22 August 2008
Early last December, I was in a bar with a couple of friends on a road trip, when I thought I saw the crawl on ESPN note that Bobby Petrino had resigned in Atlanta and was headed to Arkansas. I wrote it off as beer goggles and didn't think anything else about it.
A few short hours later, I watched as Bobby Petrino stood and shouted "Woo Pig Sooey!" at a press conference in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I was further stunned. I'm still not sure I believe it, to be totally honest. It was one of the great shockers I've seen in my entire time following college football.
Selfishly, I was glad that the national media suddenly had fresh chum in the water, and Nick Saban would be left alone for thirty minutes or so. But still, stunned. Houston Nutt had just been essentially run out of town - after leading the Razorbacks to a triple overtime victory over a top five ranked team in LSU! And he'd been replaced by a guy who makes Saban look like Frank Beamer
. In each of the last 5 seasons, Petrino has flirted with another team.
Will he last at Arkansas? Maybe he's sincere when he says he prefers the college game - and despite all the flirtation, Petrino never really did leave Louisville (until the Arthur Blank's Home Depot checkbook came calling). Really, only time will tell.
The Razorbacks wound up 8-5 last season, and their offense is principally gone. Felix Jones is in Dallas and Darren McFadden is in Oakland. McFadden amassed 140.8 yards per game last year - first in the conference by nearly 40 yards per game... think about that for a second. Then consider Felix Jones racked up another 89.4. That Arkansas had 2 backs in the top five in rushing is just insane.
The back slated to replace that duo is Michael Smith - who is just 5'7", 173 pounds. that's much smaller than the two guys he's replacing; Jones was considered small at 6'0", 200 pounds. The upside for the more fragile Smith is that the backs will get many less carries in Petrino's offense than when they were playing Nutt ball (I'm so pleased I was able to work in that phrase).
The center of attention in Petrino's offense will be Casey Dick. How effectively Dick throws will be the key to success in Arkansas this year. He's been lackluster his entire career. In his 3 years, he's thrown the ball for more than 200 yards in SEC competition just once - against a dreadful South Carolina pass defense for 228 yards. He had one interception and one touchdown in that game.
Obviously, Dick hasn't been asked to throw much, and that will change in a big way this year, as Petrino's offense couldn't be more dissimilar to what we've seen from the Hogs in the last few years. Houston Nutt would be content to hand the ball off 75 times a game if he could get away with it. Despite his reputation as a throw-first guy, Petrino wants much more balance.
Dick will have no real reliable, established wide receivers to throw to - Lucas Miller is the leading returning receiver with 12 catches last year. London Crawford is coming off a big spring, and caught eight balls last year. There's hardly any experience here.
The Arkansas offensive line, however, is where the Hogs will shine. Last year's Rimington Award winning center Jonathan Luigs is back as a two-time All-American. He's back to prove to the NFL he can pass block, and smart money says that isn't a problem. He's looked great in drills to this point.
He's surrounded by experienced talent on the line. There are no other standouts, but everyone in the rotation is expected to be more than capable. Line play will not be where Arkansas is hurting.
The same is true on the defensive line. Three starters return up front on the d-line. Senior tackles Earnest Mitchell and Marcus Shavers missed most of the spring with injuries. That proved as mixed bag, as they're healthy now, and that means that less-experienced tackles saw more reps in the spring.
Additionally, Malcom Sheppard brings experience and versatility to the tackle lineup; he's started 14 games in his first two seasons in Fayetteville - some at tackle and some at end.
Adrian Davis and Antwain Robinson are the big name rush ends. Davis spent the spring fighting injuries, but seems to be better and ready to go.
Linebackers will be a familiar story to the Tide faithful. They're green - very green. Lots of freshmen - some of them true freshmen - will play linebacker for Arkansas. MLB Wendel Davis is back from an ACL injury that held him out of spring and will anchor the LB corps.
It's more of the same in the secondary. There's hardly any real experience returning, save junior Rashaad Johnson (four games started in the last 2 years) at free safety. He'll be matched at strong safety by senior Dallas Washington - who despite playing in 36 games over the last 4 years (he redshirted in 2005), has zero starts under his belt.
It will be cornerback by committee as injuries kept the experienced corners sidelined in the spring. Youngsters scored most of the reps in spring camp, as sophomore Isaac Madison and senior Shedrick Johnson sat for huge chunks of the spring. Both are contending for starting jobs with a large group of younger backs.
Arkansas opens with a pair of patsies (in the interest of full disclosure, patsy #2 is Louisiana-Monroe), before heading to Austin for what seems like an inevitable whipping at the hands of Texas. Just seven days later, Alabama comes calling. To go bowling in Petrino's first season, the Hogs will need a victory over Alabama. Their eastern opponents this season are South Carolina and Kentucky on the road and Florida at home. Inverted, the Hogs would handle Kentucky and challenge the Gamecocks. It's not as easy on the road.
Despite my prediction here, I feel exceptionally uneasy that Arkansas will trip someone else up. I'm exceptionally nervous that will be the Tide. It is a huge game for Arkansas, and they're always up for it. Fayetteville is loud and it's a tough place to play. Additional upset candidates include anyone in the SEC West.
Either way, Petrino will be hard pressed to better his abysmal winning percentage from a year ago with the Falcons. No bowling for Arkansas this year, but Petrino will get the talent he needs for his system in Fayetteville. And he'll return the Hogs to SEC West prominence soon enough after this rebuilding year.
If he stays long enough.