State of the Hogs: MVP

Who is the most valuable player on this Arkansas team? If you take QB out of the equation, could it be free safety Tramain Thomas?

Someone asked not too long ago one of those thought-provoking questions that come up during the summer when there are no games to talk about. What player would be the toughest to replace on this Arkansas football team?

It's a good one. The easy answer is always quarterback. Any team losing a quarterback is in a pickle. That goes for NFL, college of any other level. Seldom does a team have two quarterbacks ready.

I will say that Bobby Petrino teams look deeper at quarterback than most. Wilson could and did provide adequate relief when Ryan Mallett went down last year. Wilson will likely be the starter this fall, but Brandon Mitchell is a capable backup and is only going to get better. Brandon Allen has huge potential, too. They will be able to step in and move the team -- especially with the weapons on this offense.

But if you lose a quarterback, it's never a good thing.

However, I'm going to take that position out of the argument so that we can get to the next most important player. I think it's free safety Tramain Thomas. I go there for two reasons. One, Thomas has developed into an All-SEC type. Two, I don't see much experience behind him. Darrell Smith is going to be a good one, but he's still in the developmental stage.

We'll use that premise to wade into the area of this Arkansas team that is both the most improved over the course of the Petrino era and still one of the areas that lacks depth.

Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson will throw a writer a bone at times. He'll toss out a neat phrase or describe a player in a way that tickles those who love interesting words.

There was the time earlier this spring when he likened his defensive line to the Germans in the old Gary Cooper movie Sergeant York. He said his defensive front played "too high" and the offensive linemen were picking them off as York did the Germans as they "peeked" out of the trenches.

It got better this spring when Robinson was describing free safety Tramain Thomas in the early days of spring football drills as the senior favored a hamstring pull. Thomas got beat on some deep balls because he didn't have his top end speed.

"He looked like he had a laissez-faire attitude," Robinson said.

OK, that forced some time with the French dictionary just to make sure it was spelled right. Here's the definition: Generally, a policy of indulgence toward the actions of others. Literally, "Let (people) do (as they think best)."

That may have been the case for a few days, but by the time the last two scrimmages and the Red-White game hit, Thomas wasn't letting anyone do anything in his area. Defensive end Jake Bequette gave him the nickname "ball hawk" when Thomas intercepted three passes in that stretch, two of them with high-flying, one-hand catches in scrimmages. Both came when he crossed the field to make grabs above the wide receivers.

Thomas smiled when those came up in a post-spring interview. He apologized for not using two hands, noting he had gotten comfortable making one-hand snares of rebounds during his high school basketball days at East Chambers High in Winnie, Texas.

"It's just easier to go get them with one hand," he said. "I think my hands are pretty good and I know I'm going to get them. I can probably get them with either hand. I've got big hands and I don't have to concentrate a whole lot about it. It's always been easy as far as catching."

Indeed, Thomas snared one with his left hand and another with his right.

"I've been practicing one-hand catches since I first started playing basketball and I just think that's an easier way to do it," Thomas said.

Thomas didn't just do things the easy way this past spring, although Robinson wasn't thrilled about his glide in the first few days. Whether it was his sore hamstring or not, Robinson wanted more effort after the first week.

"We grade effort every play," Robinson said. "Early in the spring, he was a culprit. The last two scrimmages he was at the top. He battled a hamstring early, but he battled and never stepped out."

Thomas said the hamstring injury "wasn't anything major. You know it wasn't something that was going to keep me from practicing. I had to fight through it. But there were times that I couldn't run with some of our guys. I didn't have that burst. It finally got better.

"One of the reasons I stayed out there was we had a lot of young guys in the secondary and I had to show them the ropes.

"It was definitely tough at times. You want to do all you can, but there were just some things I couldn't do until I got 100 percent."

There were things that Robinson wanted to see Thomas improve this spring. Thomas didn't disappoint.

"If there was one thing he needed to improve it was the open-field tackles," Robinson said. "He needed to improve his angles and his eyes and that's what stood out more than anything that he did. He also improved his effort in the last two scrimmages."

Robinson thinks a lot of Thomas, along with outside linebacker Jerico Nelson. Converted from strong safety, Nelson and Thomas provide much experience in the changing, complex schemes preferred by Robinson. They are good at disguising looks.

