At Arkansas, It's All About The Seniors

FAYETTEVILLE -- The meeting was held the day after the 50-14 loss to then-No. 6 Southern California, and it sparked everything that has taken place since then.

On the Sunday following the defeat at home and on national television, Arkansas' senior players gathered with the rest of their teammates in the football meeting room.

According to several players, the meeting was calm and no one let the disappointment from the previous night get to him. There was no yelling or finger-pointing, just words of encouragement.

Most of the Razorbacks' 18 seniors took turns stepping to the front of the room and addressing their teammates. The common theme was that the season wasn't over.

"A lot of people got up there, and we just said what was on our mind and (that) we can't keep dwelling on that loss," senior defensive tackle Keith Jackson Jr. said.

"It was just one of those speeches that the team needs to hear," senior offensive tackle Zac Tubbs said.

Arkansas' season could have spiraled downward following the 36-point loss to USC, but instead, the Razorbacks have reeled off nine straight wins to go from being unranked to emerging as a serious national championship contender. Coach Houston Nutt has given his seniors all the credit for the surprising turnaround.

Before the season started, Nutt gave the upperclassmen the power and authority to deal with players on their own. And he has praised his seniors following each of the nine wins for staying focused, keeping everyone else in line and simply taking ownership of the team.

"All these guys have had a lot of adversity, but boy, they have hung in there and fought," Nutt said. "They have led by example, they have led with an attitude, a work ethic and they put blinders on."

Nutt said he sees many similarities between this year's senior class and the one that led the Razorbacks to another unexpected turnaround in 1998. But the current group has a chance to do something that even the Class of '98 couldn't accomplish.

When No. 5 Arkansas (9-1, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) faces Mississippi State (3-7, 1-5) at 1:30 p.m. today, the Razorbacks will be only one win away from clinching the SEC West title outright.

"I think for some of our seniors, it's been a long road for them, so they help us out a whole lot," running back Darren McFadden said. "They're helping us stay focused."

In fact, senior weakside linebacker Sam Olajubutu called a players-only meeting prior to Tuesday's practice to remind the team to stay focused. Nutt said it was the first time a senior has asked if he could hold such a meeting since 1998.

It shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, though.

After suffering through back-to-back losing seasons that kept them from making a bowl game, Arkansas' seniors said they were determined not to end their careers the same way.

At the end of last season, Nutt spoke with his upcoming seniors about taking ownership of the team. He talked to them again in the summer, then when players reported in early August and right before the Sept. 2 season opener against USC.

"At the beginning of the season, Coach Nutt, he came to us as a group, as seniors, and put it all on our lap," senior tight end Wes Murphy said. "He told us this is our last hurrah. Let's make this special.'"

This is a close senior class, and it's not uncommon for several of them to gather to watch football at senior offensive lineman Jeremy Harrell's place or to go out following a game.

They also stick together on the football field, where they've been known to chastise a player if he jumps offside or doesn't take a business-like approach to practice. If needed, they'll also sit down for a face-to-face meeting with a teammate.

"Last week, we had to address some young guys with their heads down because they weren't getting a lot of playing time," Jackson said.

Usually, seniors like Tubbs, offensive guard Stephen Parker and offensive tackle Tony Ugoh deal with issues on offense. The defense is dealt with by seniors like Olajubutu, Jackson and strong safety Randy Kelly. But it's not limited.

"Everybody is everybody," Murphy said. "If a senior from defense feels like someone from offense isn't doing the job, they'll go speak to them. Or if a senior from offense feels like some from defense isn't doing the job, we'll go speak to them."

Just like Nutt had hoped.

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