State of the Hogs: Tailbacks

They aren't exactly triple threat guys in the old-fashioned sense, but what Arkansas' football team needed most came in a three-man package Wednesday. Here's publisher Clay Henry's take on signing day.

Fans (and sometimes the media) often become infatuated by the forward pass. It's a common thing on Internet message boards and radio talk shows to focus on the play-calling with a special emphasis on the number of passes thrown in a game. Never mind if they were completed or not. The most common refrain, throw that ball.

Oh, you must be able to throw the ball well. I agree with that thought, but it's no more important than being able to run the ball well. If you are weak in one area, it will affect the other. If you can do both well, then you've got something. Rarely will you be so good at one or the other that it's all you have to do. At Arkansas, it's especially so. Never has Arkansas been so good in football that it can just do what it does best and be great at it.

The Hogs were pretty good at throwing with Joe Ferguson, probably the best pure passer in the school's history. Ultimately, he spent the final game of his senior year on the bench and not because he was injured. Arkansas just wasn't good enough as a passing team to just pass. They went with a quarterback, young Scott Bull, who could do a little of both and keep the defense off balance.

Okay, no real surprises have been unleashed here. And, I'm probably not going to change anyone's opinion that the pass is more important than the run. I won't even try to argue it.

What I'm getting at is the importance of tailbacks. In my mind, Houston Nutt, the head coach and the offensive coordinator at Arkansas, is perfectly content to put the ball in the air. He's not opposed to it at all. But he is going to make you stop the run. He's going to play smash-mouth football and make you stop it. And, then he's going to act like he's playing smash-mouth (after you've committed to stopping it) and throw the ball for big plays. What you end up with is big plays in the running game (because you have to be able to do that to make someone try to stop it) and big plays in the passing game (because you can't stop both).

Now to the developing news on that front; Arkansas should be able to play that type of game next year with what Nutt unveiled in the team meeting room at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The Hogs signed three tailbacks capable of going the distance. Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Michael Smith made me smile when I saw them cut, run and catch. They have the tools it takes to play tailback in the SEC.

When I watched McFadden, Jones and Smith on tape Wednesday, I saw glimpses of Cedric Cobbs, Fred Talley and Eric Dickerson. McFadden was a faster Cobbs. Jones was like Dickerson. Smith was Talleyesque.

I talked to Nutt and his brother Danny, the UA backfield coach, after the media session. I congratulated both. I know they are going to have some fun with those three. That doesn't mean the others in the class, especially all those those sleek linebackers and safeties, aren't outstanding, too. But the Hogs had to have some tailbacks in this class. I think they got what they needed.

"I wanted four this time," Danny Nutt said. "But I'm really happy with these three. The comparisons you just made are the same ones I see. I love all three of these. I thought we might get one more, but this will do. We are reloaded."

Houston Nutt agreed, and pointed to their vision as the key with all three players.

"They see it and they are gone," Houston Nutt said. "They see it and make great, great cuts. You can just have the speed. You have to have the vision. It can't be taught. You don't learn it. You have it or you don't and all three of these have it.

"McFadden is like Cobbs, but faster. You never see McFadden outrun or caught. He never got beat in a 40 at any of our camps, but he's faster than Cobbs in the 40 and he gets faster as he goes."

Danny Nutt added, "Cedric had the 20 or 40 burst and McFadden has that, but then he's got the stride to take it further. He's got that 100-meter speed, too. Felix is big and thick and has the speed and the power. He can also cut and make you miss. We hit the home run by getting Felix today. I've seen a bunch of film on Felix and he's good in every tape against good quality teams in that league. He made 2,500 yards in a great conference. And, then Smith is Talley all over. So quick, cuts on a dime and gets to daylight in a hurry."

The ability to make the first defender miss is the key. You can't run over defenders in the SEC and you aren't going to outrun them, either.

"You don't want to have to block them all," Nutt said. "You never can anyway, not in this league. You can't outrun them in this league, either. So you want the guy who can make the first guy miss, and then when he's behind them, make sure no one catches him. That's what we think we've got in these three. They will make you miss. They cut and have quick feet and great vision."

McFadden and Smith have been in the fold for some time. The Hogs had to put on the full-court press in the last few days to swing Jones, the star football/hoop star at Booker T. Washington in Tulsa. Bobby Allen, switched onto Jones after Dave Wommack's departure before Christmas, did the closing honors. That didn't come until a commitment late Tuesday night.

"He told us last night that he was committed, but he wanted to sleep on it before announcing it today," Houston Nutt said. "We felt pretty good last night, but didn't really know until today. Our graduate assistants do a good job of following the Internet sites. It wasn't looking the other way on the Internet sites this morning so we weren't for sure until we got the (signed letter of intent).

"I go a lot on what they can do on the basketball floor. You see their athletic ability. I saw Felix Jones explode up and look down into the rim to dunk it. He's 6-0 and he's got his body up even with the rim looking into it. He's just an incredible athlete. When I see an athlete do that on the basketball floor, I'm really impressed. And I've seen all of the athletes from Florida, Texas, Louisiana … some of them at our camp … and they aren't any better looking that McFadden. He'd run 40 after 40 and keep running them after we were done to see if anyone could beat him. He'd take a challenge when we were done and beat them all. I was worried he might pull a hamstring or a quad. He's a real competitor."

They'll all start at tailback, said the head coach. It doesn't matter that all could play other spots and possible speed the re-tooling process faced by new coordinator Reggie Herring.

"Chris Vaughn and Bobby Allen have been asking for one of those guys for quite some time, especially McFadden," said Nutt, noting McFadden can play free safety or linebacker. "But those three are starting with us (on offense). I've already made that decision. That's where they want to play and that's what I want to see about first. They are with me."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories