State of the Hogs

When the ESPN talking heads come on the screen sometime Saturday night from Columbia, S.C., they are going to offer some cute graphics about the key players in the Arkansas-South Carolina football game.

They will point to Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Mitch Mustain for the Razorbacks. They will single out Syvelle Newton, Sidney Rice and Cory Boyd for the Gamecocks.

Indeed, those are the key players. Those six will probably touch the ball more than all of the other players in the game combined. One of them is a likely winner of the TV player of the game award, whatever they call it these days.

I'm going to be watching a different matchup. I'm going to focus my binonculars on UA fullback Peyton Hillis versus USC middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley. There are going to be some collisions. There are going to be some cat-and-mouse games. There's going to be some fun.

Of course, Brinkley's charge is to track Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, the two Arkansas backs who have combined for 1,480 yards on 209 carries, an average of 7.0 yards per rush.

Often times, Brinkley will have to first beat the block of Hillis, the 235-pound Arkansas fullback or H-back. The 6-2, 250-pound Brinkley is easily South Carolina's leading tackler with 57 stops.

However, Brinkley will have to determine first if Hillis is coming at him to block him, or to try to run by him to slide into a pass route. Lately, that's been almost impossible for opposing middle linebackers to figure out.

One of the reasons it's been tough is because Hillis has developed into one of the Hogs' best blockers. Ever since the Auburn game, Hillis has loaded his plate full of pancake blocks and that's been the key to his relatively open status in pass routes.

"I've tried hard to convince Peyton that he is the backbone of our offense," said Danny Nutt, the Hogs' running back coach. "I think Peyton understands that now. He's been a great blocker the last few games.

"I think he had a talk with his Uncle Greg (Hillis) before the Auburn game. I think he listens to Greg. Ever since then, Peyton has been playing great football, championship football. It's had a big impact in our offense. His blocking frees up our tailbacks. They are cutting off his blocks and scoring.

"Better than that, when he's an effective blocker, when he comes down on a linebacker as he's preparing to run a route, they have to try to escape him because they think he's blocking. You can't cover him in those situations.

"And, he's making plays in our running game as a fullback. We've converted some third-and-shorts with Hillis running."

Hillis hasn't always been an effective blocker. He wasn't handling that role very well earlier this year. Hence, the Hogs often were subbing for him with bulldozer Mitch Petrus. The problem with that is that Petrus is not a threat as a receiver. He doesn't have the same quickness as Hillis or the hands.

It's all good now. Hillis has bought into the role and because of it, the role gets bigger by the game. Expect offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to give more and more tricks to Hillis in this offense.

I'm not giving anything away. The Hogs have always wanted to utilize Hillis in a big way, but they couldn't if he wasn't an effective blocker first. Everything trickles down to blocking in almost any offense. At this point, Hillis is doing everything exactly right.

Some of it might be his health. He's close to full speed after fighting through a bruised thigh earlier this season. And, it helps that he's a fulltime fullback. Early this year, he spent a lot of practice time as the backup tailback as first McFadden and then Jones missed practice time with injuries.

You can watch football games any way you wish. Following the ball is the most common way to spend the three hours it takes to play a game. I challenge you to watch the fullbacks Saturday night, especially Hillis.

If he plays like I expect, it's going to be a treat. You are going to see a fair amount of car wrecks, big plays and you'll know why Arkansas is winning against Carolina's Gamecocks.

Yes, that's as close as I'm going to come to predicting a straight-up victory these days. I think Arkansas has too many weapons for the Gamecocks. I think Hillis is going to beat Brinkley more often than Newton is going to scramble away from the Arkansas defense.

See, I think the Gamecocks can't win in a conventional offense. Their only hope is to let Newton make things happen on his own. That's a tough way to win a ball game. The Hogs were once there with Matt Jones.

I like where they are now, letting a freshman quarterback take things slow and leaning on all of these great backs and a solid group of linemen on both sides of the ball.

The most versatile of them all is Peyton Hillis. He's going to dazzle some folks Saturday night and they may not even know what hit them.



CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET


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