Arkansas coach John L. Smith didn't say it exactly like that on Monday when he met with the Arkansas media, but that's the translation I got. The question was about the matchup with the Gamecocks and he cut to the chase in a hurry.
"As I read their thoughts (at Jacksonville State), they say they have a young defense," Smith said. "They have questions around their defense. We are pretty good on offense, but maybe not as good on defense. As you look at them, they think they are good on offense and so they probably like the matchup with our defense."
Arkansas lost four key playmakers from last year in Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas. Key returnees Alonzo Highsmith (hamstring), Eric Bennett (hamstring) and Tenarius Wright (head injury) missed a good portion of August camp.
Jacksonville State returns only four starters from a defense that gave up 398.7 yards per game in the Ohio Valley, including 243.5 in the air. That pass defense ranked 104th in the nation.
The Gamecocks, led by former Arkansas coach Jack Crowe, are tiny on defense by SEC standards. They play a three-man front and two of the interior tackles are 275 and 270. The other inside player, defensive end Mikel Whittier, is at 212. None of the other eight starters on the defense weighs more than 210.
Whittier -- along with nose tackle Caleb Lawrence and middle linebacker Ben Endress -- is making his first start. Cornerbacks Francis Duncan and Rashod Byers have a total of three starts.
The Arkansas defense has plenty of experience. The Hogs will likely start only one defender for the first time. It could be Jarrett Lake at linebacker, if Ross Rasner opens at safety. If Rasner opens at linebacker, then that would put first-time starter Rohan Gaines at safety.
Conversely, there is experience and talent on both sides of the ball on offense. Arkansas returns All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson and lots of weapons, including superb wideout Cobi Hamilton and brilliant tight end Chris Gragg. JSU rotates two talented quarterbacks, Marques Ivory and Coty Blanchard, in an option attack.
Blanchard was the architect of the second-half rally two years ago at Oxford when the Gamecocks beat Ole Miss. Blanchard will play, but he's listed as the backup after missing the first two weeks of fall camp to finish baseball in the summer Cape Cod League. Blanchard also missed spring drills to play baseball.
The Hogs should remember JSU's bell cow running back. Washaun Ealey led the Gamecocks with 1,082 yards last year, an average of 6.1 yards per carry. He's gained over 2,600 yards over the last three seasons -- 1,528 in two seasons at Georgia. The 5-11, 215-pounder rushed 18 times for 87 yards against the Hogs in Athens two years ago. He scored Georgia's tying touchdown with 3:55 left, but the Hogs quickly answered to win, 31-24.
So that's where I'll start as I write the top 10 keys -- and a lot of them are on defense for the Hogs -- in the Arkansas opener with Jacksonville State. Can the Hogs slow down Ealey?
1. Stop the Run
That's been the mantra ever since Paul Haynes took over as offensive coordinator at Arkansas. It was the focus of the Cotton Bowl against Kansas State's option game. Improved tackling has been the key to that. Ealey will be a good test. Unfortunately, the Hogs can't just focus on Ealey. The Gamecocks rely on an option attack to spread the defense and isolate matchups. It will probably come down to tackling in space with safeties and outside linebackers. That's where the Hogs are youngest. Whether it's Gaines at safety or Lake at outside linebacker, Jacksonville State will try to isolate those inexperienced defenders and see how they tackle.
2. Big Opportunity
I think defense is the big story, the reason stopping the run topped this list. But for many around the country the story is John L. Smith taking over for the fired Bobby Petrino as head coach. All eyes will be on Smith -- and new coordinators Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes. Petrino called the plays the last two seasons at Illinois, but it's his first time before Arkansas fans. Haynes helped in the play-call list on defense at Ohio State with coordinator Jim Heacock. And he called the game against Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. But let's be honest, some want to see what both can do without Bobby Petrino around. All three of these coaches -- Smith, Petrino and Haynes -- are excited about their big opportunity. Smith said it's the best team he's ever coached. The chance to compete for SEC and national titles is the reason he left his alma mater after just a few months. Smith is well liked by players and there seemed to be a good flow to fall camp with few changes in the system since most of what Petrino did in organization was learned under Smith. What will be the operation on the sidelines like under Smith? How much will he be involved in play-calling? He insists there will be hardly any meddling with the offense, but he might give Haynes some ideas in certain situations. Will the Hogs gamble on fourth down under Smith? There is little doubt Smith will be under the microscope. He laughed as he left the media session Thursday, his last before game time, noting, "Next time I see you guys, you'll be asking why I did this or that. I know what's next."
