How do you know an SEC football team? After almost 20 years of watching Arkansas fight for a foothold in the nation's most talented football conference, I can tell you it's an easy one-word answer. Depth.
Depth in the trenches. Depth at quarterback. Depth at running back. Depth throughout the defense.
Don't overlook that third area of important depth. Don't minimize what it means to have depth throughout the defense.
If there's one place you can't hide a loss, it's defense. You lose a key player on defense and don't have a decent replacement, SEC offensive coordinators hit that spot like sharks flying to blood.
So what do we have as we review spring drills for the Hogs? Do we have proper depth? Is this an SEC contender? Most notably, is this a team with enough defensive depth?
After watching every second of 15 spring workouts -- from the pre-practice stretch to all of the post-workout interviews -- this is the deepest, most talented, most experienced Arkansas team since the Hogs came into the SEC. I remember that first SEC team. It lost to The Citadel to open the 1992 season.
Not only did that Arkansas team lack talent, there was absolutely no depth -- anywhere. That team limped to the finish line, relying on a true freshman at quarterback. Somehow there was a victory at Tennessee, thanks to an Orlando Watters punt return and a wonderful kick from Todd Wright.
But I didn't take that victory as a signal that the Hogs had arrived in the SEC. Just as The Citadel loss sent Jack Crowe packing, the loss to Arkansas by Tennessee ended the Johnny Majors time in Knoxville. I heard the UT fans as I waded through them on the way to the field. "He's done," I heard over and over. I knew they were talking about Majors.
What Arkansas lacked then it has everywhere now. I'll start with the trenches. That's where SEC games are won. That's where Arkansas finally looks like an SEC team for maybe the first time since Roy Kramer said "come on down."
There is inexperience in the offensive line, but the talent is amazing. And it will be two deep when Mitch Smothers and Marcus Danenhauer get to campus for summer workouts. Never has an Arkansas offensive line looked this talented. No, it's not ready yet. But there is still a little time before the meat of the schedule hits.
Anthony Oden, Brey Cook, Jason Peacock and Grant Freeman will have to fight it out to see who is going to be the starters at the two tackle spots. But all four may eventually log time next season. Center Travis Swanson and strong guard Alvin Bailey are All-SEC caliber in the heart of the line and will be the anchor points. Grant Cook has SEC experience at the other guard, as does his chief challenger, Seth Oxner. Smothers will get a chance in August to shine there, too.
But my real fascination is with the defensive front. Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino will forever own a reputation for the way he develops quarterbacks and offenses, but where he earned his raise last winter was the way he's built the defensive line. It wasn't a physical group two years ago, but it is now.
Those inside tackles are fun to watch. There is Dede Jones, Byran Jones, Lavunce Askew, Alfred Davis and Zack Stadther from last year's rotation. Juco transfer Robert Thomas -- with three years to play -- might be more talented than any of those. He's that rare "three technique" inside tackle that can torment guards and chase down quarterbacks. He's the kind of pass rusher from the inside that Ohio State had in Cameron Heyward. He's Marcel Dareus, Nick Fairley and Charles Dorsey. He will likely provide his ends one-on-one blocking. That's the real value of a great "three" technique.
The defensive ends are two deep with more on the way. Jake Bequette, Tank Wright, Chris Smith and Colton Miles-Nash can play in the SEC. Smith and Miles-Nash made a move this spring. I can't wait to see the incoming class of ends. There may be two of them slide into a rotation that could feature six men. Fast men.
Petrino raved about the safety play this spring. That's the first time he's done that in his four years at Arkansas. Most of that time his offenses toyed with safeties because of inexperience and lack of speed. They didn't this time around. Tramain Thomas is the real deal at free safety. It's been awhile since I could write that and be correct. Darrell Smith made a move in the last week of spring after an appendectomy reduced his work in the first few workouts. Eric Bennett and Elton Ford will duel for the starting spot at strong safety, but either are good players.
Linebacker is the lone question mark as far as depth. The front liners appear to be Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Brett Harris. Ross Rasner might have been in that group until his arrest in the last week of spring drills. His status is now clouded. He hasn't been seen or mentioned since.
Terrell Williams, Braylon Mitchell, Matt Marshall, Tyler Gilbert and Jarrett Lake look like linebackers. They are talented, but have not been consistent within the scheme. I believe two or three will get there by the first game. Gilbert might have the most potential.
Cornerback appears to feature more talent and depth than in many seasons. There are two talented freshmen on the way, too. But Petrino didn't mention them as necessary come throughs when he talked about the new class this week.
Darius Winston, Isaac Madison and Greg Gatson had decent springs in a rotation at field corner, although none were consistent from start to finish. One could still move to boundary corner where Jerry Mitchell and De'Anthony Curtis tackled well and improved their coverage play by the end of spring.
Defensively, the key to the spring was the move of Bennett from corner to strong safety and the emergence of Smith at free. Bennett is the same kind of boost to the back end of the defense that Rudell Crim was last fall. This time, Petrino was careful to get that move done before spring and not for the final week of the camp like he did last year with Crim.
