State of the Hogs: Lowly Arkansas
Fourth in one SEC West prediction, third in another. That seems to be the norm this summer as magazine after magazine and poll after poll predicts this Arkansas team to fall below the finish of last fall when it went 7-1 to win the SEC West by one full game.
I don't see a crash and burn. I know LSU and Auburn are going to be good. Both may be more talented in some spots than Arkansas. However, none have players like Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. That's the best trio of backs in college football, not just the SEC.
But that's not why I think these Razorbacks will win 10 games this regular season. It has nothing to do with the talent on this team. Oh, I like the talent. It's solid SEC talent.
I listened closely as Oscar Malone, the Arkansas tailback from 1992-1996, described it as the most talent in the Ozarks since the Hogs came into the SEC in his freshman season.
"I'd love to be up there now playing with this bunch," he said. "When I came to Arkansas, we didn't have the size or the speed to play in the SEC. We had one lineman, Isaac Davis, with the size and speed to really play in the league.
"It's not like that now. They have talent up there. They are really competitive with anyone around now. They've built up the talent."
Still, that's not why I think this Arkansas team has a shot at competing for a second straight SEC West title. It's the leadership. The intangibles are there everywhere you look.
There are great leaders on this Arkansas team. Marcus Monk is as solid in that category as there's ever been at Arkansas. He handles every situation like a coach would want. He may be as smart a player as I've ever come across.
There are others. Marcus Harrison, rehabbing a surgically repaired ACL, is one of the leaders on defense. Don Decker, the strength coach, says Harrison has been towing the youngsters in the right direction this summer using words like "we" and "team" at every chance.
Another with great leadership ability is center Jonathan Luigs, on the Remington Award watch list for the second straight year and possibly one of the leading candidates to win it.
I asked Houston Nutt earlier this summer why so many were downgrading the chances of the Hogs this summer. He didn't hesitate when he listed two key areas of concern for outsiders both nationally and across the SEC.
"We've had a lot of negativity around the program," Nutt said. "They see and hear that more than they see and hear about our good players. And, they know we lost Jamaal Anderson and Chris Houston and some other key players on defense. Jamaal was the end who gave us a true pass rush. Chris was a lock-down corner. It's hard to replace those two in the eyes of most."
Yet, those close to the Arkansas program think the Hogs may be close to doing just that. End Malcolm Sheppard and corner Jerell Norton, both true sophomores, are better players at the same age than Anderson or Houston.
Listen to what linebaker Weston Dacus and safety Matt Hewitt told Steve Wright for a feature in the Hawgs Illustrated summer football preview after spring drills:
"We lost some big-time players," Dacus said. "But those guys weren't big-time players until they got a shot to step up. I think we've got some talented safeties, especially with moving Matt Hewitt back to safety. (Cornerback) Jerrell Norton is a big-time player. I think once he gets his shot, he'll shine.
"We've got a solid defensive line. Hopefully, we can get the linebacker corps going. I don't think we'll have any problem with that.
"Coach (Reggie) Herring is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. He's not going to let us fail."
Hewitt mentioned some of the same positives, saying, "I think our defense is going to be good. I saw Freddie Bledsoe step up at defensive tackle. I saw Jerrell Norton step up at cornerback. You're going to see a whole lot of speed and aggression from this defense."
The key player on the defense might be redshirt freshman linebacker Ryan Powers. He's the man slated to take Sam Olajubutu's spot on the weak side. Olajubutu was the Hogs' top playmaker on defense the last two seasons. He was uncanny in the way he sniffed out counters, screens and misdirection plays that seemed to befuddle the rest of the defense.
I'll never forget a screen last year at Auburn when the game still hung in the balance. It was a third-and-6 play that was developing nicely.
The Auburn receiver had the ball tucked away and three blockers in front of him. Olajubutu was the only defender in sight. It was shaping up as possible touchdown play. Olajubutu got to the wall of blockers, went to the ground, then crab walked through the legs of the middle blocker.
Still on the ground, seemingly pinned by the huge lineman, Olajubutu reached up and tripped the ball carrier. That play produced a 2-yard loss and a punt.
Olajubutu wasn't just a playmaker, he was a leader. I remember hearing young players talk about the way Olajubutu stood in the middle of the locker room before that game at Auburn and talked about the attitude the Hogs must take to the field.
The too short linebacker talked about how Auburn was donning their uniforms the same way the Hogs were putting on their gear. Never mind that the Tigers came in as the nation's No. 2 team. Olajabutu told his teammates, "Fear no man. Make them show you something. Fear no man."
Powers has more ability than Olajubutu. He has true jets in his legs. When he signed with Arkansas, he thought he would be a tailback.
Obviously, Herring, who coaches the linebackers and coveted Powers from the first time he saw him on video, convinced him he could get on the field much quicker at linebacker than at tailback. Powers would be no better than fourth right now if he was still at tailback.
I still remember seeing the highlight video from the signing day party in February of 2006. It was the clips of Powers splattering ball carriers that stood out the most. As Herring said last spring, "If we can get him lined up right, he can make all the plays we need from that spot."
I'm guessing the Hogs will get him lined up right sooner or later. I'm like Dacus. I don't worry much about the men playing Herring's spots. Because of that, count me as one who thinks the forecasters have these 2007 Hogs ranked too low.
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