FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas had the best rushing offense
in the Southeastern Conference this year, but that unit has taken
two large hits since the season finale against LSU.
Offensive tackle Shawn Andrews and fullback Mark Pierce, both
juniors, have left the team to tend to medical conditions before
applying for next year's NFL draft. Andrews, a two-time All-America
selection and a finalist for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award,
withdrew from school before the Dec. 9 deadline to do so and would
have been ineligible for the Independence Bowl against Missouri
(8-4) on Dec. 31 anyway.
Their losses hurt Arkansas (8-4) more than anything LSU threw at
them in the 55-24 defeat, but coaches expect fullback Brandon
Kennedy and tackle Zac Tubbs, both sophomores, to lean on their
teammates for support.
"It takes more than just the two (we lost). It takes nine other
guys," offensive line coach and running game coordinator Mike
Markuson said. "We have speed. We have great backs, a great
quarterback, good wideouts and an offensive line. We have to make
sure we're not whiffing on an offensive lineman or linebacker and
that we allow our athletes to work and make plays."
The Razorbacks averaged 237.1 yards per game on the ground,
almost 50 yards more than LSU, which finished second in the league.
It's the second year in a row that they have led the SEC in
rushing, but this year Arkansas also ranked No. 1 in total offense
with 435.2 yards per game.
Junior quarterback Matt Jones passed for 1,868 yards to lead
Arkansas to a 198.1-yard average, up from 134.6, which dragged the
total offense down to sixth in the SEC in 2002.
The improved passing game makes coaches confident that the
offense can withstand the loss of Andrews, who had started 35 of
the last 36 games, and Pierce, a lead blocker and a receiver out of
Wide receivers coach James Shibest said Arkansas had the most
success this season when it threw the ball.
"These bowl games are always crazy and you never know what
you're going to get," Shibest said. "A lot of them are
high-scoring. We always take the game in stride and try to see
what's working. But we said as an offensive staff that our offense
works a lot better when we're throwing the football ... and mixing
it in there pretty good."
Senior receivers George Wilson and Richard Smith combined to
catch 74 passes for 1,419 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. Wilson
improved his average per catch by almost six yards to 18.6 and
Smith led the team with 20.1 yards per catch.
Both said those numbers were better because of the development
of younger receivers such as junior Steven Harris and tight end
Jason Peters. Harris averaged 16.8 yards on 18 receptions and
Peters opened up the middle of the field with 20 catches for 207
yards and four touchdowns.
The receivers are ready for any increase in pass plays. Smith
said he would like for he and Wilson to both have 100 yards in the
same game. They combined for six 100-yard games this year.
"Coach (Houston) Nutt has talked to me and George and he said
he wants to commit to both of us in this game," Smith said. "We
just hope we get the opportunities he talked about. If things do
change, that's what happens, but I think both of us should go out
and have 100-yard games. That would be good for me and him. It
wouldn't matter who had the most."
If they don't see more balls coming their way, Wilson said he
has confidence in Tubbs and Kennedy stepping up to start.
"With the amount of time of preparation that we have for this
game, there's no doubt in my mind they'll be ready for the task of
opening holes, lead blocking or catching balls in the flat in the
fullback's case," Wilson said.