Arkansas' rock-star senior quarterback relaxed in the front row of the west side of Reynolds Razorback Stadium and shot the breeze with several of his offensive line buds.
They're the ones who must protect him like mother hens when New Mexico State arrives with 10 starters from last year's physical defense that, despite a teamwide flu bug, played Arkansas scoreless for a quarter and to within 14-10 by halftime before the Hogs pulled away with a 48-20 win.
Reams have been written about the Razorbacks' untested offensive line and how it holds the key to today's game. Arkansas linemen nod knowingly even before the questions are completed.
Clearly, New Mexico State coach Tony Samuel has pondered how to exploit what many perceive as Arkansas' soft underbelly.
"We're still trying to figure out and see who their offensive line is going to be," Samuel said. "We've spotted a couple of guys up front (on tape). Their line is relatively new, but big."
Hogs line coach Mike Markuson has no such ambivalence when speaking about his troops.
"I think we're all ready to play," Markuson said. "Tony Ugoh (left tackle) has had a tremendous camp. So have Zac (Tubbs, right tackle) and (center) Kyle Roper. Gene Perry (right guard) has a tremendous attitude, and (left guard) Stephen Parker has appeared out of nowhere."
Markuson, an underrated but fiery assistant coach, is reminiscent of former UA offensive line coach Larry Beightol of the Lou Holtz era. Beightol once grew tired of questions about departed star linemen and thundered, "Rest assured -- we WILL have a good offensive line this year."
Yes, Shawn Andrews and Co. are gone, but Markuson said, "This group is strong with good size, and quicker. We've just gotta play fast."
They have to be fast to halfway keep up with Jones, who ran for three touchdowns and passed for another against the Aggies last year.
"Jones has a good arm. Sometimes you wonder if they should just let the guy throw instead of take off running," Samuel said.
"We shut the other (quarterback; Ryan Sorahan) down and then Matt came in and took it 70 yards. He's a legit 4.3 (seconds in the 40-yard dash). We'd better take the proper angle on him, rather than run right past him."
The Aggies have the defensive potential to contain Arkansas, at least for a while.
Linebacker Jimmy Cottrell, who anchored the NMSU 4-3 defense with a team-high 83 tackles last season, returns along with Richard Glover, who had 72. They allow the defensive linemen to stunt effectively.
"It's a good defense, well-coached," Markuson said. "They can stunt and replace because the linebackers fill well. They blitz, too, so we have to be ready for that."
Jones reminded, with a twinkle, "They blitzed up the field."
But even after the Aggies allowed four UA touchdowns in the third quarter last season, they didn't stop hitting.
"They're good-effort guys," said Hogs tight end Jared Hicks. "They never quit. They always had a nose for the ball."
Markuson was particularly impressed with New Mexico State defensive ends Greg Scaffidi and Chris Sneed, who return along with defensive tackles Chase Spicer and Jared Naylor.
"A couple of them are small, but quick," Markuson said. "And Cottrell is exceptional."
OK, Arkansas rushed for 358 yards against the Aggies last season, but this is a new year and Markuson knows all about first-game coach-speak.
"We can't make mental errors and we've got to know who to block, No. 1," he said. "They're veteran enough on defense that our players have to know what to do when we need a first down or when we're backed up. Obviously, we don't want to turn the ball over. We've been working for this since January. Early on, a guy might flinch and jump the snap count, but we've been at it for 3 1/2 weeks in fall camp now."
Markuson clearly remembers last year's Aggies.
"Hey, it's a game of emotion and they played their hearts out and gave us fits," he said. "You've got to get pumped up every Saturday because any Division I team with scholarships can beat you. Coach (Houston) Nutt has done a great job of explaining that to our players this week."
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