Forget what you think you know about John L. Smith, because to Arkansas, all that mattered was this: he was experienced, he was familiar with the roster, he was familiar with the program’s returning staff and he was available. Oh, and he was available to rent, not to buy; Smith is being leased by the university, which needed a solution but wasn’t yet in the market for a permanent replacement for Bobby Petrino, once the savior, now the no-good ex-flame. Smith, the former Arkansas assistant who left Fayetteville after last season to take the head coaching job at Weber State, signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract with the school, which can choose to take a new plunge into the coaching pool in December or January, depending on when Smith’s one-year turn with the Razorbacks ends — or the Razorbacks and athletic director Jeff Long can opt to alter the terms of Smith’s contract, buying in rather than renting. What would Smith need to do in order to become Petrino’s replacement? What many thought Arkansas would do before Petrino sped out of favor: take the fight to L.S.U. and Alabama.
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
at Texas A&M
at South Carolina
at Mississippi St.
Last year’s prediction
It’s happened quickly, in about three years, but here we are: Arkansas is one of the best teams in the SEC. Obviously, the Razorbacks have more questions to address than Alabama or L.S.U., hence their projected third-place finish in the SEC West. But the ceiling for this team is extremely, extremely high – the national title, remember. Here’s the good news: Arkansas can lose a game in the regular season and still take the West, though the head-to-head tiebreakers may hinder that cause. If the line and secondary round into form, this could be one of the five best teams in the country.
In a nutshell A year that went very much along predictable lines: Arkansas took care of every team on its schedule — outside of L.S.U. and Alabama. That pair had their way with the Razorbacks, with the Tide notching a 38-14 win in September and the Tigers following suit with a 41-17 victory in the regular season finale. There’s nothing wrong with this; heading into the year, Arkansas was not yet judging itself against those two powers but rather against the schedule in its entirety, and by that standard, the Razorbacks’ 11-win finish marked a clear and substantial step forward in Petrino’s fourth season. Included among the 11 victories were several of note, including a 16-point win at South Carolina, back-to-back wins over Auburn and Texas A&M to open October and a tough, hard-fought win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. What’s at least a touch ironic is the fact that come 2012 — had Petrino returned — the Razorbacks were no longer going to be satisfied with beating everyone minus the Tide and Tigers. Now, with Petrino gone, the Razorbacks are reevaluting their standards.
High point The 44-28 win at South Carolina on Nov. 5. That was one of four wins against teams then ranked in the Top 25, joining victories over then-No. 15 Auburn, then-No. 14 A&M and then-No. 8 Kansas State. It was also perhaps Arkansas’ most complete win, one that combined a rare fool-proof defensive performance and another sterling showing from one of the great offenses in school history.
Low point The losses to L.S.U. and Alabama. The latter came by 24 points; while Arkansas was within a field goal midway through the second quarter, an interception turned the game in the Tide’s favor — and opened the floodgates. The loss to L.S.U. started well for the Razorbacks, who took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, but that edge evaporated under your typical L.S.U. onslaught of defensive and special teams domination.
Tidbit Last year’s team was only third in program history to win 11 games, joining the Lou Holtz-led Razorbacks of 1977 and Frank Broyles’ title-winning team in 1964. Arkansas has also back-to-back double-digit win seasons for only the third time in its history, joining 1988-89 and 1964-65. The Razorbacks opened last November with three straight 40-point games during conference play: South Carolina (44-28), Tennessee (49-7) and Mississippi State (44-17). That marked the first time in the program’s SEC history – U.A. joined the conference in 1992 – that it had scored 40 or more points in three straight league games.
Tidbit (passing edition) The Razorbacks threw for at least 300 yards in 25 of Petrino’s 51 games with the program. Arkansas had 16 300-yard games from 1894-2007 – from John Futrall, the first coach in school history, through Reggie Herring, who replaced Houston Nutt on an interim basis for the 2008 Cotton Bowl.
Tidbit (November edition) Arkansas’ offense provided the fireworks, but in my opinion, the strongest characteristic of Petrino’s teams was their ability to close strong. The Razorbacks went 12-4 in November from 2008 through last season: 2-2 in 2008, 3-1 in 2009, 4-0 in 2010 and 3-1 a year ago. That was two games better than L.SU. (10-6) over this span and only a game behind Alabama (13-3).
Former players in the N.F.L.
29 WR Joe Adams (Carolina), DE Damario Ambrose (New York Jets), DE Jamaal Anderson (Cincinnati), DE Jake Bequette (New England), WR Greg Childs (Minnesota), OG Grant Cook (Minnesota), RB De’Anthony Curtis (Tampa Bay), OG Ray Dominiguez (Green Bay), LB Jerry Franklin (Denver), OT Nate Garner (Miami), CB Gregory Gatson (San Diego), LS Brett Goode (Green Bay), DT Marcus Harrison (New England), RB Peyton Hillis (Kansas City), CB Chris Houston (Detroit), RB Felix Jones (Dallas), OT DeMarcus Love (Minnesota), QB Ryan Mallett (New England), RB Darren McFadden (Oakland), S Jerico Nelson (New Orleans), OT Jason Peters (Philadelphia), OG Mitch Petrus (New York Giants), DT Malcolm Sheppard (Tennessee), S Tramain Thomas (Tampa Bay), OG Jose Valdez (St. Louis), OG Bobbie Williams (Baltimore), TE D.J. Williams (Green Bay), S George Wilson (Buffalo), WR Jarius Wright (Minnesota).
Arbitrary top five list
Bobby Petrino’s next stop (as F.B.S. head coach)
2. East Carolina.
4. Middle Tennessee State.
John L. Smith (Weber State ’71), entering his first season. In April, the Razorbacks tabbed Smith to replace Bobby Petrino, who was relieved of his duties for intentionally misleading the university about his hire of an administrative assistant, their relationship and the motorcycle accident that first brought the relationship to light. Smith spent the last three seasons on Petrino’s staff at Arkansas, serving as the special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach. Petrino and Smith go back to 1989, when Smith, then the head coach at Idaho, hired Petrino as his quarterbacks coach. Petrino then followed Smith to Utah State, where Smith served as head coach from 1995-97, and again to Louisville, where Smith spent another five years, from 1998-2002. As a head coach, Smith’s success on college football’s lower rungs merits mention: Idaho went 53-21 from 1989-94, winning at least nine games four times and 11 games in 1993; Utah State went 16-18 from 1995-97, with Smith notching back-to-back six-win seasons after a 4-7 start in 1995; and Louisville went 41-21, taking 11 games in 2001 and laying the groundwork for the program’s leap from Conference USA to the Big East. But this success came with a price: Smith was hired at Michigan State in 2003, tasked with leading a program on a downswing after Bobby Williams’ uneven three-year turn, and after winning eight games in his debut led the Spartans through a very painful — and at time embarrassing — run towards the bottom of the Big Ten. Based on the way his tenure ended in East Lansing, most thought Smith would never again get the keys to a B.C.S. conference program, if even another F.B.S. program. That Smith accepted the Weber State job after last season underlined that fact: Smith might be welcomed back at his alma mater, but no major program was interested. Except Arkansas, that is, which turned towards Smith after Petrino placed the program in a tough spot. Smith’s the anti-Petrino: gregarious, flashy, loud, funny and open, he presents Arkansas in an entirely different light than his wildly successful predecessor. Then again, Smith is also no Petrino between the white lines.
Tidbit (coaching edition) First, the three coaches who hold the same exact duties as they held at this point a year ago: wide receivers coach Kris Cinkovich, running backs coach Tim Horton and offensive line coach Chris Klenakis. Next, the four coaches who hold the same duties as they held for the Cotton Bowl: offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Paul Petrino, who replaced Garrick McGee; defensive coordinator and co-defensive backs coach Paul Haynes, the former Ohio State assistant who replaced Willy Robinson; co-defensive backs coach Bobby Allen, the former defensive tackles coach; and defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator Steve Caldwell, who formerly coached only the ends but picked up Smith’s special teams duties for the postseason.
