Losing Knile Davis to injury for the season is a tough blow. But it's hardly a death note for this Arkansas football team.
There are those around the country who point to the 1,322 yards Davis made last year -- most of it in the last six games -- as the reason they don't put them in the top 10. Three voters in the AP poll left the Hogs off their top 25 entirely. They cite Ryan Mallett's departure, along with two holes in the offensive line.
That's sound logic. But I don't buy it. I believe this team will close ranks just as it did last year when Dennis Johnson, Joe Adams and Greg Childs missed substantial time.
What I see each day in practice is a coaching staff that prepares an entire team. Constantly, these coaches are getting more players ready. What this staff does best is to coach 'em all.
I think Ronnie Wingo (6.2 yards per rush) and Johnson (9.2 yards per rush) could have done some of the same things Davis did last year given the opportunity. They are going to get that this season. They'll be coached for success. And they will be put in great situations because of an awesome passing game.
I don't remember a team that could afford to play safeties in the running game because of Mallett and these wide receivers. Tyler Wilson will be different than Mallett, but he's going to be able to exploit matchup problems with this set of wideouts and tight ends. He's better in the underneath throwing than Mallett. Is there anyone out there who has seen Bobby Petrino operate who doubts he will have a passing game?
But that's not why I think this team is headed for a fine season. This defense is much improved. Coupled with the best kicking game in recent memory, this offense is going to get a short field more often than at any time during Petrino's time at Arkansas. The defense is going to be worth points this season.
I point to the running game as the reason this Arkansas team will be better. It's not the way the Hogs will run it. It's the way this team will stop the run.
Arkansas was outrushed by almost 200 total yards for the season in 2010. The defense gave up 162.6 yards per game. Alabama rushed for 227, Auburn for 330, Mississippi State 262 and Ohio State 225.
This Arkansas defense is not going to give up those kinds of numbers this season. The defensive line is better, the linebackers are better and the safeties are improved. Alonzo Highsmith is a more natural weak linebacker than Anthony Leon. Tramain Thomas is much better against the run than he was last season. He reacts to his keys quicker. He's an All-SEC type free safety.
But the real key is the defensive ends. Because of the play of Robert Thomas and Byran Jones at tackle (along with their backups two deep), Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright will have some fun. Both are improved against the run. Chris Smith and Dede Jones, outstanding backups at end, are great against the run, too. The depth of this defensive front is going to show up in the fourth quarter when those that can run it and those that can't are critical factors in outcomes.
Yes, it's required that you run the ball in the SEC. Arkansas did it last year and will again this season -- without Knile Davis. Ronnie Wingo is bigger and just as fast as Davis. He's taken coaching much like James Rouse did as he matured into a solid inside runner during his four years with the Hogs. Wingo was improved in the spring. He ran heavier and tougher. He's progressed another notch this fall. He's getting to top speed in a hurry and not many in the SEC will want to tackle him now.
Some are pushing me to pick the season. I'll wait another week. It's a tough task because those are good teams in Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Starkville and Columbia. Texas A&M is solid, too.
But there's not a game on the schedule Arkansas can't win. I like the idea the national polls are putting Arkansas outside the top 10. Let others carry the bullseye.
The schedule is formidable. But that's a good thing, too. Win against this schedule from this starting point in the polls, you can get to the national title game. I'm not saying anyone should bet the house.
But I like this Arkansas team. I've recognized when Arkansas didn't have enough talent to win in the SEC. What I see now is a team that can hold up against any team on the schedule and do it consistently.
That's all I've wanted since the day Arkansas joined the SEC, to say this is a team that is going to compete for a title. You do that often enough, there will be trips to Atlanta and beyond. This could be one of those seasons.
Balance on offense, solid defense and kicking will put you in the hunt. Arkansas is there.
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