State of the Hogs: Cotton Bowl

The Cotton Bowl matchup features offensive strength against offensive strength. The most powerful cog in the Arkansas offense may be the man with the least experience, redshirt freshman offensive guard DeMarcus Love.

Throughout spring drills and during summer off-season workouts, the reports on DeMarcus Love rolled around the Broyles Center. There is a man-child in the making, just a beast of a physical specimen came the whispers. The talk was about a big freshman from Dallas Carter who was turning heads on a daily basis.

The heads up from several places was that Love, 6-5, 307-pound redshirt, could take someone's spot in the middle of the offensive line. And, there were some who thought if he played well enough in two-a-days that Robert Felton, the returnee at right guard, might move to left tackle where his quickness and agility would be more of an asset than inside where his lack of true power might be a liability.

All of that faded away as the Hogs put on pads and began to pound each other on a hot August morning. The defensive and offensive lines trotted over to the grass practice field for some one-on-one stuff, the true nasty part of football practice. Almost immediately defensive coach Tracy Rocker pushed Malcolm Sheppard into the drill and offensive coach Mike Markuson shoved Love to the front. The two second-year players locked pads in a fierce display.

Then came a yelp as Love twisted backwards and reached for his knee. The yelp turned to a scream as he rolled in pain. It was a dislocated kneecap. Trainers said he'd return in a few days and he did, but Love limped for the better part of a month and really wasn't a factor for the better part of two months.

Move forward to the the Tennessee game and a poor effort by an offensive line trying to pick up the slack from an injury to left tackle Jose Valdez. A high ankle sprain kept Valdez from pushing off in top form, although he tried to play. Ray Dominguez, like Love a highly regarded redshirt freshman, also struggled in relief of Valdez.

Line coach Mike Markuson decided it was time to go back to his summer thoughts of moving Felton to left tackle, a spot he'd played before with solid results. That meant Love, finally healed, would step up to right guard.

"Sometimes when you get to the end of a season and you look back there are defining moments," Markuson said. "Something happens or you make a move and it allows everything to click. We did it because we were out of options at left tackle. We knew Robert could play either tackle spot, but we just couldn't make that move earlier because we didn't have anyone we felt confident about at right guard. It was going to be Love and then he hurt his knee. It all fell in place the week after Tennessee, though.

"You look at the way we ran the ball inside against Mississippi State and then again at LSU, that was Love. He made the difference. He gave us some physical things that we hadn't been able to do. We were able to run some plays we couldn't run the same way earlier in the year.

"Nothing against any of the other players, but none of them are as physical as Love. He's just a beast. Felton had done good things at guard, but Love is just stronger. It's a physical game and when you have someone who can whip the man across from him, it changes things.

"Love was very good against Mississippi State and then he just got some confidence and he took it to another level against LSU. He blocked them. We ran some plays behind him and we ran some plays where he was pulling. It all just clicked and meshed up front. Against LSU, he was getting their defensive tackles and getting their linebackers. He was putting people on their backs. There were some holes opening up for our backs and you saw them running free. You saw Peyton Hillis getting into the secondary on the belly play. It was big that day."

Valdez was healthy for the LSU game and is full speed now for the Cotton Bowl. He'll watch unless there are any injuries.

"It's tough for Jose," Markuson said. "He lost his spot because of that ankle sprain. Then we found something we don't want to leave. You just don't change something that's working in the offensive line. I think both Jose and Ray (Dominguez) are going to be fine players, but we need to stick with Robert at tackle and DeMarcus at guard for this game."

There have been hints that the Hogs will open up the passing game for the Cotton Bowl. Markuson didn't tip the hand of playcaller David Lee, the offensive coordinator. But he wondered aloud why the Hogs would want to leave what was good to them over the final two games of the season.

"Again, when something is working, why change it?" he said. "Yes, we should be better in the passing game with Marcus Monk closer to full speed. But it may be that Missouri honors Marcus a little more. If they play their safety behind the corner and take someone out of the box, you didn't help yourself by opening things up. You played into what they are doing. You take what they give you.

"What we do best is run the ball. We are going to continue to run it. We have some things (new) for this game, just like all games. But we are going to keep doing the same basic things. That's what we preach. We aren't going to change."

Basically, the Hogs have changed very little for the bowl game. Practices look a lot like they've always looked. They've featured a lot of heavy run polish.

"We've come close to middle drills," Lee said. "We've worked hard on our run game. We've got great backs and they are full speed. You don't go away from them."

If anything, the Hogs might go to them even more. Both Darren McFadden and Felix Jones are healthier than they've been since August. Interim head coach Reggie Herring noted on Sunday that the Hogs had added a couple of new plays for McFadden during Dallas practices when conversations were headed to the possibility of the star tailback not being eligible for the game.

It was Herring's way of emphasizing that UA coaches are confident he'll play. But it also confirmed that McFadden and the running game are still entrenched in the game plan.

"Our workouts here, our practice schedules are just like we've always done it," Markuson said. "Only thing different is that Houston Nutt isn't here. He's missing but we are doing things exactly the same way as if he was here."

The one change might be that the Hogs have had more time to polish the WildHog formation and possibly variations within that scheme. They have had more time to work on the reads and the mesh between McFadden's handoffs with Jones and the rest of the backs.

"We've worked hard on all of that stuff," Lee said. "We are smoother every day. It's tough because that's not what we do full time, the reads and mesh."

It's been obvious there have been distractions with the coaching changes and the McFadden situation with his stepmother's borrowed Escalade sport utility vehicle. But Markuson doesn't think the team has changed its outstanding focus.

"What this did was give us more focus," Markuson said. "It just tightened things up within this team even more. I give these players credit. What you hear them talk about is finishing. It's what the coaches have emphasized from day one.

"The players are glad to be here. I'm going to tell you that these coaches are glad to be here. Yes, we are going to Ole Miss in about five days, but there was never a question that we wanted to be here for this bowl game. We are having fun with these players and they are working hard.

"I guess a lot of guys could have said why do it and move on, but that wouldn't be going with the message we'd given these players in everything they do. We tell them to finish. We need to finish. We tell them that is how you grow as people. We wanted to do that for them and be here with them.

"This is about the life lessons you get from football. I don't think those who haven't played the game understand how you grow in this game. You get knocked down and face adversity. You face scrutiny. You face the fire. This bunch has been through a lot and they've grown from it. They are going to play well in this game. I think we've prepared well and are ready. We are playing well right now and we are excited about this game."

The big Dallas freshman has made everyone excited about the Cotton Bowl.

DeMarcus Love gives the Hogs strength at right guard.

DeMarcus Love stretches before Sunday's practice for the Cotton Bowl.

Mike Markuson puts the Arkansas offensive line through its paces at Cotton Bowl practices.

Photos by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated

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