Then there are the two new additions. Linebackers coach Taver Johnson followed Haynes over from Ohio State in January, following the Buckeyes’ coaching change. Johnson was an immediate hit in Fayetteville; he was the interim head coach for two weeks of spring ball following Petrino’s dismissal, and was considered the leading in-house target – remember, Smith was at Weber State during this time – to be the Razorbacks’ head coach for this coming season. The second new hire isn’t exactly new, in a sense: Kevin Peoples, who will coach the defensive tackles, spent the last two seasons as Arkansas’ director of high school relations. Before that, Peoples was Arkansas State’s defensive line coach from 2002-9.
Players to watch
You’ve seen him pacing the sidelines, chomping at the bit, and held your breath when he actually took a fall during non-contact work – he stepped on an offensive lineman’s foot, so it was nothing serious, but you still held your breath. It’s been just more than a year since Knile Davis suffered the ankle injury that sidelined him for all of last season, robbing the Razorbacks of the leading returning rusher in the SEC, and even if the recovery process has been slow, you can’t blame U.A. for playing it safe: Davis, when healthy, is one of the most electric running backs in college football – and, as such, will be treated with kid gloves until the staff feels he’s ready to absorb contact.
When he does return, Davis will headline an outstanding three-man backfield. With Davis out last fall, Arkansas turned the reins over to seniors Ronnie Wingo (458 yards) and Dennis Johnson (670), who split time nearly down the middle. While Davis, if healthy, will take away most of this duo’s touches in the running game, look for Wingo and Johnson to remain a very valuable part of this offense in the passing game; the pair combined for 44 receptions last fall, and should continue to be useful coming out of the backfield. The short-yardage role will go to redshirt freshman Kody Walker, who scored five times over the Razorbacks’ first three games before suffering a season-ending injury – he was granted a medical redshirt, saving a year of eligibility.
This is the plan should Davis be healthy from the start, and it’s too early to feel confident about his ability to give this offense 20 carries in the season opener. Instead, the plan should be to slowly work Davis into the mix over the latter stages of fall camp and then get his feet wet against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe. In a perfect world, Davis is back up to his old trick in time for Alabama. If not, the Razorbacks can take some solace in the fact that Johnson and Wingo have proven themselves as the lead backs in this system; in addition, U.A. will get a full season from Walker.
Still, you can’t help but dream of an offense that has a Heisman-caliber runner and a Heisman-worthy quarterback sharing space in the backfield. The latter is senior Tyler Wilson, who after quietly testing the draft waters after a wonderful first year as the Razorbacks’ starter opted to return to Fayetteville for his senior season. Wilson is like most of the nation’s elite class of pocket passers: he’s accurate, poised and strong-armed, assets that helped him throw for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns a season ago. What separates Wilson from the rest, however, is his toughness – he weathered the storm last fall, taking hit after hit after hit, and just when you thought he’d had enough, when an opponent had finally broken his stride, Wilson would pop up, dust himself off, smile and get back to work.
That’s just one thing to admire about Wilson, but there’s more. For one, there’s the way he stepped seamlessly into the starting lineup to replace Ryan Mallett, who set every meaningful school passing record over his two years in the starting lineup. There’s the way Wilson spread the football throughout his entire receiver corps, taking advantage of the Razorbacks’ depth and talent out wide and at tight end. And then there’s this: Wilson, despite the surrounding talent and experience, became the unquestioned leader of this offense – of this team, perhaps – shortly after taking the reins in September. He’s a Heisman contender for a reason; being prolific is one thing, but it’s the intangibles that makes Wilson such a special quarterback.
Of course, it wouldn’t kill Arkansas to keep him a little clean. It wasn’t merely about the sacks last fall – though U.A. ranked 74th nationally in sacks allowed – but also the total pressure brought into the backfield, pressure that often resulted in Wilson flat on his back, going off crowd noise to gauge his throw’s success. Klenakis and Smith have said that only one lineman is assured of a starting role, and that’s right, in a way: Travis Swanson, a junior, is definitely returning to his spot at center. But while U.A. is hoping that competition will bring out the best from its entire roster of linemen, the Razorbacks will eventually settle on the best starting five.
