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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Two-A-Days: Arkansas Razorbacks

Two-a-Days rolls on with our 13th installment, in which we take a closer look at the Arkansas Razorbacks.

To read previous entries, click HERE.

Arkansas in a flash:

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino, third year
2009 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC), beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl
2009 Stats: Total offense, 427.31 ypg (3rd SEC, 20th nationally); Total defense, 401.15 ypg (12th SEC, 89th nationally)
Coaching Changes: OC Paul Petrino left for the same job at Illinois, and Garrick McGee was promoted to take his place, with Bobby Petrino still calling plays. Offensive line coach Kirk Botkin also departed, replaced by Chris Klenakis, who comes from Nevada. Kris Cinkovich takes over as receivers coach. Former Tennessee assistant Steve Caldwell takes over as defensive ends coach for Kirk Botkin.
Starters Returning: Offense (9), Defense (7), Special Teams (2)
Key Player Losses: RB Michael Smith, OL Mitch Petrus, DT Malcolm Sheppard
Big Games: @ Georgia (9/18), Alabama (9/25), Auburn (10/16), LSU (11/27)
Non-Conference Slate: Tennessee Tech (9/4), Louisiana-Monroe (9/11), Texas A&M (10/9), UTEP (11/13)

Arkansas' offense was downright scary last year, but so was the defense for a much different reason. Ryan Mallett's return and Bobby Petrino's history make the Hogs a trendy pick in the SEC this year, but there is still much to be done before Arkansas is ready to pass Alabama out west.

So, how far were the Hogs able to go this spring? For that, I turned to Brandon Marcello, the Razorbacks beat writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Here's what he had to say...

David Hale: Ryan Mallett is high up on plenty of draft boards and coming off an impressive season a year ago, but he missed all of spring practice with a broken foot. I'm not sure this is a fair analogy in the least -- but are there any concerns that his second season in the SEC could involve a step back as it did for fellow transfer Jevan Snead at Ole Miss? How has Mallett's injury progressed and do you see any hangover effect as he gets into shape for the fall?

Brandon Marcello: I think there is always that thought and belief out there that Ryan Mallett could take a step back. In fact, you may see that with his numbers this season as I believe the Razorbacks are going to need to run the ball more this season to have more success. It's easy to forget that Mallett was in his first season as Arkansas' signal-caller last year, and while Mallett certainly has all-world ability, we should remember that was the first time the SEC teams and coaches had seen Mallett. Now they've had a year to adjust, so the junior very well could have diminished numbers in 2010.

All that aside, I do not see him taking a step back like Jevan Snead at Ole Miss. The offense at Ole Miss is nothing like the one at Arkansas, and many know that the Rebels' offense is not necessarily a haven for quarterbacks. Bobby Petrino is an offensive coach, and he's worked with quarterbacks most of his coaching career. Additionally, all signs point to a healthy recovery from the broken toe in Mallett's left foot. The worry was that Mallett would gain unneeded weight during his recovery, but he's actually stayed healthy and maintained his arm strength in workouts.

A funny story to share here is when Petrino visited Mallett in the hospital after the surgery to check in and to also go get the quarterback some food. He asked Mallett what he wanted from a menu, and Mallett surprised Petrino by picking a healthy item — chicken without mayonnaise.

It may sound small, but Petrino says that showed him that Mallett has matured since he arrived on campus in 2008.

Mallett is hovering at about 232 pounds right now, and coaches would like to bulk him up to near 240 for the fall. He should also be cleared to participate in voluntary drills in June.

DH: I don't think anyone will question Arkansas' explosiveness on offense, but there are some key changes on that side of the ball. Paul Petrino left for the OC job at Illinois, so Garrick McGee was promoted to O coordinator. O line coach Mike Summers was replaced by Chris Klenakis, who did some impressive work with Nevada's running game last year. How have the new guys fit in, and what changes might be in store with the coaching shake-ups?

BM: You're going to see the Pistol offense quite a bit next season. The coaches at Arkansas call it the 'Shot," and they did run it a bit last season but mainly with the passing game. The hope is that with Chris Klenakis on staff, the Hogs can learn to run the ball with more success out of the formation. Klenakis helped install the Pistol at Nevada in the past and he's worked with Coach Petrino in the past. In fact, this coaching staff has a heavy Petrino flavor as he has coaching connections with most of his assistants.

