State of the Hogs: SEC Title Game

Here are some thoughts from HI.com publisher Clay Henry as Arkansas heads to the Georgia Dome to play Florida for the SEC title.

Reggie Herring made a comment after practice earlier this week that struck a cord in my memory. It took me back to the mid-1980s when I was covering No. 1 Nebraska against No. 5 Oklahoma at season's end.

Barry Switzer's Oklahoma teams had been beating Tom Osborne's Nebraska teams like they owned them. Of course, most of those years, Oklahoma had the better players and the better team.

Scott Hill, later an OU assistant coach, was the Sooner team captain and was delivering the pregame prayer. He ended it like this, "and, Dear Lord, please don't let the team with the best players win."

Herring, the Arkansas defensive coordinator, was not in prayer mode when he talked about the game Saturday between No. 4 Florida and No. 8 Arkansas. But he was talking like he believed Florida had the best players much as Hill did in that prayer many seasons ago.

But it was clear that Herring thought Arkansas had a great chance to knock off the higher rated team this time "because the team with the best players doesn't always win." He talked about all of the intangibles that go into playing the game of football.

Talent is one thing and Herring knows Florida has lots of, but he said the bottom line is that the game is "more about people than talent and more about teams instead of individuals. It's why they play the game. It's always about team and not individuals. If you ever think it's gotten to be anything but about team, then you are a fool."

If you listen to Herring much, he's going to use one phrase several times. He'll get to the "bottom line" at least five times in a 10-minute interview. He came to the bottom line where it pertained to the Arkansas-Florida matchup frequently in this week's visit with the media.

Anymore, I don't bother to write down "bottom line" in my notepad when taking down Herring quotes. I just put "bl" and try to get caught up. I looked at my notes just now from earlier this week and saw four "bl" notations from the latest Herring interview. I liked all of them.

The best "bl" this time concerned Herring's thoughts on a question about Florida freshman quarterback Tim Tebow. Herring was asked about comparisons between the Wildcat package the Hogs use with Darren McFadden and the running of Tebow from the shotgun.

"They could call it the Snoopy Dog formation for all I care, bottom line it's got Darren McFadden carrying the ball," Herring said of the Hogs' version. "It's nothing new, but you've got McFadden back there and that's what makes it great. Bottom line, Darren is running the ball. Tebow is not Darren McFadden. He's a big, strong, fast guy, but if we can't tackle him we don't need to show up at the game."

Indeed, that is the bottom line.

Concerning the intangibles, Herring likes to talk about the heart of his players. And, if you bring up Sam Olajubutu's name, get ready to fill up your notebook with several more "bl" references.

Olajubutu is the senior outside linebacker and team captain who makes this Arkansas defense tick. He hails from LaGrange, Ga., and has been looking forward to this day since he stood on the sidelines as a redshirted freshman in the Georgia Dome when Georgia thumped Arkansas in the 2002 SEC title game.

It was Herring that put Olajubutu (along with Keith Jackson, another senior captain) on the fourth team a year ago January when he took over as coordinator in an attempt to jump start them and the defense.

"I think the world of Coach Herring," Olajubutu said. "He saved me as a person and as a player. He made me what I am today."

What Olajabutu is today is a 5-9, 225-pound weakside linebacker who has a partial tear in his knee, a pinched nerve in his neck and a knocked down shoulder and just the best linebacker you'll see anywhere. None of that slows down the Hogs' top tackler. He's as nasty as any water moccasin and as quick to strike as any scorpion.

As Olajubutu's high school coach in LaGrange, Ga., told me recently, we are all still waiting to see Olajubutu miss his first tackle.

Putting Olajubutu on the bottom of the depth chart wasn't the only thing Herring did in the winter of 2005. He moved him from middle linebacker to the weakside. That's what Olajubutu was talking about when he said his coach saved him as a player.

"That's the perfect position for me, especially in this defense," Olajubutu said. "I can make plays there."

He's the blitzer and the run stopper. It's where Herring wants his best playmaker and the spot he'll put Freddie Fairchild next year when Olajubutu is gone. Fairchild was the strongside linebacker before tearing up a knee in the second week. The Hogs struggled there until Matt Hewitt moved from safety before the Alabama game.

Hewitt is battling a knee injury now and has been iffy for the last two weeks. He slipped off the field earlier this week to get his knee retaped without telling anyone and left the Hogs with 10 men on the field for one play.

"Hewitt still doesn't have the linebacker's mentality, but we are working on it," Herring said. "The LSU game was hard on him. He gave out after a bit and we had to get him off the field. We'll see how he does this week, but it's not so bad because Florida spreads you out and we may only use two linebackers a lot this week.

"I like Hewitt, but he's still a work in progress as a linebacker. You give him a coloring book and he doesn't stay within the lines just yet."

Olajubutu gets it done just right in Herring's book. He rarely misses assignments and he finishes plays. But there were some player-coach battles early on. Olajubutu didn't like it when Herring asked him to leave his middle linebacker spot, the position he'd played since junior high.

"Sam resisted moving from middle linebacker at first, but he understands now," Herring said. "I'm telling you, he is a special player and he sets the tone for this team. He is our leader."

Herring thinks Olajubutu has gotten the Hogs ready for their trip to the Georgia Dome.

"He's so focused," Herring said. "I'm just a little afraid that he's so focused that he might run out of the locker room in just his jock strap and not even know it.

"He's focused and he's ready. He's going home." Linebacker play will be critical against Florida. The Gators rely heavily on the ground with a misdirection package that intends to get linebackers to make a false step. How Olajubutu, Hewitt and middle backer Weston Dacus react will be a big key for the Hogs this week.

Herring has been named one of the finalists for the Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant coach. Olajubutu called the nomination appropriate. That's when he dropped the line about Herring saving him as a person and a player.

"He said that?" Herring said. "That means more than anything, that's the ultimate, to have one of your players say that about you. It means more than it would to get the Broyles Award. I'm at a loss for words to say anything else."

Herring at a loss for words? That doesn't happen often.

Oh, I almost forgot about that OU-Nebraska game. The Sooners won and celebrated in Lincoln because the best players didn't win. Now that's the bottom line and the reason the Hogs may celebrate Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.

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