State of the Hogs: Trench Play

Does Arkansas finally belong in the SEC? This defensive front with this head coach should provide the right answer.

When you've made the rounds year after year at Razorback Clubs, there are a few constants as far as the type of questions that are asked on the side.

I don't mean the ones that pop up in the question and answer portion at the end of the program. I'm talking about those that many don't want to ask in front of the group. This is the one I heard starting in 1992 and almost every year thereafter at every meeting:

When will the Razorbacks be ready to fight toe-to-toe in every game in the Southeastern Conference the way they did in the Southwest Conference?

I saw it as sure as fans did when the Hogs came to the SEC. They lacked great linemen and also couldn't line up across the board with the right amount of speed. The SEC talent was ahead of where the Hogs were in 1992 and there haven't been many times the Hogs were equipped for the long haul in America's toughest college football league.

They are there now. They have talent at the skilled positions. They have speed throughout the squad. And they are tough, big and talented in the trenches.

That last part is the key to playing well in the SEC. More than any other position, the SEC is a defensive line league. It's what gives the conference the key advantage in the BCS championship game. It's not me saying that. It's the top college coaches that notice the difference.

Oh, there are other teams with similar defensive line talent from year to year. But they don't have to play against that kind of ability either in practice or in their conference matchups. That's the difference in the SEC.

It's why Arkansas has a shot at this tough, tough schedule this season. The Hogs are three deep at the inside tackle spots on defense starting with Robert Thomas and Byran Jones. They can roll six players at those two spots and all have SEC experience. They have four solid players at defensive end, when you count converted tackle Dede Jones. And there are talented young ones that will have the good fortune to redshirt because of this depth.

No longer do the Hogs have to play true freshmen like Zach Stadther, Dede Jones, Byran Jones and Lavunce Askew before they are ready. That's the difference in this team and the first three of the Bobby Petrino era. Other Arkansas coaches faced the same problems over the last 20 years.

Now there are concerns with the offensive front. The Hogs are thin there and face the risk of putting a true freshman like Mitch Smothers or Brey Cook on the field too early in their careers. But they've done well so far in fall camp.

Petrino said this is going to be a good offensive line. I believe that and see evidence in scrimmages that pass protection won't be a problem on the edge.

One of the keys to that is the competition this offensive line sees in practice. This fine defensive front has sharpened its offensive mates.

The great news is that there is great skill at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. It may be the best collective bunch in college football -- even with the loss of Knile Davis to a season-ending leg injury. Ronnie Wingo, Dennis Johnson, Kody Walker, Kelvin Fisher and Kiero Small are ready to take up the slack.

I believe Tyler Wilson, the starter at quarterback, when he said he doesn't have to do anything more than spread the ball around to the playmakers. He said, "I don't have to do much because I've got a good team around me."

Indeed, he does. It's the deepest defense in 10 seasons, maybe longer. This second defense, drug around a bit in a Wednesday interview by coordinator Willy Robinson, is better than the starters in his first two defenses. Petrino pointed out in a Thursday media briefing that this defense has much more depth than previous years and he noted that "Willy is a little tough on them."

The truth is that the starters will give Robinson one of the better defenses in the SEC this season. Can you imagine what Petrino will do with a short field or what scores will look like with defensive touchdowns?

I did a poor job of answering one of the more mundane questions that popped out of the crowd at the Tulsa Razorback Club meeting last week. How will the Hogs do with their kickoff unit?

I rambled on about better coverage and deeper kicks from Zack Hocker. What I wish I had said -- and it's the truth -- is that Arkansas will kickoff more this season, and have to return fewer.

And when that's the combination, look out. I'm not sure the rest of the nation knows what's coming. And that's fine with me. I don't mind that someone else wears the bulls eye early in the season. I know this Arkansas team belongs in the SEC. Give me a good, deep defensive line and I'll take my chances with a Petrino offense.

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