Eventually, you’ll see senior Jason Peacock and sophomore Brey Cook at tackle, sophomore Mitch Smothers at left guard and junior Alvin Bailey at right guard. After moving into the staff’s doghouse over the summer, a recommitment to conditioning allowed Bailey, an all-SEC contender, to reclaim his starting role on the strong side. Peacock had his own offseason troubles to worry about, but he should hold onto the left tackle spot – though I wouldn’t be surprised if he and Brey swap sides, or if Smothers moves outside at some point this season. The two sophomores are promising, as are several other underclassmen coming up the pipeline, so a player like Peacock shouldn’t get comfortable. What Peacock should do, however, is do whatever it takes to keep Wilson upright. The line’s a year wiser, but still a question mark when it comes to protection.
Arkansas’ defense had more than a few hide-the-children afternoon last fall, from the ugliness that was the victory over Texas A&M, the sloppy showing against Vanderbilt and the listless effort against L.S.U. – and it was the latter that finally cost Willy Robinson his job. That brought in Haynes, the Buckeyes’ former co-defensive coordinator, and you liked what you saw from the Razorbacks in the bowl win over Kansas State; more than anything, you liked the way this defense ran to the football, the sort of ferocious tackling that seemed to be missing for much of the regular season. You liked that, but you’d love to see Arkansas carry that mentality over to this coming season.
One area where the Razorbacks already have a leg up is in Haynes’ early arrival: that he stepped on campus in December, leading the Razorbacks through bowl play and then through a series of spring drills, has this defense ahead of most groups entering their first year under a new coordinator. And the added time with the program has helped Haynes and U.A. slide several new players into starting roles, not to mention move one or two returning defenders into new roles.
One move found senior Tenarius Wright (25 tackles, 5.0 for loss) moving from end, where he made eight starts last fall, up to middle linebacker, where he replaces one of the best linebackers in school history in Jerry Franklin. This is a tough role for any returning defender to take on, let alone one making a position change. But in making the move, Haynes has not only made his second level bigger – not much bigger, though Wright does bring added size – but also imbues this group with a different feel on passing downs; while Wright is new to the position, his pass-rushing skills may come in handy on third down. If Wright struggles adapting to his new role, Arkansas can turn the spot over to senior Terrell Williams, who was disappointingly unproductive a season ago. Another option is true freshman Otha Peters, who needs only to learn this system before moving into the rotation.
Wright will be flanked by senior Alonzo Highsmith (80 tackles, 12.5 for loss), a second-team all-SEC pick last fall, and senior Matt Marshall, one of last season’s reserves. Highsmith has battled some injury issues this offseason, from a torn pectoral in the spring to a hamstring ailment earlier this month, but come September, he’ll lead the team in tackles and be extremely disruptive in the backfield. I see one major difference between this group and last season’s trio: Arkansas is not only bigger but more prototypical, with three clear linebackers and no pseudo-hybrid like Jerico Nelson, a safety-sized linebacker who filled one of the outside spots last fall.
Wright’s move not only helped U.A. find Franklin’s replacement but also opened up starting roles for both junior Chris Smith (31 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and sophomore Trey Flowers (28 tackles, 5.5 for loss). This pair combined to make six starts last fall, with Smith stepping in for an injured Jake Bequette and Flowers spelling Wright, and played well enough to more than justify a move into the starting lineup – and that starting experience, while small, will pay enormous dividends in 2012. Rounding out the top group at end is JUCO transfer Austin Flynn, a California product who has already impressed the staff. While the linebackers are bigger, the ends are smaller; Flowers in particular is a somewhat smaller, speedier, potentially dynamic rush end.
The Razorbacks will continue to roll out the same four-tackle rotation along the interior. The starters will be juniors Bryan Jones (47 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and Robert Thomas (23 tackles), as was the case a year ago, but look for seniors Alfred Davis and DeQuinta Jones (19 tackles) to continue pushing that top pair for snaps – especially DeQuinta Jones, who moved into a starting role for a few games in November. As shown at Alabama, L.S.U. and elsewhere, controlling the flow along the line of scrimmage wins games in the SEC; with these four interior linemen and the three ends, Arkansas’ defensive line should help the Razorbacks take a nice step forward against the run. Whether the pass rush improves, however, depends solely on how well Smith and Flowers replace Bequette’s lost production.
