Diamond Hogs Ready To Meet Expectations

FAYETTEVILLE -- In the now-famous words of Arkansas Razorbacks public address announcer Larry Shank...

This is BASEBALL!

Except in 2007, baseball in Charlie Baum Stadium isn't about just fun and games, or about getting those tasty burgers at the oversized Hog-shaped grill.

No, this year the Razorbacks have only one thing on their minds. Getting back to Omaha, Neb. -- site of the College World Series.

And this time, Arkansas believes it has the team to get there.

"The fans are always great and they always have high expectations, as do we," Arkansas junior catcher Brian Walker said. "You know, we don't go into a season hoping to win. We go into the season expecting to win and when we don't it's unsatisfactory. So I don't think the expectations have changed here much. I think it's more realistic because we're not missing a bat, or we're not missing an arm.

"We've got all the pieces to the puzzle."

A main portion of Walker's optimism stems from the fact Arkansas brings back a veteran bunch in 2007. Coming off a 39-21 season a year ago -- which was cut short when they lost in their own Fayetteville NCAA Regional -- the Diamond Hogs return an infield stacked with starting experience and have added key arms to a pitching staff which should be the best yet under fifth-year coach Dave Van Horn.

Led by senior first basemen/third basemen Danny Hamblin and senior outfielder Jake Dugger, as well as the coach on the field, Walker, Arkansas should be a tough chore for anyone to deal with at the plate this year. The biggest reason for high hopes, though, could be a group of pitchers -- anchored by preseason all-American Nick Schmidt -- which figures to give Southeastern Conference foes plenty of fits.

"We've got arms," Walker said. "It's the deepest pitching staff I've had since I've been here.

"Plus we got guys that can swing it."

Behind returning starters Schmidt and Sean Seibert, the Razorbacks have brought in a pair of junior college transfers in Duke Welker and Jess Todd to help give the team plenty of choices on the mound.

That depth, not only in the pitching staff but around the entire field as well, is something Arkansas hasn't seen in quite some time.

Until now.

"We really have a lot of questions to answer, but we have a lot of options," Van Horn said. "We haven't had that here. You know, an injury here or there, we lost our two middle infielders last year but on the plus side that was experience for guys like Matt Williard and Logan Forsythe."

After a surprise College World Series appearance back in 2004 -- Van Horn's second season as coach -- the Diamond Hogs haven't been able to find that magic since, failing to get past the NCAA Regional round in each of the last two years.

But in 2007, Van Horn feels he and his team are ready for another run.

"Everybody is more comfortable now," Van Horn said. "This is my fifth year and I feel like this is my program now. Even though you've been around a situation and went to school here, when you haven't been here for awhile, it's coach (Norm) DeBriyn's program. He'd been here for 33 years and it's still a little nerve-racking.

"Now I'm a little relaxed and I feel a lot better around the players. We recruited all the guys and this team, everybody is a part of us. Sometimes when you have that you have a little more of what can get you over the top, and this team is pretty solid."

Solid enough, in fact, to garner high praise from their peers. In every college baseball preaseason ranking, Arkansas is in the Top 10 and is ranked as high as No. 4 by Collegiate Baseball.

But as Walker puts it, No. 4 isn't the Razorbacks' goal this year.

"Rankings, what do they mean? Nothing. So we've got some guys coming back or some good guys coming in," Walker said. "Rankings don't mean a thing because you haven't proven anything.

"So hey, we're ranked No. 4 and great. But we want to be ranked No. 1 at the end of the year in June and that's what we're focusing on."



Position By Position

Catcher

Brian Walker, 6-0, 232, Jr., L/R, Tulsa, Okla. (Arizona State)

Jeff Nutt, 6-0, 205, Jr., L/R, Wylie, Texas (Navarro College)



Outlook: The leader both on and off the field, junior Brian Walker returns to handle the catching duties for Arkansas.

"Brian always has been a great leader, like having a coach on the field," Van Horn. "He always does a good job of catch and throw, as good as anybody in the league, and if he does what I think he's going to do with that bat, he'll really help our offense."

Although Walker is the only returner with noted experience behind the plate, the Razorbacks feel good about their backup at this spot. Junior college transfer Jeff Nutt comes to Arkansas from Navarro (Texas) College and Van Horn expects Nutt to be able to contribute right away.

"Jeff is an outstanding hitter," Van Horn said. "He has a chance to hit in the No. 3 hole for us."



First Base

Aaron Murphree, 6-5, 231, Jr., R/L, Weatherford, Texas (Northeast Texas CC)

Danny Hamblin, 6-1, 209, Sr., R/R, Rowlett, Texas

Dylan Duren, 6-3, 208, Fr., R/R, Tulsa, Okla.



