State of the Hogs: Spring Analysis

Here's Clay Henry's take on spring drills. Henry is Publisher of Arkansas National Bank sponsors State of the Hogs.

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State of the Hogs:

Spring football practice is a tough thing to analyze. After all, it's your own offense going against your own defense.

If your offense plunders the defense, fans are happy. But it usually means a long season. Defense should dominate during spring drills. If it does not, it's a bad sign. Anyone with just an average defense in the Southeastern Conference is going to get whipped about eight times.

So when the defense whipped the offense Saturday in the Red-White game, I didn't moan and groan like some of the fans I heard exiting Reynolds Razorback Stadium. With only two weeks to prepare, the offense should have been behind in this spring game.

Five days later on Wednesday night when they did it all again with everything almost exactly the same, the offense looked much more stable. Quarterback Robert Johnson looked like someone who can help the Hogs next fall. The young offensive line displayed more intensity and picked up blitzes with more consistency.

What I liked more than anything was the toughness this team displayed. When you are young, there is a tendency to take days off when nagging injuries begin to pile up. I've seen plenty of young teams with lots of players standing on the sideline with helmets and pads left in the locker room.

That did not happen this spring. There were few serious injuries and even the minor injuries didn't seem to keep anyone from practicing.

Tight end Mason Templeton sprained an ankle on the second day of practice and sat out the rest of the way, mostly in a boot cast. No one else had any serious problems, although defensive lineman Titus Peebles seemed to be plagued throughout with a sore knee.

The only others counted on to help next fall sitting out were quarterback Landon Leach, defensive tackle Arrion Dixon and wide receivers David Thompson and Steven Harris. Those four are rehabbing from winter surgeries. All should be full speed in a few more weeks.

Matt Jones didn't do much this spring, per Houston Nutt's plan. There was a time in early winter that Nutt contemplated letting Jones sit out all of the spring. But when basketball season ended early and spring practice was shoved back past spring break to provide more continuity for the youngsters, Nutt decided to change that to give his green team some time around their best playmaker.

Jones did play some quarterback in Saturday's scrimmage, but he looked like someone who had practiced only a couple of days. That was exactly the situation. He'd missed the two Thursday workouts to attend a late class. And, he was in shorts for his first two workouts when the rest of the team was in full pads. He will be much better in the fall when he dives into football fulltime.

It's too bad that more fans didn't see Wednesday's scrimmage, what I called Spring Game II instead of the Red-White game on Saturday. They'd probably be more excited for the coming season after watching Johnson throw a 50-yard bomb to Jones for one touchdown and the freshman quarterback's pair of dandy runs, one of them a 20-yard scramble for another touchdown. His 48-yard keeper on a shotgun option reminded of Jones, but he did get hauled down from behind.

Spring Game I wasn't much to see as far as offense. But it was nice to see that cornerbacks Michael Coe and Chris Houston could handle the speed of wide receivers Chris Baker and Cedric Washington. It was also nice to watch the development of Jeb Huckeba at end and Jeremy Harrell at nose guard. The Hogs are going to be even better in the line when Dixon returns in the fall.

Those who are writing this bunch off now may be making a mistake. Yes, this Arkansas team will probably be picked last in the SEC West. With only four returning starters, it's the right place.

But there were good signs everywhere you looked this spring. The offensive line has plenty of ability. It was nasty and effective in the middle drills that are as much an indicator of ground game potential as anything that happens in practice. The defense appears to be improved up front, too.

The best news is the continuity of the coaching staff. There was not a single change, perhaps a first in Houston Nutt's tenure as head coach. Those coaches spent the spring teaching and emphasizing fundamentals. And there were no distractions in that process.

There were a lot of smiles on the faces of those UA coaches when spring football ended Wednesday night, and it wasn't because they were glad it was over. They liked the effort and the ability of the players they coached and were pleased at what was accomplished.

And, those coaches know that help is on the way. If anyone knows about the class that was signed in February and the speed and talent it contains, it is the staff. The new recruits who will arrive in the fall are loaded with the ability to make an immediate impact even in the SEC.

Heck, a lot of them were around this spring. I can remember seeing Cedric Logan, Woody Wilson, Fred Bledsoe, Jamaal Anderson, Marc Winston, Dallas Washington, Cody Green, Alex Mortensen and Peyton Hillis on the sideline at several of the spring workouts. Mortensen, taking in every word that came out of quarterback coach Roy Wittke's mouth, attended 14 of the 15 practices, missing only that "head-start" 5:45 a.m. workout the week before spring break.

How this team will fare against what may be Arkansas' toughest 11-game schedule ever is still open for debate. Texas, Georgia, Florida and LSU could all be in the top 10 at the season's start. I'm not ready to say the Hogs are going to beat any of those four. So it might be tough to expect anything better than a 7-4 record. Even 6-5 wouldn't be horrible.

They do have the ultimate weapon, a senior quarterback with three years of experience under his belt and perhaps the most talent ever to play that position at Arkansas. As long as the Hogs have a healthy Matt Jones, they are a dangerous team. Never, ever underestimate a team with experience and talent at quarterback.

That is why I wouldn't be stunned by more than seven victories. I'm not giving up on these players after the way I've seen them work the past three weeks. For sure, they have not given up on themselves. They think they are going to shock the SEC next season. Perhaps they'll do just that.

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