State of the Hogs: Backfield Phenoms
The longest offseason in Arkansas football history is about to end. And, the school's best-ever set of running backs is about to take the field.
I'm going to watch carefully to see how opponents try to keep Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis, Michael Smith, D. J. Williams and eventually Marcus Monk on the sideline?
In the old days, you might have seen a team line up in the wishbone with intentions of running the clock. There might be plenty of line plunges and few passes. The theme would have been to shorten the game at all costs. The goal would have been to limit the touches of McFadden, Jones and all of their talented offensive teammates.
The good news is that last year's run-the-clock-more rules which cut out about 10-14 plays a game have been wiped off the books. Even better, the kickoffs have been moved back to the 30-yard line. That extra five yards on kickoffs should mean more touches for those glorious UA backs.
I see all of that this way: Advantage Arkansas!
All of the off-the-field consternation related to the head coach probably isn't going to disappear totally. That would be as stunning as Darren McFadden NOT lining up in the shotgun at quarterback throughout this season.
But it should take a backseat to what the players do on the field at least most of the time over the next few weeks. That will be the case if these Razorbacks perform the way I expect.
I've never seen a better backfield than what Houston Nutt and his staff have assembled. I even think Casey Dick, with a revamped passing motion courtesy of mechanic guru David Lee, fits in with all of these great backs. He put on a show this week in practice, earning confidence and respect from his teammates.
"This was the best I've seen him," said wideout Robert Johnson, an old QB himself. "He was very accurate this week and this was his best day (on Wednesday)."
Johnson said all of the new wrinkles and adjustments that Lee brought from the Dallas Cowboys last winter began to click about 10 days ago. The protections, the sight adjustments between quarterbacks and wideouts, the checks, the reads and the changed mechanics began to mesh.
"I think you see the timing come together now," Johnson said. "We've had a good camp. Casey has looked good this last week or two. He is very confident. He is leading this team. He's getting better by the day."
The good news is that he doesn't have to do too much to lead this team. If he can get the ball to his backs and throw off the defense with some accurate play-action passes, this offense is going to put up a lot of points.
McFadden has never looked better. He's faster and stronger, but not any bigger. He is a blur on the draws, counters, sweeps and quarterback options. Remember, he was playing with a dislocated/broken big toe this time last year. In other words, no one has ever seen him any better than right now.
They will need to be good on offense this weekend. I suspect Troy is good enough with its spread offense, senior quarterback and quick, small wideouts that the Razorbacks will have to score a few points. Troy is going to play Arkansas the same way Florida did, with multiple wideouts in hopes of forcing the Hogs out of their base and into nickel or dime schemes that take their best players off the field in coverage looks.
The key, as always, will be whether or not the Hogs can get some pressure on the quarterback with their basic rush? Can Troy block Chris Wade, Malcolm Sheppard, Ernest Mitchell and Antwain Robinson? Will that group give out chasing the quarterback?
If you want to have some real fun with a matchup, put your field glasses on Sheppard. He's the defensive end turned tackle that will remind you of Melvin Bradley from a few years back. Sheppard comes off the ball so fast that he may even draw an offside call.
Arkansas offensive guard Robert Felton, so often lined up across from Sheppard in practice, usually thinks Sheppard is offsides until he watches the practice film the next day.
"I would tell myself that he can't be that fast, or I'm that slow," Felton said. "He will make you look slow. He's going to be fun to watch this year."
Asked if Sheppard is in the process of blossoming as an SEC star, Felton said, "No, that child has already blossomed. It's already happened."
If that pass rush does not materialize, Troy may hurt the new Arkansas corners. These may be the kind of corners that produce plenty of action for the band -- sometimes the other team's band, sometimes the Razorback band. They may give up touchdowns, but they may also intercept some passes to setup easy points for the Hogs.
It may take some guts to throw a bunch with McFadden, Jones and those other phenoms standing on the other sidelines. Do you want to stop the clock with an incomplete pass? Do you want to give those race horses more touches?
I'm ready to see. I'm glad this offseason is done.
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