I'm not suggesting anyone wants to skip a weekend of dove hunting to see Arkansas maul Missouri State. That's a tough sell from someone who has never fired a shell in quest of the best eating bird in Arkansas. I do know it's a sweet sport and can be habit forming. I've got too many friends who love it.
But here's a Top 10 list of things to watch Saturday night -- after the dove hunt is done. There will be plenty of tasty delights even with the Bears from Springfield, Mo., on the menu.
It always starts with quarterback play and here's where Bobby Petrino teams always have an advantage. The difference in the two teams is vast, but the starting point would have to be under center. Missouri State promises to play two quarterbacks, perhaps because they don't have one. Arkansas will play at least two because it can. Tyler Wilson has proven himself to be the starter in winter workouts, spring drills, summer 7-on-7 practices and August camp. He's been accurate in the passing game and more than adequate as a leader. He should have a big first game as a starter. And he's the No. 1 thing to watch. Wilson should play well enough to give his under study a chance. Brandon Mitchell needs a good performance to erase memories of the spring game when he was shaky. He needs confidence and so does the head coach. Mitchell has been good in practices, but he needs to come through under the lights with folks in the stands.
2, Wide receivers
This may be the best group of wideouts the nation has ever seen on the same team. Period. That's a big statement, but it's true. There may be six to eight ready to perform in the SEC. Everyone knows that Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton are big-time talents. But the nation might not be ready to think of Marquel Wade and Julian Horton in the same sentence. Many have referenced the top line Arkansas wideouts as the Big Three, then the Big Four after Hamilton's late-season heroics. But before September is over it might be more appropriate to talk about the Big Six or something close to double digits.
I know that's too loose of a description. We usually do better in this list. But there needs to be an overall thought process about this defense because it's improved in all areas. We'll get into more specifics deeper into the top 10 list. But watch for the way the defense runs, the overall physical presence and the tackling skills. I believe it's all improved and will be one of the keys to a fast September start. Obviously, if there are a lot of three-and-outs, that's more possessions for the offense. Can you imagine how many points the Hogs would haved scored the last few years with a few more offensive plays. They may get that chance in 2011. Alonzo Highsmith is something to watch at weakside linebacker. The juco transfer is a talent, but he is still learning the total scheme. But this will be a good night for Highsmith and the defense.
4, De'Anthony Curtis
I expect Ronnie Wingo, the starter, to play well. He was the best back last spring when Knile Davis was a few pounds too heavy. Wingo has a funny gait. His running style is not to pick up his knees, but to extend them. That isn't a classic way to move through the line. But he's faster to top speed than he was last year. He runs with a better lean. He's still one of the fastest back in the SEC. And he'll have a big year. The question is whether he'll get help from Curtis. Dennis Johnson is going to help when his hamstring is 100 percent. Curtis has been the rage of practices the 10 days. Coaches have mentioned him, but the big praise has come from his teammates. They have spread the word on some superb inside running in scrimmages. If Curtis is what teammates are saying, Arkansas will be fine at running back.
5, Robert Thomas
I've written about Thomas for four months. I've heard the spectacular stuff from Willy Robinson and Garrick McGee, the two Arkansas coordinators, about the difference Thomas can make to a game. He's a true SEC thumper at defensive tackle. Just imagine a cottonmouth moccasin striking from the interior line. He's got the bull rush and the quickness to chase someone to the sideline -- someone fast. He had to be dismissed from practice in the first week of camp because of his aggressive nature -- without full pads. The rest of the Arkansas defensive line is impressive, but Thomas is off the charts. In a league that is stocked with great defensive linemen, Thomas will be among the best. Find No. 98 and enjoy.
6, Tramain Thomas
I've called him the MVP of the team, outside of quarterbacks. It's always about quarterbacks. But Thomas has become a great SEC safety. He reads the eyes of the quarterback and reacts like that Nike swoosh on his jersey. He makes one-handed plays with spectacular flair. He's quick, fast, confident and a sure tackler. He's solid in the open field. He shouldn't have to play the entire game and one of the questions about this defense is the backup free safety. Watch to see how Arkansas plays when Thomas is excused from the heavy lifting. It may not matter. The free safety might not get a lot of work in this one.
7, Marquel Wade
I've already mentioned him in the wide receivers. He's a young Joe Adams. He has the quicks, the change of direction and the same competitive fire. But what I want to see and the reason he's on the Top 10 List is how he does on kickoff returns. Until Dennis Johnson is healthy, it's doubtful he's the deep man returning kickoffs. And it might be that Wade wins the job anyway. He's that good. It's sometimes dicey to put a true freshman at kickoff return, but he was at Arkansas for part of the 2010 camp before heading to a prep school. And he got all of the winter and spring here. So he may not think like a freshman. If he gets a crease, watch out. He'll be gone.
8, Offensive tackle
Yeah, I know. This may be too deep into the list to discuss replacing DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez. They combined for eight letters. They played a ton of SEC games. Obviously, this is one of the big questions about this team. Grant Freeman is a fifth-year senior and has played both sides of the line in Petrino's flip weak-strong system. He'll be solid as the strong tackle with a tight end beside him. The real issue is on the other side where Mitch Smothers and Jason Peacock have battled to fill the weak tackle slot. Smothers is a true freshman. He's going to be a great one and no one doubts that he'll get to where the Hogs want to be at that spot. How soon is the question. I can't remember the last time Arkansas started a true freshman in the opener in the offensive line. Shawn Andrews finished his true freshman season as the starter, but he didn't come out on the first play of his first game. Smothers might do that. Peacock is bigger and has more punch, but he hasn't been able to master the snap count. When he's tired, is he on time with the snap? That might be the key to whether he takes the job from Smothers.
9, Colton Miles-Nash
Really, tight end play would be the right way to classify this, but I have a bigger interest in how the junior tight end plays than the overall position. I know what Chris Gragg can do. He's been a solid SEC tight end, although his blocking needs polishing. It's Miles-Nash that would represent the best combination of the total skills required to play tight end than Arkansas has had in a long time. He's 6-7, 265 with speed and power. He's got great hands. He can make the tough catch with both arms extended on the goal line. And Tyler Wilson knows how to put it in a great spot where only Miles-Nash gets it. He's a game changer in an offense that has plenty already. I know many understand the loss of D. J. Williams, the nation's best tight end of the last few seasons. But it may be that Arkansas keeps rolling with these tight ends. Austin Tate and Garrett Uekman are talents, too. They'll all get to play against Missouri State. You might be saying wow by the end of the night.
I know some will be unable to get to the stadium. They'll be tuned in around the country on Game Plan, or somewhere in their living room in Arkansas as Scott Inman and Jimmy Dykes do the pay-per-view. Normally, there would be no shivers or chills with Missouri State coming to town. But there is an excitement for this Arkansas team that hasn't been felt in a long time in the Ozarks. The Razorback Nation is excited. It's obvious Petrino has whipped fans into a frenzy. So excuse me if I trot out Petrino's catch word for what he wants Razorback football to be all about. He calls it Feeding the Studs or Showtime. It's here.
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