The lack of depth and proven production in the secondary is troubling, to put it mildly. What Arkansas will do is put forth a competent starting quartet – competent, not outstanding – and pray for no serious injuries, as any missed time from this group would lead to significant issues for this entire defense. This is doubly true at cornerback, where U.A. has two clear starters in sophomore Tevin Mitchel (56 tackles) and senior Darius Winston but lacks any semblance of experience along the second level. Mitchel’s a nice prospect, but with Wintson failing to match his recruiting hype the onus of lining up with the SEC’s best receivers falls entirely on the sophomore.
At safety, U.A. returns one starter in junior Eric Bennett (74 tackles, 3 interceptions) and a few reserves, like senior Ross Rasner, a converted outside linebacker, and sophomore Alan Turner. But with big shoes to fill – Tramain Thomas earned all-SEC honors at free safety – the Razorbacks opted to move junior Jerry Mitchell over from cornerback rather than promote one of last season’s backups. You see the warning signs: Arkansas can’t feel overly confident in its starting four, let alone what it has in store behind this group on the two-deep.
A lot is riding on Haynes’ ability to build upon this defense’s strong play during the Cotton Bowl. The line is strong inside, especially in terms of depth, and ends like Smith and Flowers bring promise, if not a tremendous amount of proven production. But the lack of depth along the back seven stands out when held against what Arkansas’ prime conference rivals bring to the table. The question marks include Wright, due to the position change; the cornerback pairing of Mitchel and Winston; the free safety spot; and despite the potential at end, the Razorbacks’ pass rush.
Most of the chatter surrounding Arkansas’ special teams surrounds the loss of Joe Adams, and deservedly so; he was the nation’s best return man last fall, after all. But focusing solely on Adams ignores all that U.A. still brings to the table on special teams, from the outstanding kicking tandem of junior Zach Hocker and senior Dylan Breeding to a still-dangerous return team headlined by Dennis Johnson. Hocker enters his third season as the most accurate kicker in school history; last fall, Breeding became the first punter in school history to lead the SEC in punting average. While U.A. will take a step back without Adams, it won’t be an enormous step back – less explosive, yes, but still dangerous.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver The three seniors lost to graduation capped their careers ranked first, second and ninth on the program’s all-time receiving list. It’s not merely about the lost production, though that looms large; it’s also about the idea that Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs were the focal points of a pass-first offense that continued to reach new highs over the last four years, leaving U.A. without ample experience at the position as Wilson enters his senior season. The focus now turns over to senior Cobi Hamilton (34 receptions for 542 yards), the lone receiver of consequence returning from last year’s rotation: Hamilton, who shared time with Childs inside, must give Wilson the production he needs from the Razorbacks’ top target.
It’s a tough task for any receiver, but I do think that Hamilton is up to the challenge. He’s been a key factor in each of the last two years, making a combined 66 grabs for 1,172 yards, and has developed a rapport with his quarterback. He’s earned this chance; look for Hamilton to take the reins as Arkansas’ top receiver. Behind Hamilton are juniors Javontee Herndon (8 for 137) and Julian Horton, rounding out the likely starting lineup. But there is some help on the way from this winter’s recruiting class, though it’s hard to say if this group can follow Adams, Childs and Wright and step right into significant action – all three debuted as true freshmen, combining for 68 grabs in 2008.
The new class includes one JUCO transfer, Demetrius Wilson, and a quartet of freshmen: Mekale McKay, D’Arthur Cowan, Eric Hawkins and Keon Hatcher. While Wilson’s height and length makes him an intriguing addition, it’s been Hatcher and McKay that have impressed Arkansas the most during the early stages of fall camp – Petrino implied recently that this pair has separated themselves from the rest of the new pack over the last week and change. You can see some parallels to 2008: Arkansas has an all-conference tight end in Chris Gragg (41 for 518), who’s absolutely terrific; a few returning receivers with experience, with Hamilton filling the role of London Crawford or Lucas Miller; and the incoming recruits resembling the rookies of 2008 – Adams, Wright and Childs.
