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State of the Hogs:
When talk starts about the class Arkansas signed on Wednesday, most of it concerns running backs Peyton Hillis and Korey Sutton, quarterback Alex Mortensen and or defensive linemen Fred Bledsoe, Ernest Mitchell, Michael Tate, Marcus Harrison and Fred Barnett. That's some big-time talent.
Or, perhaps it will focus on the late tug of war that Arkansas won for Bledsoe with Tennessee and Oklahoma State, or the one for Marc Winston with Florida. That's a feel-good ending to the recruiting season.
All of that is significant. But it's not what I was contemplating as Houston Nutt showed the videotape of his new class in the team film room to the assembled media and invited friends on Wednesday. I wanted to know who might fill Batman Carroll's spot as the top cover corner? Who will man all of those backfield-type spots in Dave Wommack's multiple defenses? Did they sign enough defensive backs to even give Bobby Allen enough bodies?
The UA staff always knew it would have to focus on filling secondary needs for this class because of the seniors on last fall's team. However, when Carroll and Lawrence Richardson declared for the NFL draft after their junior years last month, the need for defensive backs became critical.
"We play at least five DBs in half of our packages," said Wommack, the Hogs' defensive coordinator. "And in some of our packages, we play as many as six or seven DBs. We lost nine and almost all played a lot. That's not just all of the starters, but in most cases, second teamers, too. We just don't have a lot coming back on scholarship that play in the secondary and hardly any of those have any experience."
Along with Carroll and Richardson, the Hogs lost seniors Tony Bua, Jimarr Gallon, Eddie Jackson, Marvin Jackson, Bo Mosley, Jimmy Beasley. Willie Hordge, who redshirted, also was lost on an eligibility issue.
It's easier to name those that return. Lerinezo Robinson, Vickiel Vaughn, Michael Coe, Chris Houston, Kevin Woods and John Jackson are the ones coming back on scholarship who spent time with Allen, the secondary coach. They got few snaps in scrimmage situations although Robinson, Vaughn, Coe and Jackson played a lot on special teams. Houston and Woods redshirted and worked with the scout team.
That means the numbers will be really low in the spring, so low it might affect some things the defense can do as far as schemes. Wommack hopes to steal John Johnson, a backup tailback with exceptional speed, for a look at corner. He'll ask to keep John Jackson in the secondary fulltime after giving him up for outside linebacker when depth problems arose late last season.
"I really am excited to see what guys like Robinson can do at free safety with the full reigns," Wommack said. "And I know that guys like Vaughn and Coe can play. We like Houston and Woods, too. I think Jackson looked good at corner the year before so we are excited about him, too. I look forward to seeing what Johnson might can do on defense because of his athletic ability."
Dealing with low numbers in the spring has been a constant since Wommack arrived at Arkansas. So many of the DBs have doubled in track. Also, there have been injuries that have kept plenty out, too.
"Last year, we had five out because of track and injuries," Wommack said. "What you knew then, though, was that guys like Tony, Bat, Marvin and Eddie had played a lot and knew they would be okay when you got them back in the fall. We don't know that this year. We like the ability of the new guys, but they just don't have any experience."
That brings us to the newest of the new names destined to get a quick look in the secondary; those introduced as new Hogs on Wednesday. There's Rick Culbert, Shedrick Johnson, Randy Kelly, Cedric Logan, Matterral Richardson, Darius Vinnett, Dallas Washington, Desmond Williams, Woody Wilson and D'Nerian Wrighter. Several in that group were prep quarterbacks or wideouts, but the Hogs' needs dictate that they will probably go to defense in a hurry.
"Dallas, Shedrick, Rick and Woody were quarterbacks," Allen said. "You see their athletic ability and their productivity when the ball is in their hands, and you like their chances of handling pressure situations. That's what I look for, along with character, speed and if they will hit. I think all of these guys will strike you and that's important. I'll also say that they all appear to have great ball skills like a Marvin Jackson. They can go get the ball."
But can they play in September? There may not be any choice.
"I couldn't be more excited about this group," Allen said. "We think we got what we wanted. But it isn't going to matter now. They will play by default. For sure, some will be second teamers and some may even start in some of our packages. I'd say for sure some will end up on special teams. We had to restock and I think we did."
Wommack feels good, but he notes that the position that's toughest to evaluate is the secondary.
"A lot of the time you don't see them play in the secondary because they play so much offense," Wommack said. "Even when they do spend all of their time in the secondary, films are bad. The picture starts out tight and you can't even see the corners and safeties until the play is about done. How do you know for sure? You go see them, but how can you see them enough? You can't."
Does this mean the Hogs will scale back what they've been doing on defense?
"No, we'll still be multiple," Wommack said. "We'll get there. We may have to simplify things in the spring and start slow in the fall, but we'll get there. We'll start with a foundation, teach it to the ones we've got this spring and add to it in the fall when we get the new ones."
Any way you figure, this sounds like Arkansas fans will have to learn to match numbers to a whole new batch of names real soon.