FOOTBALL: Three...Two...One...Contact

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Michael Smith knew the free pass simply couldn't last.

Last season, the junior was one several offensive players wearing black jerseys on the practice field. It protected Smith from contact, keeping him and Arkansas' star backs — Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis — safe during hitting drills.

But those three running backs are gone. The coaching staff has changed, too. So when Arkansas started offseason conditioning drills under new coach Bobby Petrino, it didn't take Smith long to realize the black jerseys would follow them right out the door.

"The black jerseys were luxurious while they lasted," Smith said. "That was fine. But it's football. You hit in football."

Petrino has promised Arkansas' practices will be two things this spring: Up-tempo and physical. The first two days of non-contact work showed the Razorbacks are moving at a quicker pace, but Arkansas will test its toughness during the first full pads practice today.

While Petrino is trying to install a new offensive playbook for the Razorbacks this spring, he's also trying to instill physical play all around the field. To him, that means everyone — except the quarterbacks — will be subject to contact at practice.

"I've always had the philosophy that hitting is like tying your shoe," Petrino said. "It's something you do every day. You get used to it and you stay healthy because of it. So you have to do some hitting every day. No question about that. We need the live tackling.

"We need to find out a lot about ourselves. We need to find out about our running backs. That's what we're going to do (today)."

Players said they already have an idea of what it will be like after a rugged offseason and two practices. The Hogs have worn helmets, shirts and shorts so far, but toughness has been emphasized.

For instance, receivers and running backs have run through a gauntlet of pad-swinging coaches during a drill meant to teach ball security. Receivers have been scrapping, fighting and wrestling with defensive players in one-on-one work. Running backs have absorbed a few shots from eager defensive players.

"It's been pretty much like we had pads on," receiver Lucas Miller said. "Guys are flying around. Everybody is excited. We get carried away sometimes and hit each other without pads. ... It's a different game now. He stresses physicality. He wants us to be tough guys. If you're not tough, you're not going to make it on the field."

It's a different tone than the Houston Nutt era. Arkansas didn't believe in heavy contact in practice, hoping to keep players fresh.

Both philosophies have perks, but Miller believes heavy hitting could be beneficial to the new-look Razorbacks.

"We've never really been full speed on the field and sometimes that has hurt us in the past because we weren't used to getting hit," Miller said. "Players are going to be better because we're going to be used to getting hit, getting off tackles, breaking tackles and making plays after contact. (Petrino) really stresses that."

The only players not expected to absorb blows beginning today are the quarterbacks, although senior Casey Dick said he's prepared.

Petrino admitted there are coaches on his staff who would like to see quarterbacks live. It could be the best way to gauge how effectively they can make plays. But he won't allow it.

Instead, the rest of the Razorbacks' running backs and receivers are bracing for the change, while defensive players are gearing up for the opportunity to tackle previously protected teammates.

"The running backs haven't been live since I've been here," linebacker Elston Forte said. "I've never been able to play with the running backs live. So it's going to be different. It's going to be fun."

Of course, the group has been cautioned to protect their teammates as well. Don't unload on a receiver running across the middle of the field. Don't pop running backs in dangerous positions.

But don't treat them like they're wearing black jerseys anymore.

"I'm glad," said Smith, who now wears a red jersey like the rest of the Razorbacks' offense. "It's not putting one player above anybody else. It's bringing everybody together on the team.

"I know that in the past maybe you had to do that. But I think the level of excitement for coming to practice and just being able to go out and hit and compete and make guys miss, do whatever it is your position entitles, that will be great for us and for the fans."

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