State of the Hogs: Top 10 Review (JSU)

Arkansas looks the same under John L. Smith as it did under Bobby Petrino. Offense still carries the load.

There have been some stinkers in season openers over the years at Arkansas. Despite some on-target moans about the defensive secondary, the 49-24 victory over Jacksonville State wasn't one of them.

No, this was nothing like some of The Opening losses I've covered since the Hogs joined the SEC. Despite jumping ahead 14-7 two minutes into the second quarter, JSU was never a threat to knock off the No. 10 Razorbacks.

Arkansas lost three fumbles to allow Jack Crowe's outmanned Gamecocks to hang around a little longer than most expected. The rout was on when the Hogs went on a 28-0 rampage in a little over 10 minutes in the second quarter.

So how did the Hogs do? What needs to be fixed as they prepare for a Little Rock trip to face Louisiana-Monroe? That's all that remains before the Hogs entertain defending national champion Alabama on Sept. 15 in Fayetteville.

That's all Arkansas fans are thinking about, not the game against ULM in War Memorial Stadium. Can the Hogs stay with the Crimson Tide, an easy winner over No. 8 Michigan at Cowboys Stadium. The Wolverines went quietly.

The Hogs have things to clean up after the opener. Some of the questions that remained after a fall camp that saw three key defensive starters -- safety Eric Bennett and linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright -- on the sidelines with injuries linger.

Running back Knile Davis appears fit and strong in his comeback bid from an injury that knocked him out of the 2011 season. Davis gained 80 yards in 14 first-half carries. He lost yardage twice in the second half and finished with 70. It wasn't his best, but clearly a good first game back.

As we cover the top 10 keys as detailed in a Friday column, there's a reminder that this was a Jacksonville State team that returned the heart of a good offense led by quarterbacks Marques Ivory and Coty Blanchard. The Gamecocks were rebuilding on defense, where only four starters return.

In that respect, it was a matchup of like teams, new Arkansas coach John L. Smith said, both featuring solid offenses that have to cover for suspect defense. Obviously, that's how it's been of late at Arkansas and not a lot appears to have changed this season.

Here's the summary of the top 10 keys after the season opener:

1. Stop the Run
The statistics are a bit misleading. It looks like the Arkansas defense did that. The Gamecocks had only 95 net yards rushing, an average of 2.2 per carry. That's not bad. But they actually gained 169 on the night. There were 74 yards in losses that distort the numbers.

The tackling was just OK. There were times the Hogs were in position to make plays, but didn't close the deal. There is work to do here. Containment was far from perfect.

The Hogs didn't see much of the best Jacksonville State running back, former Georgia standout Washaun Ealey. He left with an injury early in the game. He had four carries for 9 yards.

2. Big Opportunity
This was a night to watch head coaches. John L. Smith was making his debut as Bobby Petrino's replacement. Jack Crowe was returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, the loss to The Citadel in 1992 that cost him the Arkansas job.

It was also a big chance for new Arkansas coordinators Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes. Petrino liked what he saw from his side of the ball, especially Tyler Wilson, Brandon Mitchell and Chris Gragg. Haynes wasn't as pleased, noting problems in coverage that must be improved.

Petrino's playcalling was solid. Haynes said he could have put the defense in better position in the first half with a few more pressure calls on third down, but he wanted to avoid big plays out of the JSU option package.

3. Linebackers
It wasn't the best game in the world for UA linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright, the two seniors who missed almost all of fall camp with injuries. But they appear healthy and will get better.

John L. Smith and Paul Haynes both said the tackling at this position was less than stellar. They took the wrong angles a few times. They weren't in the picture on the wide receiver sweeps that Crowe called on the goal line. They'll have to react to their keys faster.

The Hogs went almost exclusively with a nickel package on defense which put Ross Rasner at linebacker and Rohan Gaines at safety. Rasner was plenty good in that role, leading the team with 11 tackles and several pass breakups.

4. Safeties
Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines seemed to play it safe most of the night and were never badly out of position. The Gamecocks didn't go after them as much as they did the UA corners, Tevin Mitchel and Darius Winston. Kaelon Kelleybrew played a lot in relief of Winston. It wasn't a good night for any of those three.

Again, the goal was to stop the run, so the Hogs didn't opt for as much help in pass blitzes. But cornerbacks must improve and safeties must provide more help on the outside.

Bennett tracked down JSU runners when they did pop free. There were no missed tackles in the back end, so that was a positive.

5. Knile Davis
The All-SEC tailback got plenty of work and was no worse from the wear and tear afterwards. He said he missed a hole to score on the goal line in the first quarter, but he was his old slashing self on a second quarter touchdown run.

"He was good tonight," Smith said. "He'll be better next week and better the week after. What he's doing, coming back after a year off, is very tough. But he looked good to me. He initiated contact and looked powerful."

Davis did make a tackle. He ran down a linebacker who scooped and ran with a Tyler Wilson fumble.

6. Protection
There were some errors. Tyler Wilson had to throw away several passes because things were getting tight around him. But it was an overall positive for a season opener with two new tackles, Brey Cook and David Hurd. The Hogs are likely to get returning starter Jason Peacock back this week. Peacock was suspended for the opener.

7. Jack Crowe's return
The veteran Jacksonville State coach was complimentary of all things Arkansas as he visited with the media after the game. Crowe even said he knew the Arkansas fight song and always cheers for the Hogs. He was fired 20 years ago at Arkansas after the Hogs lost the season opener to The Citadel.

Crowe said Arkansas may not look like a national title contender just yet, but the offense is there to knock off Alabama or LSU. He raved about Tyler Wilson's cast of playmakers and said he was a big fan of the Arkansas quarterback.

8. Physical Presence
The Hogs didn't roll over Jacksonville State from start to finish, but they did control the line of scrimmage for the most part. There were missed assignments that clouded that issue a bit, but they were the more physical side.

Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey knocked around their men to anchor the offensive line. Chris Smith was the best in the UA defensive line, but Colton Miles-Nash had his moments, too.

9. Operation
The obvious mistakes were three fumbles. There was also a muffed punt by freshman return specialist Nate Holmes and a shanked punt by veteran Dylan Breeding. There was also a punt that was wiped out for an illegal formation, not enough on the line of scrimmage.

Wilson was solid in his pre-snap reads. The Gamecocks blitzed almost every play during the second quarter and Wilson made them pay with the right calls at the line.

10. Tyler Wilson
All the fifth-year senior did was set another record. This one was for the most yards passing in an opener, 367 yards. He did that in around three quarters.

Wilson was 19 of 27 with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Petrino said he missed only two throws for the night. There were two or three more that could have been caught. He also had three that he threw away when protection and coverage situations called for that.

Wilson dropped the ball when he was in a scramble mode to ruin a promising march on the first possession of the game.

Wilson's leadership was clear throughout. He had no problems adjusting when Cobi Hamilton, his favorite target from spring and fall camp, went down on the second possession. He just turned to Chris Gragg, Brandon Mitchell and Javontee Herndon. Hamilton took a hit above the shoulder and seemed to have a minor neck injury. John L. Smith said Hamilton would have no trouble being ready for this week's game.

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