The loss of Paul Petrino, I believe, was huge in the offseason and it may have been a contributing factor to the off-game the receivers had in the Liberty Bowl. Paul was the best assistant on the staff last season, and the job he did improving the receivers was remarkable. Garrick McGee was a natural choice to become the offensive coordinator, even if Bobby Petrino is the one calling the plays. Many believe McGee is on his way to being a head coach somewhere within the next two seasons.

The running game has been as big a focus as anything this spring, and it may have cost Arkansas' passing game a tad. Bobby Petrino believes the passing game took a step back. It's up to Kris Cinkovich to improve the receiving corps, which features three of the top pass-catchers in the SEC — Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright.

Defenisvely is where the most improvement can be seen with the hiring of a new assistant. Steve Caldwell is molding Arkansas' defensive ends into a team strength, and DE Jake Bequette was a menace off the edge in the spring. Watch out for that group next season, as Arkansas began to see more production from the ends near the end of last season. The hiring of Caldwell, who coached some of the best at Tennessee, was a great addition and one Petrino has been working on for a while. You may remember that Petrino came after Caldwell to be his defensive coordinator in 2008, but Caldwell passed and stayed at Tennessee.

DH: Obviously it's the defense that worries most Arkansas fans, and for two straight seasons under Bobby Petrino, it's been pretty bad. Beyond the coaching changes, have you seen anything this spring that would lead you to believe the unit can be revitalized this coming season?

BM: The cornerbacks and, as mentioned above, the defensive ends, have improved. I think the key next season is the return of Isaac Madison, who was out all last season with an injured knee, at cornerback. His addition and the improvement of rising sophomore Darius Winston has given the Hogs some needed depth and production at corner. For the first time since this staff has been here I heard the term "lockdown" when describing the coverage by the cornerbacks at times this spring.

The move of Rudell Crim from cornerback to strong safety has also helped. He's now the fastest safety on the team and his move late in the spring proved fruitful in the latter practices, when the defense became disruptive. In fact, the defense snagged seven interceptions in one practice.

The weakness is linebacker, where the depth is almost non-existent. Bret Harris showed promise as a backup. Jerry Franklin was in the weight room for most of the spring by Petrino's orders, but will be counted on next season. There's also Jerico Nelson to look at there, who seems to never come off the field. The Hogs may count on freshmen for depth, including newcomer Braylon Mitchell.

DH: Georgia fans won't soon forget the shootout in Fayetteville last year in which Arkansas' secondary made Joe Cox look like a Heisman candidate. How much has Arkansas really improved that secondary this season after the unit finished 99th in the nation in pass defense a year ago?

BM: As mentioned above, the move of Rudell Crim over to strong safety was needed and provided some added production. Darius Winston hit the weight and film rooms hard this offseason. His big weakness was, well, his upper body weakness. He was man-handled at times last season, but was stronger on the field this spring. I recall one example when he threw the much larger Greg Childs to the ground while fighting for the ball during a scrimmage. That opened some eyes.

The problem, though, is that they need to be more consistent. They'll play the short game well and have improved on halting yards-after-the-catch, but they're still weak stopping the big play. We saw it in the spring game when the two defenses gave up 10 plays of 25 yards or longer, including an 88-yard run by backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell.

It remains to be seen. The good thing for Arkansas fans is that the defense did improve as the season went on last year. In fact, if not for the defense in the Liberty Bowl, the Hogs could have been 7-6.

DH: Forgive me for another Ole Miss comparison, but like the Rebels last year, Arkansas seems like the chic dark-horse pick this season. What's the attitude among the players and coaches to all the offseason love? Has it been a motivation or have coaches worked to maintain underdog status in the locker room?

BM: Bobby Petrino does not like the underdog role. He has embraced the high expectations and has made it no secret that he wants to win an SEC championship this season. He's told the media this and it's the talk in the locker room nearly every day.

It's easy to label someone the "darkhorse," when that team's offense is sexy. The passing game is fun to watch, the receivers are physical and fast, and with Ryan Mallett's star power, it makes the pick so much easier for the national guys. Lost in all this is the need for improvement from the running game and defense. Arkansas was a quick-strike offense last season, but they need to be able to run the clock and improve in short-yardage situations.

And we all know they need to improve leaps and bounds on defense to be a contender for a BCS game.

Even so, there was improvement this spring and the coaches think the pieces are in place for a special season.

One thing is for certain, it's going to be fun to watch Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU battle it out in the SEC West next season. It's going to be the toughest division of any power conference out there.

