It's Homecoming. That's got to mean Vanderbilt is in town. The poor Commodores have been everyone's Homecoming for as long as they've been putting together parades in honor of returning grads around the south.
There have been times that's been a mistake. Vanderbilt can and will win an SEC game now and then. Ask Ole Miss. The Rebels have lost to Vanderbilt, just after Jacksonville State. After seeing the Rebels last week, those that like to twist and play with comparative scores can come up with some numbers that will suggest that the Hogs should worry about Vandy this week.
There is some good news that it's Homecoming weekend. That usually means a late-season game and this one comes at the end of October. Typically, that's when you want to play the Commodores. The later the better. As the year goes along, Vandy's lack of depth shows up in the SEC. Vandy might be good along the front line, but injuries can leave them with too many weak spots.
There's more good news. This is a transition year for the Commodores. Bobby Johnson finally gave out this summer. One of the SEC's best coaches tired of the uphill battle of getting Vandy to SEC standards and retired. He did it in July so the school might leave his coaches in position instead of hiring a fresh coach who might turn things upside down.
That meant Robbie Caldwell, the defensive coordinator, was elevated to interim head coach. He left everything intact, until this week when he moved Des Kitchings to offensive coordinator. Kitchings, the running backs coach, replaces quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kisler as the playcaller. Kisler remains in charge of the QBs.
That's where we'll start in our weekly pre-game Top 10 Things to Watch:
1) Vanderbilt Offense
We've put Ryan Mallett in this spot for most of the season. He's the most important thing to watch for the Arkansas offense. He's a terrific player. But he's left the last two games with injuries (concussion against Auburn and a bruised left shoulder against Ole Miss) and the Hogs did fine with Tyler Wilson running the show. We don't think the Vandy offense is much to watch. It couldn't be or Caldwell wouldn't have made a change with the coordinators. But you need to watch closely to see if there are some changes. Tendencies might be different and that will be something the Arkansas staff has to monitor as the game develops. Blitz packages are drawn up primarily based on down-and-distance tendencies. The Hogs might not know what they are going to get from Kitchings for a series or two.
2) Ryan Mallett
Down from the No. 1 spot, Mallett is still the most important player on the field. It's just that Wilson could step in for him in a pinch at any time and the Hogs won't slip. That's good news for next season. All reports indicate Mallett just had a bruised scapula in his left shoulder against Ole Miss. We guess that Bobby Petrino noticed a couple of passes that slipped in velocity against the Rebels, asked about it during the first lightning break and didn't like the answer he got. Maybe it went something like this: "Coach, I hit my shoulder, that's why they lacked some zip." The response from Petrino might have gone something like this: "Let's look at some throws inside the building here. Yep, we'll go with Tyler when we come back out." We are guessing Mallett didn't like that. We are also guessing he wants to play well this week so the head coach doesn't see a need in playing Wilson anymore. Now, that's just speculation and something to watch. It seems obvious the head coach watches pretty closely.
3) Physical Presence
That's a big key this week. It was the difference last week. Arkansas won most of the battles up front and that's why the running backs found more room and why Ole Miss had to turn to the pass as the only way of transportation. Vanderbilt isn't bad as far as line play. Offensive line coach Chris Klenakis calls the Vandy defensive front "just plain salty." That may not be exactly the goal he has for his own offensive front. He likes "nasty" to be the end result. But it's clear he is respectful with the use of salty. The Arkansas guards had their best game against Ole Miss. They will have their hands full with the Commodores. If you want to see some telltale battles, watch Alvin Bailey, Wade Grayson and Grant Cook as they pull against the Vandy linebackers. Do they get them on the ground the way they did last week against Ole Miss?
