Defense Thinned By Injuries, Absences

FAYETTEVILLE — Bobby Petrino will begin reshaping Arkansas' football program on the field when spring practice begins Thursday afternoon.

But the Razorbacks' new coach will be missing a handful of faces on the defensive side of the ball.

Petrino said Monday that senior defensive tackle Ernest Mitchell and linebacker Wendel Davis will be sidelined by knee injuries this spring. Defensive back Walner Leandre and defensive tackle Marcus Shavers will be limited to non-contact drills after undergoing offseason shoulder surgeries.

In addition, linebacker Freddie Fairchild is suspended indefinitely after being arrested on misdemeanor charges of suspicion of third-degree battery and false imprisonment.

The absences are plenty. But Petrino said during Monday's 30-minute question-and-answer session with the media Arkansas will make do with the players available.

"It's a concern," Petrino said. "But you go out and practice and you move on. You don't worry about it. The guys that are going to come out there and get in stretch line and be ready to go, that's who we'll practice with. We'll get better with the guys that are out there practicing.

"We're not going to take a step backwards because of injuries or guys that aren't able to go full speed."

The linebacking corps will be the position hardest hit.

Fairchild started 11 games last season and was third on the team in tackles (92). He has not participated in football activities since his arrest and Petrino said the senior will not rejoin the Razorbacks until the legal process takes its course. Fairchild's arraignment date is April 23.

Petrino didn't elaborate on the extent of Davis' knee injury, but said it occurred in the offseason. He's expecting the junior, who had 39 tackles in 2007, to be ready for the fall.

Another player that could've contributed at linebacker — Chip Gregory — was moved to tailback. The sophomore is expected to provide much-needed size and strength.

"One of the priorities since I got the job was to try to identify somebody that could be a big back," Petrino said. "I do think the game changes a little bit in the fourth quarter when you can throw some big backs at the defense."

Without them, Petrino said the three likely to start the spring at linebacker are senior Elston Forte, redshirt freshman Jerry Franklin and sophomore Ryan Powers. Sophomores Freddy Burton and Jermaine Love will contribute as well. So will converted fullback Robert Salinas.

"That does look to be thin," Petrino said of his linebackers. "There's no question about it. Forte has got to do a good job for us. But I've been very impressed with his leadership."

Mitchell, the team's most experienced lineman, tied for the team lead in tackles for losses (10.5) last season. Petrino said Mitchell is recovering well from offseason knee surgery, but still needs more time to become completely healthy.

So do Leandre and Shavers. Both will be on the field this spring, but will only participate in non-contact work.

"They're doing real well, you just don't have contact in the spring and they'll be ready in the fall," Petrino said.

The offense, meanwhile, plans to have two players who were sidelined in 2007 back on the field.

Sophomore tight end Ben Cleveland missed 2007 with a neck injury, while sophomore receiver Crosby Tuck played in just three games before suffering a broken arm.

It has taken both time to recover from their injuries, but Petrino said he's planning to push Cleveland in the spring to see how much he can handle it. He added that Tuck is "real healthy" after making strides the past six weeks.

Despite the injuries and depth questions, Petrino said the Razorbacks will get in plenty of contact work this spring as they try to answer questions at key positions like running back, receiver, cornerback, safety and linebacker.

Arkansas' practices will be open to the public — weather permitting — beginning Thursday. Spring practice will conclude with the spring game on April 26 at 6 p.m.

"We need to hit," Petrino said. "That's the one thing that, in my understanding, will be different for our players. They haven't done a lot of live tackle, live hitting. We need to do that. ... This spring will be very physical."

What: Arkansas Spring Practice

When: Thursday through April 26

Who: Practices open to the public, weather permitting. Workouts will be closed if Arkansas is forced to move practice indoors because of inclement weather.

Schedule: This week — Thursday, 4 p.m.; Friday, 4 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.

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