State of the Hogs: Improved?

Make no mistake about this Arkansas football team; it is improved and perhaps much improved in some areas.

I'll go through them in this space today, but while you are adding up the parts, don't come up with 10-1 or 9-2 or even 8-3.

Just because the cornerbacks, defensive tackles, ends, safeties, tight ends, tailbacks, wide receivers and offensive linemen are all better doesn't add up to a much better won-loss record than 2004.

Remember, the Hogs were not close to beating several foes last year. Being better may not be enough to close that gap all the way this year with LSU, Auburn, Georgia and national champ Southern Cal. And, if Brodie Croyle is healthy at Alabama, that one will be tough, too.

I'm going with 6-5 based on the schedule switch. Dropping Florida and adding Vanderbilt should lead to at least one more victory than last year.

If the quarterback is adequate, then 7-4 is possible. In that regard, I just haven't seen enough of Robert Johnson to know for sure. Missing a week of fall workouts with a groin injury didn't help Johnson. He's said to be close to 100 percent now, but I want to see how he holds up before I make a 7-4 prediction.

Here are the spots I believe are better. In some areas the improvement is significant.

• Offensive line -- Kyle Roper, Tony Ugoh, Stephen Parker and Robert Felton are solid, and much better than they were at this point last year. This is a strong and athletic group. Pass blocking is where I expect the most improvement after practicing against Reggie Herring's blitzes for about 45 workouts. Zac Tubbs is injured, but he should be back and is more than adequate at right guard.

• Tailback -- The speed is back with the arrival of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. If those two can avoid turnovers, the Hogs have the best group of tailbacks since Cedric Cobbs, Chrys Chukwuma and Michael Jenkins dotted the "I" in the 1999 season. Peyton Hillis, Dedrick Poole, De'Arrius Howard and Kyle Dickerson provide a lot of situational options.

• Tight end -- Jared Hicks is a proven commodity. He isn't healthy right now, but might be by the Vandy game. Still, Mason Templeton and Marcus Winston are SEC-type players. This might be the year when we see the Hogs utilize the tight end plays quarterback coach Roy Wittke brought to the playbook.

• Wide receiver -- This might be the best position on the squad. We all know about Marcus Monk and his amazing frame and hands. However, Cedric Washington and Cedric Logan have been awesome in fall camp. Before you ask, there's nothing wrong with Chris Baker, but it's just that Washington and Logan have taken their game to another level. Note: I shy away from using awesome.

• Cornerback -- I'll start with this spot on defense because of its relationship to wideout in practice on a daily basis. It's wonderful to match strengths in practice like the Hogs can with their corners and receivers. The Hogs are so deep and talented here -- and at a position that was weak and thin last year -- that starter Matterral "Red" Richardson was moved to free safety where he's now the starter. Darius Vinnett, Michael Coe, John Johnson, Chris Houston and Michael Grant are of SEC quality and have taken to Herring's tight press coverage at the line of scrimmage. The wideouts should be much improved after seeing so much press coverage in practice.

• Safety -- Vickiel Vaughn started last season at free safety, but eventually moved to strong. By the middle part of the year, that was a nice fit, although the look at free safety was never settled. Randy Kelly got the first try there in the spring. His inconsistent tackling forced Richardson to move to free safety about 10 days ago. The fact that Herring will play a two-deep look with the safeties provides comfort. The fact that one of them looks to be Richardson gives me more reason to say this spot will be improved, too.

• Defensive end -- I like the speed with Anthony Brown and Desmond Sims and the depth with Zach Snider and Jamaal Anderson. Brown and Sims may be better against the pass. Snider and Anderson seem to be better against the run. If you listen to fans, this seems to be a position that most still fret about. Won't the lightish Brown and Sims get blown away by 300-pound SEC blockers? Herring pooh poohs that idea. Not once have I heard him mention that spot as a worry this fall. That's good enough for me.

• Defensive tackle -- Inconsistency has been the constant theme here, although there is depth. Herring has six players that are going to be in the rotation. I like that. If Marcus Harrison wasn't fighting through a stress fracture, I'd like it even more. Herring got all six at the right weight. I just have to believe that he'll keep pushing buttons until they provide what the scheme needs -- big, fast tackles who require double-team attention.

• Linebackers -- That last part about the tackles may be the key here. I think Pierre Brown and Sam Olajubutu are perfect for what Herring needs at outside linebacker. They will be the blitzers in his "fire zone" scheme. (That's the way Herring describes his zone blitzes.) The middle backers are Weston Dacus and Clarke Moore.

Okay, that's a lot of improved areas not to be any better than 6-5 or 7-4. I can explain.

First, the SEC is no cakewalk. We all know that. Here's a reminder that Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and South Carolina will not be easy. The Hogs should beat Missouri State, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe. Where are the other three or four victories?

That brings us back to quarterback and the other area that gives cause for concern, the special teams. I think some areas of the special teams are solid, like the coverage teams. Also, deep snapper Brett Goode is as good as any in the SEC. The return specialists should be OK.

I just don't feel comfortable with the kickers/punters yet. Chris Baleseiro is a fifth-year senior. Will he finally be consistent? His leg seems a bit stronger, but I still remember all the times the Hogs went for it on fourth down when they were in field goal range. Jacob Skinner has the leg to be an elite SEC punter, but he lost his job because of inconsistency last year.

The best news is the number of true freshmen that Houston Nutt has promised will not redshirt. As of Wednesday, Nutt said he expects to play only six true freshmen in the opener. That's a smaller number than the last couple of years and suggests improvement.

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