"With Tramain and Jerico on the field at the time, those two can really run that back end," Robinson said. "There is a real comfort zone with Tramain in being confident."

After seeing Thomas dominate to end the spring, Robinson thinks he could have an all-conference safety if he performs at the same level through his senior campaign.

"He knows his next step is to take it to the next level," Robinson said. "Those last two scrimmages he looked like an all-conference player. He could be one of the best in our conference at that spot.

"He is an extremely willing hitter and displayed great ball skills at the end. He really worked on things as far as keying the quarterback, setting and transfer and making plays on the ball. If there was one thing he needed to improve it was the open-field tackles. He needed to improve his angles and his eyes and that's what stood out more than anything that he did."

Thomas said he's learned so much from Robinson. Obviously, Robinson's NFL experience has helped this secondary mature, but there are other nuggets to be learned from the veteran coach.

"It's on and off the field stuff," Thomas said. "He's like a father figure to us. He's a great person. He has a really positive attitude. He shoots straight to us and is going to help tell us how it is in life. We feed off of him. That's what a father is for to the family. We know we can tell Coach Robinson anything and he'll give us the right advice.

"We talk more than football in our meeting room. He's taught all of us so much."

As far as football, Thomas said his speed to the ball has improved as he's learned "to key linemen. They are going to tip run or pass. Coach Robinson has taught me how to do that."

As far as playing center field, Thomas said he's able to read the quarterback's motion. The quarterback's front shoulder is going to show you the angles. That's partly because he's an old option quarterback from his high school days.

"I wasn't ever going to be a college quarterback," he said. "I knew that. The coaches who came through recruiting me told me that. Coach Robinson was up front with me that I'd be a safety. Some told me wide receiver. That was a little frustrating to know my quarterback days were over."

Those options memories have come in handy as the Hogs have seen more running quarterbacks. He was quick to the ball on option keepers this spring, often meeting Brandon Mitchell at the line of scrimmage on outside keepers.

"You just read the offensive line," he said. "You can tell as the defensive line reads the blocking. They take you to the ball on every play."

The rest of the secondary improved in that regard, too. With Eric Bennett moving to strong safety to compete with Elton Ford and newcomer Darrell Smith emerging late in the spring, the Hogs appear solid in the back end. There may still be some musical chairs at cornerback where there are still question marks.

"I was pleased with the depth we now have at safety," Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino said. "I think the move of Eric Bennett into safety was something that was really good for us. His ability to tackle and to cover helps us there. "When you talk about having to replace Rudell Crim, his ability to do those two things, I think Eric really helps us at that spot.

"We rotated Isaac (Madison) and Darius (Winston) at the field corner. I think we really need to evaluate that and see, if they're our best two how do we get them on the field together? I didn't want to do it in spring because I wanted competition at that spot. That will be something we really look over the video when the coaches get back from spring recruiting and talk about how we want to start out in fall. It's a long way off before we have to do something there."

Thomas said it's just going to be a case of pushing the youngsters during the summer.

"We'll keep getting better," he said. "I think they all improved a lot. Around here, you just keep working and keep getting better."

There's been talk of a national championship over the last few months since the Hogs made it to their first BCS game. Thomas understands goals, but he's not looking too far into the future.

"I'm more day to day," he said. "Definitely, (the national title) is on our list. It's more realistic now. But at the same time, I don't talk too much about it. I focus on the next day. We just need to keep working."

He learned about living just for the next day early in his high school days. Hurricane Katrina hit the Texas gulf coast. His hometown of Winnie, 45 minutes from Beaumont, was devastated.

"We only got in seven games my sophomore year in high school because of the hurricane," he said. "We had to move out of our house for a little bit. I hated what happened to Winnie. It doesn't look the same anymore."

Thomas doesn't look the same anymore. He's come a long way from the sophomore who was thrown into a starting spot at the Liberty Bowl when a senior broke curfew. He exploded with a monster game against East Carolina in the Memphis bowl.

"I think the coaches looked at me in a different way after that game," Thomas said. "I think they got confidence in me and my teammates got confidence in me. I think it gave me a swagger."

Indeed, the ball hawk has a swagger these days.

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