Football season is here and never have Arkansas fans been more excited since they stepped into the Southeastern Conference. I've spent the last part of the summer traveling the state, speaking to Razorback groups, civic luncheons and alumni events. The rooms are always packed and there's no one going to sleep while the speaker stumbled for words.
The state is red hot, boiling hot, for Razorback football.
Maybe it's the arrival of Gus Malzahn to help the offense. Maybe it's the hype for Springdale phenom quarterback Mitch Mustain, the national player of the year last year in high shcool. Whatever has caused it can be debated, but there is no dodging that it's for real.
Those are honest feelings and typical of fans. But that's not why I'm excited about Arkansas football, as excited as I've been since the start of Hawgs Illustrated — which coincided with the step to the SEC in 1992. I like the defense and what Reggie Herring has done with it in the last 20 months.
Some may gnash their teeth when Herring speaks. He does not hold back no matter the subject. He speaks his mind and does not mind pushing buttons to try to motivate players.
I've known him for almost 25 years and have always respected him from the time I saw him coach for the first time as a first-year linebacker assistant at Oklahoma State.
Absolutely, I love what Herring has done with this defense. I love how he's gone with the Miami Hurricanes style of speed at every position, even if it means an end goes to tackle or a wide receiver goes to end.
Pat Jones, the former OSU coach and assistant to Jimmy Johnson, nodded his approval when he scoped out the Arkansas defense when he visited an Arkansas practice in two-a-days.
"Reggie has done what I thought he'd do, get some speed in this defense and toughen them up as far as effort and attitude," Jones said. "That's his M.O. where he's been and it's the way Jimmy did it at Oklahoma State, Miami and the Dallas Cowboys.
"I see what Reggie is doing and know they are going to be good on defense. They've lacked that."
Indeed, they have lacked a defensive toughness. The Hogs also lacked talent and experience in the defensive line. They have that now with Marcus Harrison and Keith Jackson inside and Jamaal Anderson and Anthony Brown outside.
Brown enters the season a bit hobbled after suffering a minor knee injury during the first major scrimmage, but he'll help this team this season at some point.
Defense has been the problem the last four to five years at Arkansas, not offense. It's the reason the Hogs were conservative, in my opinion. I believe lack of a defensive presence changed the way everything was done and forced a more conservative offensive approach in recent years.
It's hard to gamble much if you don't think your defense can make a stand on a short field. That won't be a problem this year and it's one of the reasons I think Malzahn will be given the freedom — as the season progresses and his quarterbacks mature — to run his system.
I'm excited about the season.
How many will the Hogs win this year? I think anywhere between seven and nine depending on how quickly Darren McFadden returns from toe surgery.
I understand the excitement among Hog faithful and think it's justified. I like the way this team looks more than any I've seen in quite some time.
I think there are more pro prospects on this team than I've seen in some time. I like the way the experience stacks up in both the offensive and defensive lines. I think this team is better equipped to play in the toughest league in America, the SEC.
I think back to the early days of Hawgs Illustrated when our second cover pictured coach Jack Crowe with this caption: This Way to the SEC! And, I remember that less than 14 days after we published that cover, the Hogs had lost to The Citadel and Crowe was cashing severance checks.
I remember Crowe's words to me in preseason. He asked me to help promote some of his players as stars. I asked him to name me a star and he couldn't.
That's not the case any more. I see talent, real SEC talent. I see quarterbacks who can play in the SEC, tailbacks, wideouts, tackles (on both sides of the ball), linebackers and defensive backs.
I've been waiting for this. Bring it on.
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