Game(s) to watch
The SEC West goes through Alabama and L.S.U., which hasn’t changed. But U.A. must also focus on those notch-lower teams in the SEC, opponents like Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, not mention another SEC title contender in South Carolina. And then there’s Rutgers, which might be less talented – and undergoing a coaching change of its own – but will bring one of the nation’s most underrated defenses to the table in September. With losses to Alabama and L.S.U. in the cards, in my opinion, Arkansas’ hopes at netting an at-large B.C.S. bid would require not only a slide from either the Tide or Tigers – because it’s nearly impossible for three teams from the same league to get a B.C.S. bid – but also a perfect run the rest of the way. It would take a copy of last season, basically, with the added bonus of a step back from L.S.U. and Alabama.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell It all comes down to coaching. Arkansas was never going to beat Alabama and L.S.U. with talent against talent – while the Razorbacks recruit well, the team’s overall talent level alone will never be enough to claim an SEC West title. It’s all about coaching; it’s about schematics, blueprints, game plans and adjustments, and it’s in these areas that Arkansas will take the steepest dive without Petrino running the show. He was the reason why Arkansas was viewed as a national title contender prior to April: Petrino was such a good pregame and in-game coach that it seemed logical that he’d eventually dream up a plan for beating Alabama and L.S.U., even if the Razorbacks were steamrolled by this pair a season ago. With Petrino gone, I can’t think of any reason why Arkansas should remain among those teams in the national title conversation.
Arkansas looks like a team that will take a step back from last year’s finish, whether or not the Razorbacks return players like Wilson, Davis, Highsmith and others. In terms of personnel, U.A. needs Herndon and Horton to step into starting roles at receiver, augmenting what Hamilton brings to the table, and at least three of the newcomers to provide depth. The offensive line, so weak in protection last fall, needs to gel as a group before meeting Alabama in September. The Razorbacks also need a healthy Davis, even if the offense clicked without him a season ago; you can envision an even more explosive attack should Davis regain his all-SEC form. Defensively, the Razorbacks are struggling with depth issues along the back seven while transitioning fully into Haynes’ new vision. While I like what he brings to the table, his defense might be hamstrung by the changes at linebacker and the lack of options in the secondary.
But it’s about coaching, not talent – even if the Razorbacks’ overall talent and experience on offense virtually ensures an eight-win season. The level of coaching is going to take a significant step back moving from Petrino to Smith, with one the architect of Arkansas’ climb and the other the former head coach at Weber State. While Smith will rally this team behind a cause, he will not give this program the sort of advantage it needs to unseat Alabama and L.S.U. from atop the West division. Instead, Arkansas will lose not only those two games but at least one and likely two others, in my mind, taking a step back from last season’s near-climb into a B.C.S. bowl.
Dream season New coach, new attitude, new results: Arkansas beats Alabama, L.S.U. and everyone else, netting a berth in the SEC title game and a great shot at playing for the national title.
Nightmare season Everything falls apart after Alabama comes into Fayetteville and goes to town. That loss is by another three in a row before U.A. rights the ship during the midseason, but the year ends with another two losses in three tries. One year after winning 11 games, the Razorbacks slide down to 6-6.
In case you were wondering
Where do Arkansas fans congregate? Take a deep breath. Arkansas has countless options, all with great names: Woo Pig, Hogs Illustrated, Hawg Sports, Hawgs Illustrated, Razor Bloggers, Hog Call and Arkansas Expats. If you like newspapers, check out the Web sites of the Arkansas News and The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I still may have missed one or two, so list them below.
Arkansas’ all-name nominee CB Kaelon Kelleybrew.
Through 106 teams 432,313.
Who is No. 18? The second-to-last time this program suffered no losses during a season it was led by a staff that included four assistants that would eventually become head coaches on the F.B.S. level.