It was not advertised as a scrimmage day, but Thursday's workout included plenty of hitting, including around one hour of full scrimmage. It left the new Arkansas head football coach smiling afterwards.
"When we got to the team period, we had live tackling," said Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. "The defense flew around and was hitting and making plays early, but the offense came on as it went along."
There was plenty of hitting early in the day, too. Petrino took the linemen, backs and linebackers to the grass practice field for some hard hitting in something akin to middle drill.
"We had some inside running drills early," he said. "We wanted our quarterbacks to understand the reads and the system there in our run game. And, later we had some red zone drills.
"We did get quite a bit accomplished today. It was a good workout."
Petrino said the hitting would be reduced in Friday's workout when "about half" the pads will be taken off in an attempt to back off the hitting before a major scrimmage Saturday.
The emphasis on Saturday will be an attempt to "reduce assignment errors and take effort up."
The head coach thought Thursday's workout was a bit crisper than earlier this spring, but that is to be expected because of the repetition both sides of the ball have gotten and the reduction in the installations of schemes.
"We've backed off of that and we are in polish now," he said. "Yes, we were crisper."
Running back Michael Smith drew praise for his work in the contact areas of the workout.
"It has been obvious in meetings that he has a better knowledge than the others, so it was good to get Michael Smith back out here," Petrino said. "He did some good things. We got Chip Gregory and Brandon Barnett some more plays today and that was good. But they are still learning. Barnett still needs to work on holding onto the ball and learning our pass protections. He missed two simple assignments in our pass protection today."
There were some dropped balls in the passing game earlier, although that seemed to improve as the hitting went along. Marques Wade hauled in a 65-yard touchdown pass, a play that had the offensive linemen sprinting down the field to congratulate the receiver in the end zone.
"We did have a couple of drops, more than we've had," Petrino said. "Some of them were throws that weren't just great, but should have been caught. We have to help each other. The receivers need to make the quarterback look better by making some tough catches and the quarterbacks need to make the receivers look better by making them easier catches. We were not sharp early, but we did get better."
Petrino said he's worried that the defensive secondary isn't getting a true test as far as speed. He said the bulk of the wideouts don't have great speed.
"We need to practice against better speed because you can get bad habits," he said. "Right now, our defensive backs are faster than the receivers. We will see more speed than this when we get to the games. It may get better when we get our freshman class here. There's some speed there and that will help. We will see that kind of speed in every game."
It isn't just physical speed that Petrino wants to see improve. He wants to see the mental speed improve as practices continue.
"Right now, I don't see that our receivers are mentally focused all the time," he said. "I see times that they lack that. That's a mental area. First, you have to win the mental game. You need to eliminate the drops and mental errors to improve."
Wide receiver Lucas Miller is one of the more consistent players. He has dropped very few passes this spring and had another solid day in the passing game. Miller thinks the Hogs have improved dramatically in many areas this spring.
"We are having a lot of fun," Miller said. "It's fun throwing the ball around, but one of the things we've improved the most has been toughness. That's where we've gotten better the most.
"I think from the time we started in January with winter conditioning, toughness was stressed. These coaches and our head coach probably talk about toughness the most. It's about stepping up mentally. I think our receiving group has stepped up in that area.
"I think it's all about finding some tough guys. It's not about the weak anymore. They are pretty blunt about that, the toughness area. It's plain and simple."
Miller understands he can't afford to miss any workouts. He's got a stress fracture of the pelvic bone, but doesn't see a need to rest it until after the April 26 spring game.
"I'm alright," he said. "I can rest it after that. I want to be out here right now and play. We are learning so much. We have learned so much with Paul Petrino, our wide receiver coach. The film study, our time in the meeting room are so great. We've learned about reading defenses, reading players and their movement and stance. Now, when we come to the line, we can tell what the quarterback is going to do by the nature of the reads we are seeing.
"We are much better as a football team right now. We are better in all areas. I think you are starting to see that we understand the physical and mental part of the game much better. We are still learning, but it's starting to come together for this team."
D. J. Williams follows the ball to his hands.
Bobby Petrino liked what he saw in Thursday's practice.
Paul Petrino instructs the receivers.
Cord Gray tangles in a fundamental drill.
Photos by Marc F. Henning
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