State of the Hogs: Young Guns

So far so good. That's the early prognosis on the Class of 2004. In shorts, the newcomers look great.

Clay Henry column, 8/14. After three days of practice, this much is obvious about the players in Houston Nutt's newest Arkansas football class: They pass the eye test in flying colors.

If it were gym class, you'd take every one of them on your side. They look good in shorts. They can all fly. They all look and run like SEC football players.

After listening to me do several practice reports on the SportsRap afternoon radio show with rave reviews of the UA newcomers, one family member asked, "So dad, how many games are we going to win since we look so good? Better than all of those polls? Will we get a bowl trip? How many freshmen are going to play?"

Remember, we haven't put on the pads. Two-a-days don't start until Friday. The first scrimmage isn't until Saturday. The first game isn't until Sept. 4. In other words, we ain't seen nothing yet.

I was talking to my brother-in-law, a former prep linebacker with a Dick Butkus type of mentality. He reminded me, and well he should, that there are some players who look like Tarzan and play like Jane.

Of course, Nutt and his staff have seen these freshmen with pads, although it was against prep competition. Still, there should be some basis for knowing whether these youngsters will hit or not. Secondary coach Bobby Allen, charged with getting some of these young pups on the field this year, seems confident that he's got a group with plenty of aggression stored in these good-looking bodies.

"We are usually pretty good at finding guys who will hit you," Allen said. "We are confident these guys like to play the game. We think we know what we've got."

If that's the case, the future is bright for the Hogs. All signs point to this being a great class, not just a good one.

But that doesn't mean the Hogs are guaranteed a seventh straight bowl trip. Playing hard and running fast doesn't mean a thing. If you play freshmen, one thing is guaranteed, that there will be critical mistakes made on game day.

Why? It's just a different game in the SEC. Things happen so much faster. Mistakes are magnified. These freshmen will make some plays, but they will also make mistakes that will be the difference between a win and a loss.

I've been told more lately that I'm a veteran, and even by some (they must be pups) that I'm an old-timer. Don't figure I'm quite there yet, but I guess that does at least mean I've at least seen a few other Razorback teams.

I can only remember one other Arkansas class (the 1973 newcomers featured Gerald Skinner, Greg Koch and R.C. Thielemann and all played in the offensive line as true frosh) with a group of linemen that passed the eye test as well as the group headed by Cody Green, Fred Bledsoe, Michael Tate, Ernest Mitchell and Marcus Harrison. All but Green play on the defensive side. It was a treat Tuesday to spend over an hour following those defensive linemen as assistant coach Tracy Rocker put them through their paces.

Former UA defensive lineman Curt Davis sat with me on a hillside in the southeast corner of the practice facility just a few yards away from where Rocker had them huffing and puffing and flying over and at blocking dummies.

"That's about as many good looking defensive linemen as I've seen around here," said Davis, who started for four different defensive line coaches during his time at the UA. "That's three sets of them right there and they all look pretty good to me."

Oh, not all of them are ready. Some aren't in shape. At 6-4, 315 pounds, Bledsoe is about 30 pounds overweight for his first week of UA practices. But he still sparkled in some of the drills.

"They don't have pads on yet, and that will slow some of them down if they aren't in shape and don't know how to grind yet," Davis said. "Takes awhile to really learn how to grind on every play. These young ones probably don't know how to do that yet. Some never learn it. They were so good in high school they didn't have to play that way to dominate. They have to learn that to play in the SEC.

"The young ones have to get in better shape because unless you are in great shape as a defensive linemen, you end up giving out after about two plays.

"But it's fun to watch Coach Rocker with these guys. I didn't get to play for him, but he makes me miss being out here. He gets after them and gets it out of them."

What you can see, as pointed out by Davis, with the young ones is the way they get off the ground. A good athlete with great feet doesn't stay on the ground in drills. They tackle the dummy and seem to bounce up running in full speed after about one step. That's Bledsoe. For sure, that's Michael Tate, the same kind of a blur after two steps as Jeb Huckeba.

The good news is that, on the day we watched, the young ones were in the third wave in the four-man lines. The first line was made up of seniors Huckeba, Arrion Dixon, Titus Peebles and Elliott Harris.

Some of these highly regarded freshmen may help this year, but Rocker has done well enough with his returnees that he isn't forced into playing anyone before his time.

That may not be the case with the secondary. Some of these youngsters are going to play this year, like it or not. Right now, I like it.

The skills that Michael Grant, Matterral Richardson, Shedrick Johnson and (junior college transfer) Darius Vinnett displayed on the first day of one-on-one drills provides hope that they can provide immediate help.

Oh, yes, I didn't answer that first question. How many victories? Is there a bowl in the future? How many of these freshmen will play this year?

I went into the season thinking five or six was the probable victory total. After seeing this class, I'll lock in on six. And, yes, in a year of 11 games, that's good enough for a bowl trip.

And, as far as that final question, let me say that I wouldn't be surprised if 8 to 10 of these newcomers end up with letters this year. If it's higher than that, I want to rethink those first two questions. It's hard to win with freshmen.


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