Arkansas Preview: Experience Abounds

Here's a summer look at the prospects for the Arkansas football team, a unit with hopes of bouncing back from back-to-back losing seasons. The Hogs should be strong in an offensive backfield led by Darren McFadden and a defensive line anchored by Jamaal Anderson and Marcus Harrison.

There will be a new man calling the plays and some new wrinkles, but the stout running game isn't disappearing at Arkansas just yet.

Gus Malzahn has been brought in to retool the passing game as offensive coordinator and wide receiver coach, but the former Springdale, Ark., High School skipper likes much of the offense enough that he isn't tossing any of it aside.

"We are going to add some things to what they were doing and we sure aren't going to stop doing what they did well," Malzahn said both before and after spring drills.

That means running backs Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis, Felix Jones and newcomer Michael Smith are still going to run the ball. The thing that Malzahn promises is that they are also going to catch more passes.

How many will be determined by how soon a quarterback steps forward to run Malzahn's no-huddle, spread attack that he used to win multiple state titles in Arkansas at Springdale and Shiloh Christian. It could be true freshman Mitch Mustain, the healthiest of the QBs during summer workouts.

Returnees Casey Dick (shoulder, back) and Robert Johnson (sports hernia surgery) were both slowed in the summer, but are expected to be full speed by early July. Both started SEC games last year with Dick listed as the starter after spring drills.

Mustain was Malzahn's quarterback at Springdale the last two years. Never has an SEC freshman quarterback been more decorated than Mustain. He was the national player of the year by every major source, including Parade and Gatorade. He was Parade's cover boy and was coveted by every top Division I program in the nation.

If experience means anything, the Hogs should be much better than the last two years when they finished 4-7 and 5-6 respectively. They return players that have started at all 11 spots on offense. Defensively, the story is about the same.

They finished spring with a starting group that featured players at all 11 spots who had started somewhere. Offensively, Zac Tubbs returns at right tackle after missing most of last season with an injury. Defensively, the Hogs moved Desmond Sims to middle linebacker after he started at end last year. Michael Grant takes the free safety spot after starting a few games at cornerback.

The strength of the team is in the offensive backfield where McFadden was most everyone's SEC freshman of the year and was on several All-SEC teams at tailback. Jones, Hillis and Smith are also top players at running back. They will be featured in Malzahn's passing game, along with 6-6 Marcus Monk, the top returnee at wideout.

"What I found out in the spring is that the running backs have great hands," Malzahn said. "They are fine receivers and we will use them and try to find mismatches with our scheme. They made big-time catches every single day in the spring. Each one of them seemed to make a one-hand catch every day."

The Hogs should be solid on defense for the first time in several years. Second-year coordinator Reggie Herring liked the way his unit came together late in the season, especially down the stretch in a tight slobberknocker at LSU to end the season. There were question marks at free safety, but Grant's move midway through spring seemed to be the answer. Grant has world-class speed and proved to be a solid tackler in the spring.

The defensive line, for much of Houston Nutt's tenure at Arkansas a weak point, is now one of the team strengths. End Jamaal Anderson and tackle Marcus Harrison proved to be a load down the stretch last year. Keith Jackson Jr. is also a proven commodity at tackle. The other end will be solid, too. Senior Anthony Brown, out most of last year with an injury, battled sophomore Antwain Robinson in the spring. Brown is a solid pass rusher and Robinson is stout against the run.

The linebackers are another team strength, although depth is a major problem there. Smallish Sam Olajubutu was among the SEC's top tacklers last season and is joined by Sims and Freddie Fairchild. Weston Dacus was the only backup on scholarship during the spring. He is trained for all three slots and will have to be the utilityman until someone in a strong incoming class steps up. Herring likes the speed and quickness of his starters, but is uneasy about depth knowing linebackers usually get plenty of bumps and bruises in what is going to be a 12-game schedule.

Cornerback is another strength where Darius Vinnett, a former starter, returned in the spring after missing last season and could not reclaim his old spot. He'll rotate with Red Richardson and Chris Houston in a solid cornerback group.

All of this sounds good to Nutt, but he is careful not to overstate the Hogs' chances.

"We have a lot of players coming back and there is some confidence in our guys," Nutt said. "But we haven't done anything in awhile. I don't want to hear any of it right now. Go out and prove it on the field. Show that we are back. Show that we can win again. Until we do, I'm not going to talk much about how good we are and I don't want to hear it from our guys."

The Hogs will need some help at wide receiver from their newcomers if spring was any indication. Monk was the only solid wideout after injuries in the first two days reduced the lines. Blue chip signees Damian Williams, Andrew Norman, Ben Cleveland, Carlton Salters and London Crawford are highly regarded and might help in that area.

Williams, Norman and Cleveland played under Malzahn at Springdale and know the routes the new coach likes. It will be interesting to see how quickly they emerge. Cleveland is listed as a tight end, but he often was used in the slot by Malzahn and could help at wideout.

Jacob Skinner returns at punter and has an outstanding leg. He was solid over the second half of last season and is expected to be one of the SEC's best. Placekicker is a question mark. The top candidate is Jeremy Davis, but the Hogs will audition others during two-a-days in hopes of improving a spot that has often let them down the last four to five seasons.

There are three new coaches on Nutt's staff, and all are at spots that seem to be question marks. Louis Campbell, former UA defensive coordinator with NFL experience, leaves an administrative post with the Hogs to oversee the secondary and coach the safeties. Malzahn takes over at wideout. Alex Wood, highly regarded veteran from the NFL, is the new quarterback coach.

The Hogs have a favorable home schedule and one of the best SEC road slates. They have a chance to erase one of the worst losses in school history at the outset when Southern Cal comes to the Ozarks for a Sept. 2 date set for ESPN.

"It's a chance to right a wrong," said Herring, obviously humiliated by the 70-17 loss at Los Angeles last year. "It's a chance to get back some dignity."

The Hogs play host to SEC foes Alabama, Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU. They have league road dates at Vanderbilt, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State. The other nonconference foes are Utah State, Southeast Missouri and Louisiana-Monroe in an eight-game home schedule with six games in Fayetteville.

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