4) Depth at defensive tackle
Vandy is getting a tackle back to full speed this week. T. J. Greenstone, defensive tackle and team captain, has been bothered by an ankle sprain. He missed some time, then played some last week against South Carolina. He should be closer to 100 percent this week. Meanwhile, the Hogs are losing a starting defensive tackle. Dede Jones was arrested in midweek for possession of marijuana. He's suspended. However, the Hogs are deeper than they've been in several weeks at the two inside tackle spots. Patrick Jones, injured for most of the season, is back to full speed. Zack Stadther, suspended for five games, is playing for the second straight week. Hence, the Hogs have five solid players to rotate at the two defensive tackle slots. Watch Greenstone against the Arkansas guards. Byran Jones and Lavunce Askew will start for the Hogs at tackle, but keep an eye out for how the Hogs rotate at those two spots.
5) Cornerback play
This might be the week Isaac Madison goes back to the starting slot at field corner, ahead of Darius Winston. Winston has started for three weeks. Some believed that Madison had an injury after the Alabama game. Winston had a good shot at locking down the job, but he was beaten several times last week against Ole Miss. Madison is more experienced and will slide back in this week. The Hogs were in position to make plays at corner against Ole Miss, but gave up three go routes. It's a good bet that Vandy will test them early and often this week. Vandy's cornerbacks are top notch. Both Eddie Foster and Casey Hayward would make most SEC rosters and would probably start at Arkansas. The Commodores are going to be without nickel back Jamie Graham, injured this week. I'd watch to see if Vandy puts Foster (5-10) or Hayward (6-0) on Childs. If it's Foster, that may be too much height to give up against the 6-4 Childs.
6) Kick returns
Joe Adams is out. His ankle sprain is going to force him to miss this week. That means Jarius Wright steps in as the punt return specialist. Wright's played there before. He handled those chores for several weeks as a freshman two years ago. He's capable and can produce big plays. The Hogs will look at Lance Ray or Cobi Hamilton as kick returners again this week. Ray is the first choice, but he tried to return one from 6 yards deep last week and has been encouraged by coaches to listen and watch for the commands from his three deep blockers. Bobby Petrino would rather Ray be smart than courageous. The Hogs did a little better in kickoff coverage and kickoff blocking last week. Will they continue to improve, or slide back into the funk that dominated both those units at Auburn.
7) The Arkansas Running Game
Knile Davis was superb last week. He broke through with three touchdown runs, including a 71-yarder that was celebrated afterwards. His vision and cutback ability was one of his strengths in the spring, but he had been a plodder until the Ole Miss game. He was a lightning bolt against the Rebels. He had good blocking from fullback Van Stumon, too. With wide receivers beat up, Petrino went with a lead blocker in the last half against the Rebels. Stumon proved to be just as valuable as say a Childs or an Adams, perhaps the man numerically that he replaced in the formation so the Hogs could go with a two-back set. Can Stumon repeat that performance? If he can, Davis might be running free against the safeties again this week. If you want to see some collisions, watch Stumon when he's at fullback. And be ready for a play-action fake. If those linebackers come up too fast, Stumon might cruise right past them and haul in a Mallett dump.
8) Mental Focus
Bobby Petrino didn't have to be asked if he was worried about a letdown after an emotional victory over Ole Miss last week. He brought it up after practice Thursday, noting he wasn't expecting a "letdown" after watching his team practice all week. He tried to get their legs fresh by giving them Sunday a complete off day from practice. Typically, the Hogs have worked out on Sunday night. That means they had both Sunday and Monday away from the rigors of practice. He expects a fresh team against Vandy. The Hogs have done better as far as penalties the last two weeks. Will that continue? That might be a sign of where their focus is for this week.
9) Fourth Quarter
There have been some fourth-quarter lapses this season, so it's worth watching again this week. The offense came to play in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss, but there were lapses by the offense, especially at cornerback. There have been some games where Vandy was out of it by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. It's good to apply the knockout blow early when an underdog comes to town. It would be nice if the fourth quarter is not worth watching this time around, or if this is the week some backups get some action.
10) Defensive ends
This a position that has produced big plays most weeks. Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose and Tenarius Wright have all been gamebreakers this season. They didn't step up at Auburn, but have been too much for most SEC offensive tackles this season. Vandy starts a freshman and a sophomore at offensive tackle. That's usually a bad recipe against the Arkansas ends. This might be a week that Chris Smith, still learning the position, gets some valuable playing time for the Hogs at defensive end.
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