State of the Hogs: 2006

HI.com publisher looks ahead. This is his weekly commentary.

This was going to be a column about what might happen the rest of this Arkansas football season. I was going to speculate on the chances of winning five of the last seven to somehow make it to a bowl game.

Never mind. No one wants to read that stuff right now. They wouldn't believe you even if you came up with a scenario that could even get the Hogs to the Independence Bowl. They've written off this 1-3 team. This Arkansas team has been given up for dead by most fans. Sad, but it's true.

More important on the Internet message boards and radio sports talk shows are the promises of what next season will bring. So that's where we'll stumble today with the warning that this is not the gospel. None of this may come true, but it's all possible. This is a risky try because some will accuse you of writing a "wait until next year" column. It's not that, but just what people are talking about now.

First, Houston Nutt will still be the coach and Reggie Herring will be the defensive coordinator. Arkansas will still be in the SEC. After that, nothing is in stone. It's all on a dry erase board and subject to change.

Some of the things that I think might happen include a new playcaller, a new quarterback, a new middle linebacker and a new free safety.

It's my prediction that there will be at least two new coaches on Nutt's staff and that one of them will for sure be Gus Malzahn, the magician at Springdale High. No, he hasn't announced that he is looking for a new job, but he's told plenty that he's only committed to Springdale through the current senior class. After that, he's supposedly a free agent.

At least two key people in the UA family have told me that the Hogs are interested in Malzahn. You have to figure that is a marriage that is at least highly likely.

Would he be Nutt's first offensive coordinator? I don't know that a career high school coach is capable of stepping into a role as offensive playcaller in the SEC.

Frank Broyles never did that. As best I can tell, Broyles hired two straight from high school to his staff, Wilson Matthews and Harold Horton. There may have been another one or two, but there names escape me.

However, that's what Arkansas fans want. At least, that's what I hear the most. After Robert Johnson's performance last week at Alabama, many fans are ready for Mitch Mustain to take over at quarterback and Malzahn to call the plays.

Those offensive plays won't include Peyton Hillis as a pass catcher, runner or even a blocker. The fullback will be Farod Jackson and perhaps Kyle Payne. Hillis will be at middle linebacker. Nutt actually mentioned to me two weeks ago that he'd like to put Hillis at linebacker.

It was Hillis himself who told a TV reporter after practice that he wanted to move to linebacker before spring practice. He thinks he'll have a better chance at playing linebacker in the NFL than he will at making it as a running back.

Hillis probably came to that conclusion as Darren McFadden scampered down the Alabama sideline, stiff arming the last man to the side on his 70-yard touchdown run. Like everyone else, it was obvious the direction the Hogs are going at tailback. The future is McFadden and Felix Jones, not Hillis.

That doesn't answer my other questions about this Arkansas team. My main concern is free safety, and maybe strong safety,too. I have yet to see anyone make plays at free safety like an SEC player. The Hogs don't have a mistake eraser there. Vickiel Vaughn has flashes both ways at strong safety, a scary thing. But even if he eliminates the bad flashes, he's gone after this year anyway.

Arkansas hasn't been great on defense over the past five or six years, but there has always been a Kenoy Kennedy, Ken Hamlin or Tony Bua to erase the worst errors. There is no one like that now. Tell me who Arkansas' best player on defense is right now? Before the Alabama game, I'd have been hard pressed to answer that question. Right now, I'd probably tell you Sam Olajubutu just because he now leads the SEC in tackles.

But Olajubutu doesn't even look like an SEC player. The media guide lists him as a 5-9, 227-pound junior at outside linebacker. If he's 5-9, I'm 6-5 (and I've never measured as tall as the 6-0 it says on my driver's license).

At any rate, while Olajubutu returns, the rest of the starting linebackers will all be finished with eligibility after this season. That's probably why Hillis is excited about moving to linebacker. There will be more playing time available there than at tailback.

It's not all bad news. I'm guessing Zac Tubbs is finally healthy. If he can take a little pressure off those bad ankles by losing a little more weight, perhaps he'll anchor what will be a decent offensive line.

Darius Vinnett will probably make it back, too. His knees should be fine by then, although no one really knows what's wrong now. I just figure time will heal things.

That may or may not be the case with the mental state of the Razorback Nation. I don't think time can heal what's wrong. The only medicine is a team that can contend for the SEC West title and I can't tell you for sure that's right around the corner.

There are talented young players around in the lower two classes. The fact that Peyton Hillis wants to move to defense is a great sign and I think next year will be better. Defense needs more talent. That's a good start for curing what ails this Arkansas team.

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