marshall (6-1, 230) looks set to start at strong-side linebacker, though his position will yield to the "Star" spot, a linebacker/safety role headlined by Ross Rasner (6-0, 212) on most passing downs.
All four of those players are seniors, which should provide some solace for assistant head coach Taver Johnson, who came in as linebackers coach in January and wound up serving as acting head coach for nearly three weeks during Bobby Petrino's travails. Many of the reserves, such as juniors Austin Jones (6-2, 230) and Jarrett Lake (6-3, 223), senior Terrell Williams (6-3, 232), and a pair of sophomores in Tyler Gilbert (6-3, 244) and Braylon Mitchell (6-3, 232). All have been in the program for at least a couple of years. Jones, a transfer from the Air Force Academy who sat out with a knee injury last year, earned plenty of first-team reps beside Wright in the spring.
Sophomore Daunte Carr (6-3, 224) and redshirt freshman Rohan Gaines (5-11, 190) back up Rasner at the Star. Signee Otha Peters (6-2, 225) will probably get an opportunity to crack the rotation in the fall.
Darius Winston (6-0, 191) a five-star signee who has not yet turned into a star, should finally nail down a year-long starting job as a senior. He should be paired with Tevin Mitchel (6-0, 192) a soft-spoken sophomore whose first season in the SEC was a strong one, with his 56 tackles ranking sixth on the team. The backup corners would appear to be Mississippi Valley State senior transfer Kaelon Kelleybrew (5-11, 180), who had a big spring, and redshirt freshmen Kelvin Fisher, Jr. (5-11, 190) and Davyon "Sleepy" McKinney (6-3, 190), who both had up-and-down moments battling Arkansas' veteran receiving crew in the spring.
Junior Eric Bennett (6-0, 206) is a returning starter at strong safety and the corps' most sure-handed tackler. Bennett had three interceptions, including a game-sealer at Ole Miss, last season and the former prep quarterback logged 74 tackles. Rasner should hold the starting job at free safety, to be replaced by junior Jerry Mitchell (6-1, 219) when Rasner drops down closer to the line on passing downs. Alan Turner (6-0, 212) a sophomore, is probably shorter than his listed height, but he's gaining a reputation as someone who arrives with a hammer.
Paul Haynes will coach the safeties, while Bobby Allen moved from defensive tackles back to his old role with the cornerbacks. Trying to solidify the depth at these spots will be a key fall task.
Haynes declared the spring a success.
"I'm very pleased, because the things we were looking for was getting the terminology down, getting the defense down, and we did that," he said. "Now we've just got to go out and improve [in the fall] and get better."
Dennis Johnson is back to add on to his school-record 2,475 kickoff return yards. Johnson and sophomore Marquel Wade both had kick return touchdowns in '11. Wade is the leading candidate to take Joe Adams' role as punt returner and he has the moves and the moxie to keep the Hogs' return game potent.
Alan D'Appollonio (6-0, 201) had a solid freshmen year as the deep snapper and is back in that role, snapping to fellow classmate holder Brian Buehner (5-11, 195), a reserve quarterback.
Zach Hocker (6-0, 180) has a chance to be one of the best kickers in the country and one of the most prolific scorers in Arkansas history. The junior is now 37 of 46 (.804) on career field goal attempts. His 21 field goals last season, on 27 tries, were the second-most in school history.
Hocker showed improved field goal range, into the upper 50s, during the spring, but his consistency also appeared to take a slight dip. Hocker was also strong on kickoffs last season.
Dylan Breeding (6-1, 211) led the SEC and ranked seventh nationally with a 45.3-yard average, but his contributions went beyond that raw stat. The former prep quarterback hit 17 of his 53 punts 50 yards or longer, and stuck another 16 inside the 20.
One of his few mistakes, a misdirected boot inside the 10 at LSU, gave Tyrann Mathieu space to bring back a game-tying 92-yarder in the second quarter.
Breeding's performance has improved each year heading into his senior season.
Arkansas' signing class, hurt by the signing day loss of top receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, ranked near the bottom of the SEC. While the SEC gained the signatures of 54 of the players on the ESPN 150 list of the nation's top recruits, the Razorbacks signed none of them.
Arkansas, which has prided itself on developing three-star prospects into productive college talent, loaded up on receivers to keep the big-air offense well fueled. Defensive linemen, particularly ends, were also a high priority.
The Razorbacks brought in a big crew of tailbacks, headlined by Jonathan Williams and Donovan Roberts, to help soften the losses of their projected top three runners in 2012. Williams was ESPN's No. 17 running back, while Roberts ranked No. 24.
The five-man receiving crew featured ESPN's No. 27-rated D'Arthur Cowan and No. 28 Keon Hatcher, as well as Eric Hawkins (5-11, 170), the transfer Wilson and late signee Mekale McKay (6-6, 195) Arkansas went hard for Green-Beckham, but lost out on the No. 3-ranked national prospect to home-state Missouri.
Signing day had its highlights however, as linebacker Otha Peters, a one-time Tennessee commitment and the No. 38 outside linebacker by ESPN, joined the Hogs. So did defensive lineman Darius Philon of Prichard (Ala.) Vigor, who had offers from Alabama and Auburn.
Philon was a key pickup for a defensive line that will lose a swath of veteran talent after the season. Leading Arkansas' list of defensive end signees are Taiwan Johnson (6-3, 238) the No. 40 prospect at his position by ESPN, No. 46 Brandon Lewis (6-5, 235) and No. 76 JaMichael Winston (6-6, 238) a high school teammate of Philon's outside Mobile. Junior college transfer Austin Flynn enrolled in January and should battle for a starting job.
Ray Buchanan, Jr. (5-11, 180) son of the long-time NFL cornerback, was rated the No. 48 prospect at corner to top the Hogs' group of defensive backs, which also includes Jared Collins (6-0, 170), Will Hines (6-0, 187) and Defonta Lowe (6-3, 190).
The Razorbacks signees listed as "athletes" are Nate Holmes (6-1, 180), No. 51 by ESPN, who will apparently begin his college career at running back, and Jeremy Sprinkle (6-6, 220) who could be a tight end or wideout, much like Chris Gragg before him.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Who knows how the abrupt downfall of Bobby Petrino, who had pushed Arkansas to the very brink of national title contention, will ultimately impact the Razorbacks in 2012?
Paul Petrino knows the offense inside and out, and he's got a veteran quarterback in Tyler Wilson to help take the intricacies of the schemes to the field. The Razorbacks will not be lacking offensive weapons, with ace tailback Knile Davis returned to health atop a loaded running back crew, and Hamilton and Gragg leading the receivers. If the offensive line's performance rounds into shape as it did last year after the loss at Alabama, then lack of points will not be what prevents the Razorbacks from achieving their goals.
Arkansas' special teams are seen as a major strength, and John L. Smith's return gives them and coordinator Steve Caldwell an extra jolt, as Smith was the architect in building them to this point.
While the Razorbacks will be looking to identify and develop a few more defensive playmakers when fall camp rolls around, Smith understands how many key elements for title contention already exist.
"Everything's in place here," he said. "You've got a good football team. We've got the best fans in the world. We've got great coaches. Let's make it a special year."
Arkansas has what is considered a favorable schedule year, with its projected fellow title contenders in the SEC West both having to come to Fayetteville. Defending BCS national champion Alabama opens SEC play in Fayetteville on Sept. 15, and LSU plays at Razorback Stadium on Nov. 23, the day after Thanksgiving, for the first time since 1992.
However, the Razorbacks were not a dominant road team during their 11-2 season last year, having to battle from behind to win at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt on back-to-back weekends. That makes the Hogs' road schedule, with games at Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State, seem all the more treacherous.
The defensive shake-up on the coaching staff, which includes the arrival of the defensive-minded Smith as the head coach, will determine whether Arkansas makes major strides this fall and will very likely tell the story of the Hogs' 2012 season.
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