Strong safeties are needed in man coverage more than in the past with spread offenses looking for mismatches for their slot backs. Bennett answers that situation because of his speed and he's a solid tackler.
Problems on offense is difficult to find. There are tons of skilled position stars, beginning with running back where Knile Davis, Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson are all superb. Each qualify to be SEC bell cows after Wingo proved his physical presence in an impressive 15 practices highlighted by multiple solid scrimmages.
If there is a need for improvement or a question, it probably will be in the perimeter blocking game where tight ends D. J. Williams and Ben Cleveland along with fullback Van Stumon were lost to graduation. Knile Davis made tons of yards on the outside last year where the Hogs got mismatches thanks to clever shifts, motion and quarterback checks from Ryan Mallett.
The question is two-fold: Can Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell recognize the checks at quarterback, and can tight ends Chris Gragg, Austin Tate, Garrett Uekman and Denton Simek be both quick and physical enough to wipe out SEC safeties and outside linebackers?
That's why when asked about potential help from the newcomers not on campus now, Petrino included incoming tight end Andrew Peterson. Petrino likes his ability to be a on-the-line blocker. He's athletic and over 260. Whether or not he can pick up the nuances of the Petrino offense, complex for tight ends, would be questionable. Kiero Small, the fierce juco transfer, should also be a factor at fullback. He's quick, strong and built low to the ground. He'll likely be tested quickly, too.
However, it's hard to imagine that Petrino won't figure out a way to move the ball even with a drop in blocking at tight end. He's always going to scheme an advantage somewhere. It could be that the Hogs find another way to get chunk plays and it could be with vertical passing to Gragg. Perhaps the tight end isn't set tight? Perhaps he's flexed, more utilized in four wide sets?
Ah, four wideouts. That's probably where this offense is going more than any other direction. It's the deepest most talented area on this team. A spread formation with one back and a quarterback in the shotgun was the formation I saw the most this spring. That also seems to play to Wilson's strength as a quarterback. Perhaps he'll be in a no-huddle system?
Jarius Wright had his best spring. He's emerged as the leader of that wideout group on the field and in the weight room. He seemed to blossom after testing as one of the two fastest Razorbacks to end the winter program at 4.27 in the 40.
Then there's the return of Greg Childs. Coaches said he would have played at the end of the spring had it been a key game. He's nearly at 100 percent after knee tendon surgery last year. He gives the Hogs an added dimension of a big, physical receiver who can beat press coverage on the outside. He would have been the trump card against Ohio State's cornerback style in the Sugar Bowl. Petrino said Childs lights up in those situations. Petrino said the eyes of his quarterbacks also "light up" when they see those matchups with Childs.
Isn't it nice not to be thinking about return specialists as a question mark as spring ball ends? Punter Dylan Breeding, placekicker Zach Hocker, punt returner Joe Adams and kick returner Dennis Johnson will all be listed among the SEC's best. Has that ever happened at Arkansas?
And then there's quarterback. Wilson and Mitchell have yet to get the final seal of approval from Petrino in their battle to replace Mallett as the trigger man in the SEC's most feared attack. He likes both and I think either one will do fine. It will most likely be Wilson. He fits what Petrino loves most, an all-out passing game.
Petrino acknowledged that Mitchell's assets won't be fully appreciated until he gets to go live with his feet in games. Wilson is the better passer. His accuracy is supreme, perhaps better than Mallett except for the deep ball. He can throw while he wiggles out of the pocket, too. And as far as the deep ball, there are times that Wilson has that, too, and it happens more often every practice.
What has not happened yet is the culling of the offense. That's what Petrino does extremely well. He'll take what these two quarterbacks can execute out of his massive playbook and then build a unit that can scorch SEC defenses.
Could there be more option with more mobile quarterbacks? Petrino cautioned against thinking he'll ever go back to anything that requires considerable time in practice to execute as far as the option game -- alluding to the veer stuff once cultivated at Arkansas by the likes of Lou Holtz. Petrino said, "We won't run any of those spinning, speed option plays." There will be some zone option out of the shotgun, perhaps more "Pistol" plays.
There was more option in the spring, but Petrino hinted some of that might have been for the defense with an eye towards what will be required to stop Mississippi State. There are things that happen on defense as far as scheme in the spring that simulates opponents, too. Some of it might show up in the Arkansas playbook if it is deemed worthwhile, but some might disappear when August workouts start, too.
The summation is that this Arkansas team can be as good as any I've seen in the Ozarks. That covers a lot of ground. It's capable of absorbing a few injuries. It's also the one -- if it stays healthy -- most likely to keep a good freshmen class on the redshirt list.
There's a lot of good news in the Arkansas program right now. The schedule is tough. There are road games against Alabama and LSU, both sure to be ranked higher than the Hogs in preseason. But they don't appear to be road blocks. And as we've seen in the last three years, Bobby Petrino ignores the stop signs anyway.
State of the Hogs: Spring Review
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