Diamond Hogs Fielding Speed, Experience

FAYETTEVILLE -- Taking the mound for Arkansas this season should be simple. Pitchers need only to throw strikes, keep the ball in the park and let the Razorbacks' speedy, rangy defense do the rest.

With speed and experience at every position, opponents will have fits trying to punch grounders through the infield or getting flares to drop between outfielders. It'll probably take consecutive line drives or mistakes by a pitcher (like giving up a walk or a homer) for teams to put up a ton of runs on this defense.

"We're going to back our pitchers up and go get the ball where ever it's at," said Stephen Robison, one of the fastest players on the team along with fellow outfielder Craig Gentry. "No matter who's in there, we're all going to cover the field and not many balls are going to drop in there for a hit.

"We're a go-get-it, run-into-a-wall type of team."

That type of attitude certainly is comforting for pitchers heading into Friday's season opener against George Mason in the South Alabama Tournament in Mobile, Ala. They know when they're on the mound, the guys behind them truly have their backs.

"It makes you feel a lot more confident when you're out there," said pitcher Daryl Maday. "It helps knowing that you have guys behind you who will make plays and are willing to get dirty for you and dive after balls and do whatever it takes to keep us from giving up runs."

Besides Robison and Gentry, the defense is loaded with speedsters like second baseman Ben Tschepikow and shortstop John Henry Marquardt. Even first baseman Danny Hamblin, one of the bigger starters at 6-foot-1, 200-pounds, has speed to burn.

"Danny is a freak," Marquardt said. "He's so big, but he's still really fast and moves great to the ball. I like having him over there. He picks a lot of balls (out of the dirt) for me because he has such great hands."

Defenders who aren't burners make up for their lack of speed in different ways. Third baseman Blake Parker has a strong arm, while left fielder Jake Dugger uses instincts to get a better jump on the ball than the average outfielder.

Depth, especially in the outfield, shouldn't be a problem should injuries arise as they usually do during the course of a 56-game season. Sophomore Clint Arnold is expected to start most games in right field while Dugger will be in left and Gentry in center. Backing them up, and starting some games depending on pitching matchups, are Robison, Logan Forsythe, Wayne Hrozek and Chris Hollensworth.

"We have a lot of depth, which gives the coaches options," said Hollensworth, who also is expected to share time with Hrozek in the designated hitter spot. "I think besides Gentry in center, since he's locked that up, it'll be whoever is swinging the hot bat at that time."

Matt Willard, who redshirted last year, is the most improved player on the roster, according to Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. Willard will provide back-up for Marquardt, who has had two knee surgeries in the past year. Van Horn also is high on true freshman James Ewing, who can play anywhere on the infield.

"If (Marquardt) gets hurt, there's two of those kids who can play there most of the time," Van Horn said. "We'll just go with the guy who's getting it done with the bat."

The contributions catcher Brian Walker make to the team are numerous. He is the team leader behind the plate and is regarded among the SEC's best at both receiving pitches and throwing out runners. He also handles pitchers well, pointing out flaws in deliveries or finding weak spots in an opponent's swing.

"Walker is great behind the dish," Maday said. "Everybody listens to him and you always know that him and (pitching coach Dave) Jorn are on the same page as far as what pitches to throw. Plus, he knows the ins and outs of baseball philosophy, so he's like having a coach on the field."

Walker, who had only two errors in 53 starts last season and led the team with a .994 fielding percentage, believes experience is what makes this year's defense special.

"You're looking at starting eight guys who have all played, some 50 or 60 games last year," Walker said. "We all know each other and we know what we've got in the guys coming back and we've got some new guys who can play, too.

"It's going to be a lot of fun because we're going to be really good."

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