Outlook: Three-year letterman Danny Hamblin is expected to make the move over to third base in 2007, allowing more playing time for junior college transfer Aaron Murphree at first base. A towering, 6-foot-5 specimen with a big bat, Murphree hit .461 with eight home runs and 42 runs batted in last season for Northeast Texas Community College.

Also capable of stealing a base of two -- he swiped 32 in his two-year junior college career -- Murphree can also play the outfield when Hamblin moves back to first base from time to time.

Against left-handed pitchers, Arkansas could even go to a third option, as true freshman Dylan Duren is expected to fill that role.

"(Dylan) might have the best swing on the team," Van Horn said. "He's a big kid, played some shortstop in high school and he'll have a chance to play right away."



Second Base

Ben Tschepikow, 5-11, 194, Jr., L/R, Fayetteville, Ark.

Casey Coon, 5-11, 196, Jr., R/R, Las Vegas, Nev. (CC of Southern Nevada)



Outlook: After a promising freshman campaign in 2005, Ben Tschepikow was limited to just 14 games last season before bowing out with chronic back problems. Now in his junior year, Tschepikow appears healthy and ready to make a run at the starting second base spot.

"Ben had a tremendous fall, made all of the plays and Ben is a tremendous athlete," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "We just need him to be more consistent on defense and right now he's got some serious competition."

Standing in Tschepikow's way might be junior college transfer Casey Coon. In his first year with the Razorbacks, Coon -- an NJCAA all-American in 2006 -- could make it tough on Van Horn when he fills out the lineup card from game to game.

"(Casey) is a very intelligent baseball player with a real feel for the game," Van Horn said. "He can hit and hit for power so that will be an interesting battle there (at second base)."



Third Base

Danny Hamblin, 6-1, 209, Sr., R/R, Rowlett, Texas

Logan Forsythe, 6-0, 195, So., R/R, Memphis, Tenn.



Outlook: While senior Danny Hamblin has made a home in recent years at first base for Arkansas, his natural position is actually over at the hot corner. And that's where Hamblin will return in 2007, with the Razorbacks planning on using the slugger mainly at third base this season.

"I like it (at third base)," Hamblin said. "I've been playing over there ever since I started playing.

"It's a little different and takes a little time to get back into a rhythm over there, but I think I'm getting there."

Hamblin improved his defense dramatically as the season wore on a year ago and he should be even better manning the third base spot. But don't expect Hamblin to be as good defensively as sophomore Logan Forsythe, who Van Horn said "might be the best defensive third basemen I've ever coached."

When Hamblin is used at first base -- or possibly even designated hitter -- the Hogs shouldn't skip a beat with Forsythe in the lineup.



Shortstop

Matt Willard, 5-10, 176, So., R/R, Newtown, Pa.

Tim Smalling, 6-3, 192, Fr., R/R, Raleigh, N.C.



Outlook: Matt Willard was forced into action last season as a redshirt freshman, playing in 55 games and starting 50 at shortstop after injuries depleted the Razorbacks' depth in the middle infield. But Willard answered the call by hitting a respectable .286 to go along with a solid .917 fielding percentage.

"Matt's our starter right now and he's earned it," Van Horn said. "But he won't have to play 50 games in a row like he did last year.

"He's really gotten better with the bat so we can hopefully keep him fresh with the bat this year."

Behind Willard, true freshman Tim Smalling -- the North Carolina state high school Player of the Year -- should be able to help out.

"We thought we were just getting a defensive player (in Smalling), but he can hit," Van Horn said. "He's got some pop and he might end up winning that job at short."



Hogs Under Van Horn

Arkansas' season-by-season record since Dave Van Horn took over as coach:



2003-- 35-22, 14-16 in the SEC (NCAA Regional)

2004 -- 45-24, 19-11 (College World Series)

2005 -- 39-22, 13-17 (NCAA Regional)

2006 -- 39-21, 18-12 (NCAA Regional)

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Totals -- 158-89, 64-56 in the SEC



Worth Quoting

"Danny (Hamblin) has been to the College World Series, Jake (Duggar) has been, but what have I done. I haven't won anything, except for maybe a spelling bee in third grade."

-- Arkansas junior catcher Brian Walker



"I've been here, this is my fourth year, and I'm trying to win a national championship. That's one of the biggest reasons why I came back (for my senior season) because I want that trip to Omaha.

"Yeah, I've been to Omaha and it was nice and all, but I want to go back."

-- Arkansas senior first basemen/third basemen Danny Hamblin

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