We are in game week. As I'm writing this, it is exactly seven days from the kickoff of Arkansas' season opener against Boise State.
So where are we really? Are we better than last year, and by how much and where?
Tough questions, but pertinent questions as Houston Nutt begins another year as Razorback head coach.
It is my opinion that we are improved, and it's a simple equation. The Hogs are better at quarterback ... both in talent and experience.
Last year, the Hogs had only Zak Clark at quarterback with any experience, and I'm not sure that the experience he had was much to talk about. He got that bit of experience as a beat-up true freshman in 1999. He was probably more injured and scared than anything, so I wondered if it even mattered, especially since there wasn't much good from those games for him to reach into his memory banks.
This year it's much, much different at quarterback, and quarterback is always the most important position on the team.
I look at Matt Jones as owning much experience. And, it was the right kind. There was some good to give him confidence, along with some bad to make him work to improve. The same goes for Ryan Sorahan, even if it was just a few brief moments at the end of the UNLV game and the first three quarters of the Alabama game. There was also some bad to make him work hard to correct his flaws, and he seemed to do that.
And, in Tarvaris Jackson, there isn't much experience for him to draw from his memory banks. But, he at least got in the UNLV and Alabama game so he won't be totally green if and when he gets in a game this season.
So we have some experience at quarterback. More importantly, we have some talent at quarterback.
However, the key to the whole equation is not something many have talked about, except maybe MrBsWax in his commentary in the August HI print magazine. It is a key item, too. It concerns the coaching.
Last year, David Lee and Houston Nutt were feeling themselves along in their marriage as quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. They've had a season and two springs to come to a meeting of the minds on what they want to do with the offense. Some things they've been able to mesh together, and, no doubt, there are some things that haven't meshed. They know that and won't have to work through that anymore.
Lee has helped these quarterbacks. Anyone who watched last year's lone preseason scrimmage and compared it to the multiple scrimmages of this preseason will tell you that this offense is far better than the preseason offense of 2001. It's not a coincidence that the Hogs scrimmaged more this year, and are better. That helped them. So did all the heavy scrimmage work (over 500 plays) in the spring. I don't know if any other SEC had 500 live plays in the spring, but I doubt it.
This should help not only the quarterbacks, but the offensive line and the rest of the Arkansas offense. It's the reason I hold hope for a faster start this fall. Houston Nutt said everything has been geared for a fast start against Boise State.
I also feel like we are better and deeper at tailback. Cedric Cobbs, Fred Talley, De'Arrius Howard, Brandon Holmes and Dedrick Poole can all win in the SEC. They are deep enough that Poole, for at least the present time, can move to wide receiver and try to give the team some big-play capability there along with Decori Birmingham. That's a big move, and no matter what anyone else thinks or writes, Poole can be a big-time receiver.
If there are any question marks on offense, they would be at wide receiver where only George Wilson is consistently superior. He was awesome this fall with 54 catches and no drops with 12 touchdowns.
Some might worry about the offensive line, particularly the left side with new starters Bo Lacy at tackle and Scott Davenport at guard, but that looks solid. Center might be a bit of a question mark with Josh Melton's minor knee surgery, but Dan Doughty has had a breakthrough preseason and poised to win the center spot even when Melton returns. Doughty, a walkon, will most likely start the opener.
I think the Hogs may be settled at placekicker and punter for the first time in many years. I have been pleased to watch Brennan O'Donohoe kick with confidence this preseason. It appears the pop is back in his leg. David Carlton's strong leg may have boosted O'Donohoe's drive to strengthen and lengthen his kicks. For whatever reason, O'Donohoe has been extremely good this preseason. So has Carlton. And, Richie Butler is the equal of any SEC punter. The kicking game should finally be a strength instead of a liability.
Defensively, there are some question marks as far as depth in the defensive line. The good news is that I believe the coaches have been creative at finding spots for the team's best athletes in the front. Moving Gavin Walls from linebacker to defensive end, Raymond House from end to nose tackle, regaining Keith Turner's services and moving Gene Perry from a logjam at guard to defensive tackle means the Hogs do have better depth on the defensive line.
The improved play of Eddie Jackson, Batman Carroll and Lawrence Richardson means the Hogs have three of the best players in the SEC at cornerback. They can play bump-and-run man coverage and have a little depth there even with Marvin Jackson's season-ending knee injury. Bo Mosley is a good one, too.
So, the Hogs are going to roll the dice a little more this season than they did last year when they were often playing with two first-year players in the secondary, Batman and Eddie Jackson. All three of the top corners are more physical and better prepared to play man coverage and turn the Hogs loose to blitz more up front.
The Hogs are deep at linebacker, too. It appears that Tony Bua will have solid competition at wolf linebacker with the emergence of Jimarr Gallon. That will mean Bua can get a rest from time to time, and it also means that he'll be pushed to play his best. Gallon has developed into a big-time player with an awesome winter, spring and summer in the weight room. He's a real scorpion, the reason he's listed ahead of the first game as a co-starter with Bua. And, that's not a slap against Bua. He's been as good as always this fall, but Gallon has joined him at the top of the depth chart.
At inside linebacker, there is little doubt that Caleb Miller is healthy after suffering from a lower abdomen problem last last season and all the way through spring drills. He's been a force this preseason. And, he's got some depth with Pierre Brown and Marcus Whitmore. The middle linebackers are inexperienced, but diversified and talented with Jeb Huckeba, Clarke Moore and Sam Olajubutu.
The tackling has been crisp in preseason. The team's best tackler is probably Ken Hamlin, who has been solid in preseason despite some off-the-field problems in the summer.
Along with the kickers, the rest of the special teams look solid. No doubt, this is the speediest team in the history of Arkansas football, and there are plenty of candidates to man the special teams. That was a real problem when Nutt first arrived, and it now looks to be a strength.
So, with the first game drawing near, it's time to proclaim the 2002 Arkansas football team as improved and ready for a solid season. Don't underestimate the leadership on this team from George Wilson and Shawn Andrews on offense to Jermaine Brooks, Batman Carroll, Ken Hamlin, Tony Bua and Caleb Miller on defense.
This should be a fun season. Will they win eight, nine or 10 games? Perhaps. A lot will depend on injuries, and where they hit this team. But, if things fall right, this is a team that should contend for the SEC West title and make a good bowl trip.