***


Many thanks to Brandon for the analysis. You can read his Arkansas blog HERE, check out his Arkansas videos HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

So, what say you guys? Should Arkansas really be a chic pick for an SEC West title? Or do you think those defensive deficiencies will be too much to overcome? And just how concerned will you be for the Hogs visit to Athens in September?

And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at dhale@macon.com.

NEXT UP: Wrapping up Georgia's opposition with a look at Colorado this afternoon.

5 comments:

Donn said...

I've yet to see a Hogger without over-the-top optimism about their squad. Petrino's unqualified genius and sure trajectory toward BCS greatness has left them all with an itch in their underpants they can't help but scratch. Every 3-star recruit they sign, passed over by LSU, Bama, Auburn, Texas, etc., is an athletic freak with eye-opening on-field acumen. Bullshit. They've got some nice parts. Petrino's a good offensive coach, but a professional flake. Mallett has all the talent in the world, but his away numbers and those against the better defenses of the SEC are pretty atrocious. And that defense...No one mentioned they lost their best defensive tackle, and with the lack of depth at LB, what's going to stop teams from gutting them with the run game? Then Mallett's arm won't matter.

A team with sexy pieces? Sure. And the schedule sets up for them well. Playing Georgia after two home cupcakes could be a perfect set-up (or a rude awakening). And the SEC West may in fact be grossly overrated. Mississippi State looks to be improved, I guess. But at this point you might as well consider Ole Miss, LSU and Auburn all to be lazy-eyed schizophrenics. The Mad Hatter is incredibly numb-skulled game manager who, with stockpiles talent, has underachieved every year, including during the National Championship run. Ole Miss lost its top offensive skill position players and its top edge rusher. Auburn thinks its JUCO quarterback is the messiah (oh yeah, remember ex-SEC JUCO-transfer QB Brent Schaeffer? How did that go?) And its defense is razor thin and still highly suspect.

Bama will be Bama. Arkansas is fortunate to skip Florida. I see the Hogs with four wins for sure, possibly eight or nine after we find out who their opponents really are, such as A&M

Now, I do admit that self-delusion is the best way to pass the off-season. I mean, one of these days, C.J. Byrd is going to be sick!

MauiDawg said...

Out of all the "underdog" teams...I like Arkansas. They are going to be downright scary this year IMO. I hate that we have to play them this year. Dawgs better be ready.

AppleDawg said...

The fact that EVERYONE is picking Arkansas to surprise means they won't actually surprise anyone

Their O is good but not great and against good O's last season they struggled

Their D also blows and IMO is not going to just suddenly be great

Anonymous said...

I think the reason why so many fans consider Arkansas an "underdog" is because it's a program that never lives up to high expectations. They're really not much different than Georgia in that regard, except Arkansas has probably been even worse.

But Arkansas hasn't always disappointed when it had high expectations, and most Arkansas fans would agree with me that Coach Nutt was to blame for that trait. What happened to Ole Miss last year didn't surprise many of us, because we pretty much expected it.

Despite the enthusiasm, I'm not sure that Arkansas fans are expecting any more than others around the nation are for the Razorbacks (anything better than last year is fine with most of us.) I mention this because it won't be a disappointment if we finish third in the conference, as some believe it would. What we do expect, however, is some level of improvement, which was usually missing from Arkansas teams in similar situations under Coach Nutt.

My point is that Arkansas may not be great next season, but I don't expect it to be disappointing. When Nutt's Arkansas teams were expected to be good, I knew we were in for a letdown, and that's some of the reason why he's no longer the coach. But I don't expect this now that Nutt is gone and others shouldn't either, because it's not a trait of the Arkansas football program historically.

toboer pearls said...

A team with sexy pieces? Sure. And the schedule sets up for them well. Playing Georgia after two home cupcakes could be a perfect set-up (or a rude awakening). And the SEC West may in fact be grossly overrated. Mississippi State looks to be improved, I guess. But at this point you might as well consider Ole Miss, LSU and Auburn all to be lazy-eyed schizophrenics. The Mad Hatter is incredibly numb-skulled game manager who, with stockpiles talent, has underachieved every year, including during the National Championship run. Ole Miss lost its top offensive skill position players and its top edge rusher. Auburn thinks its JUCO quarterback is the messiah (oh yeah, remember ex-SEC JUCO-transfer QB Brent Schaeffer? How did that go?) And its defense is razor thin and still highly suspect.