There are some unknowns here for Arkansas just because linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright missed almost all of the fall scrimmages because of injuries. Are they in condition to play a complete game? Can they tackle Ealey after sitting out live work? Can Kiero Small help at linebacker after making the conversion from fullback in fall camp? How many plays does the defense get Small because he's still going to see action at fullback? Can freshmen Otha Peters and A. J. Turner hold up in a game? They got a lot of snaps in preseason, but being disciplined against a solid option quarterback can be tough on a true freshman. Do the Hogs play downhill at linebacker? That's been the emphasis from new linebackers coach Taver Johnson. He wants more physical play from his group. That's one of the reasons Wright moved from defensive end. He's a downhill type player. Highsmith is the most experienced linebacker, but he missed all of spring drills with a torn pectoral tendon and then pulled a hamstring two days into fall camp. Is there any rust with Highsmith? Haynes would have preferred to have both Wright and Highsmith out there every day to polish in a new scheme. So there are question marks at linebacker for the opener.
This might be the area that struggled the most in camp, perhaps because the most experienced player was not on the field much. Eric Bennett started every game last year and is a solid SEC safety. But a hamstring injury that he carried into camp from summer workouts was slow to heal. He's been healthy the last 10 days and said he's 100 percent on Wednesday. With Bennett out, there were too many big plays over the middle in the passing game. But that's partly due to the high octane level of the Arkansas offense. Rohan Gaines made progress in the fall, beating out Jerry Mitchell for the other safety spot when Ross Rasner moves to linebacker in the nickel scheme. The safeties will probably be the target in Jacksonville's play-action passing out of their option looks. How they hold up might be the key for this game.
5. Knile Davis
This is only a question because the All-SEC running back is coming off an injury that kept him off the field in 2011. Davis should be one of the top two or three backs in the country this season. He had contact in fall camp, but was tackled only a few times in the mock game one week ago. Davis looks sleek and ready. His cuts are sharp and effective. But until he plays in game, there are probably going to be questions. Will he be rusty? Will the ankle hold up under heavy hits? Teammates are excited about his return and don't seem to have any of those questions.
This appears to be an improved Arkansas offensive line, but there are still question marks. Both tackles will be starting their first game. Brey Cook is on the strong side and David Hurd is the weak tackle. Hurd is a former walkon with limited game experience. The Hogs are likely to be without returning tackle Jason Peacock for the opener. He had an arrest in the spring for stealing a debit card. No suspension has been announced, but most suspect he'll sit out at least one game. Peacock has worked behind both Cook and Hurd. And that might be a way of getting Chris Stringer, the other backup tackle, work on both sides for security ahead of the first game. Along with protection comes the running game. Can this offensive line block some creases for a solid group of backs?
7. Crowe's Return
It's a strange setting. Jack Crowe will be returning to the sideline at Razorback Stadium for the fist time since losing to The Citadel in the first game of the 1992 season. Crowe was fired the next day. Crowe has an 81-52 record heading into his 13th season at Jacksonville State. He called Bobby Petrino to schedule the game a couple of years ago. He also asked for a shot at Florida, the season ender for the Gamecocks.
It's always something to watch. I'm interested to see if this group of linemen can dominate a foe from a FBS conference. There was a big push in the offseason to reduce body fat on both sides of the ball. This is the leanest group of UA linemen in several seasons. The offensive line wanted to be quicker and faster, something that will pay dividends in the screen and draw packages. The defensive line wanted to maintain strength while dropping some body fat in hopes of adding a few yards of range on wide plays. Does all of that show up when it's game time? Can they be more physical despite shedding some pounds?
Will it look like a first game, or will all of the continuity in the coaching staff show up in a smooth operation? The Hogs return 17 starters. Will it look like a polished unit? Tyler Wilson hasn't had contact since the Cotton Bowl? There are new playmakers at wide receiver that are being counted on like Brandon Mitchell and Mekale McKay. What about the punt return job after the departure of Joe Adams? What will it be like for all of those when the collisions start? What about the effect Paul Haynes has on the defense after a spring and a fall camp? Will there be some twists, quirks or new aspects of the scheme? He insists that the goal is not to add, but to minimize blitzes and stunts. He wants sound play and wants to eliminate big plays.
10. Tyler Wilson
Generally, I start most of the Top 10 keys with quarterback play. Perhaps it's a given that Arkansas has great quarterback play with the return of All-SEC performer Tyler Wilson. He's the best combination of talent, experience and leadership that Arkansas has had at quarterback since Quinn Grovey led the Hogs to back-to-back Cotton Bowl trips. Ironically, Wilson is coming off an MVP performance in the Cotton Bowl. Clearly, Wilson is the face of the program right now. He's had an awesome fall camp. Paul Petrino raves about him. About the only blip Wilson had was in the second major scrimmage when one of his short passes was batted and intercepted by Chris Smith. It was such a rare happening that Smith suggested that he'd get Wilson to autograph the football. I'm guessing that it's a fantastic performance from Wilson in the opener and he'll be signing autographs for young fans a long time after a nice Arkansas victory late Saturday night.