State of the Hogs: Big Uglies

Arkansas has the right ingredients in the defensive line to construct a winning season for 2004. publisher Clay Henry takes a look at the prospects for football season.

While the University of Arkansas waited on a federal court ruling that finally came in its favor Thursday, Alabama wondered whether or not Anthony Bryant can pass three college courses this summer to have his fourth year of eligibility restored by the NCAA.

This isn't a commentary about the merits of the NCAA's legislation on entrance requirements or partial qualifiers. I could do that, but it's not in me today, not with the emotions that run through me (on the good side) concerning Judge Bill Wilson's decision to finally end Nolan Richardson's race discrimination lawsuit against the UA.

No, this is going to be just about football and what lies ahead this season for the Razorbacks. Particularly, I want to talk about the "big uglies" in the defensive line.

The good news is that the Hogs finally have some big uglies, as one of my friends calls the men who determine winning and losing more than any other position in my estimation. They've ached for some over the past three or four seasons.

It's my belief that you win with your tackles. The old adage that the team with the best four tackles (two on defense, two on offense) almost always wins in football is still one of my principles.

With around a month to go before Arkansas opens football camp, the news is great on the defensive front, particularly the interior line. Finally, there is depth and that's not even counting some outstanding freshman talent.

Just at the two interior line positions, the Hogs have Arrion Dixon, Keith Jackson and Lucas Jackson at tackle and Jeremy Harrell, Titus Peebles and Chase Pressley at nose guard. There are several more scholarship players in the new class who might help, too.

Oh, how I like the sound of that. So does Tracy Rocker, the Hogs' second-year line assistant coach. Oh, and I like the sound of that, too -- that part about the second-year coach. It's the first time in many seasons that the Hogs have had a second-year defensive line coach.

Back to ‘Bama. Tide coach Mike Shula would do about anything to find a few defensive tackles right now. He's got his fingers crossed concerning Bryant. If he doesn't pass his summer work, his eligibility will be done because of the NCAA rules concerning partial qualifiers.

Bryant is a dandy, but he's about all the Tide has in the defensive middle. He played at nearly 340 pounds last year and lost to about 315 for the spring, but Shula won't know if he'll have him back for several more weeks.

The Tide also returns Jimmy Clark as the other starter, but about the only other players available are walkons. Dominic Lee could help, but he missed spring with serious ankle surgery.

The Tide signed three defensive line prospects, but all failed to meet entrance requirements and will head to junior college. Another possible contributor, Ahmad Childress, gave up his senior year to declare for the NFL draft, although he went undrafted.

Alabama is hopeful that signee Justin Britt, a coveted offensive lineman, can convert to the defensive line when he arrives in the fall.

It was just two years ago that Alabama came to Fayetteville armed with two sets of fine defensive lines, perhaps the best I've seen in the SEC. LSU's starting defensive tackles were better last year, but the Tigers didn't have two sets as good as that Tide group.

Depth in the defensive line is about as important as talent in the first string. The key to playing well in the second and fourth quarter against SEC passers is depth. Arkansas should be able to rotate its defensive linemen this year without falloff and that will be a huge key for this squad.

I don't know how good Arkansas' tackles are going to be this year, but I know everything is pointed in the right direction. Dixon can be an All-SEC player. And there is enough talent and numbers to more than provide the depth Arkansas needs to compete in the SEC.

There is reasonable concern still in the secondary with experience low at corner, but this might be the year that Arkansas' defensive line provides the help to ease the pressure in the back.

Does that mean Arkansas is going to win the SEC West? No, but I don't think it's going to be a bad season like I've heard others articulate of late on talk radio and in other mediums.

At least no one at Arkansas is talking about moving their best offensive line signee to defense in hopes of making it through the coming football season. That's what they are doing in Tuscaloosa.

Why is this important? I think Alabama is the swing game for this Arkansas football team. If the Hogs beat the Tide, I think they can go 6-5 and make it to an unprecedented (for Arkansas) seventh straight bowl game. In my eyes, a victory over Alabama probably means a 3-1 Arkansas start and some momentum to absorb tough trips to Florida and Auburn to launch October, and perhaps a third straight loss when Georgia visits the Ozarks.

If the Hogs can't beat the Tide, things won't go nearly as well for this team. That could mean a four-game losing streak heading into a trip to South Carolina and things could turn ugly.

I don't think that will happen because the Hogs finally have enough big uglies in the middle of the defensive line. That's where most football games are decided and the plusses there could provide the difference for the coming Arkansas season. It's a good sign for 2004 and for years to come.

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