State of the Hogs: Not Just Passing Fancy

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The promise of more passes with at least some of them down the middle of the field is what excited fans the most when Bobby Petrino was introduced as Arkansas football coach.

When Petrino has talked to Razorback Clubs this winter, they applauded every time he mentioned anything about the passing game. Those that have attended spring practices have seen plenty of passes. There have been sets with two, three, four and five receivers (although sometimes they are tight ends) split wide. Fans like what they see and come away from those practices nodding in approval.

However, that may not be the biggest change so far with Arkansas football under Petrino. The amount of hitting and scrimmage plays is off the charts from what I've seen in the past.

Over and over, I'm asked to compare what Petrino has done to what it was like under the previous coach. I'm going to dive in a little deeper into history than that, but you can include recent practices, too.

I've never seen anything like it. I've covered a lot of good coaches through the years. I've covered practices conducted by Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Pat Jones, Ken Hatfield, Lou Holtz, John Cooper, Danny Ford, Howard Schnellenberger and some others none of you would remember. Five of those have won national championships. None practiced as hard or hit as much as what I've seen in Petrino's workouts this spring.

Perhaps the one that came closest might have been Holtz. In his days at Arkansas, Holtz did conduct some long scrimmages and he did hit a lot in the spring. I can even remember the time before a game he took his team into the Broyles Center indoor workout in pre-game and scrimmaged the ones against the ones. Several got beat up to the point they didn't play that day.

There is method to the physical nature of the current workouts. They tackle in scrimmages, but don't in other 11-on-11 work. And, quarterbacks are never hit.

"I've got a couple of my coaches that would like it if we hit the quarterbacks, too," Petrino said. "But I can't do that. The risk is just too great."

That's a different philosophy than his dad. Bob Petrino, coached 26 years at Carroll College in Helena, Mont. Paul Petrino, the Hogs' offensive coordinator, was talking about the comparison of his brother's practices and his dad's after the marathon scrimmage last week.

"This wasn't nearly what we did in college," Paul said. "First, we didn't have very many players since it was a small school. So the ones were out there the whole time and we went longer. And, they tackled quarterbacks. I know, I was an option quarterback. I got hit every play."

It appears to me that toughness is the number one thing the Hogs have added with Petrino. He told us he would emphasize toughness when he was hired, we just were listening so closely to his promises in regards to the passing game that some of the other points of emphasis sailed right over our heads.

It isn't just long, tough practices. Everything that happens has meaning to it and purpose. Every step is coached, every blow critiqued and then either applauded or corrected. You can see stance, technique and fundamentals stressed every minute of every practice. There are no lazy steps. Speed is emphasized between plays as much as during plays or drills.

Interestingly, fans cheered at two separate practices when both Casey Dick and later Ryan Mallett fired pinpoint passes across the field into tight coverage for a completion that netted 20 or more yards. Both times Bobby Petrino met the quarterbacks when they turned. He pointed to a safer, shorter route that was wide open. Another time a pass was batted down over the middle and Petrino yelled, "He wasn't open. He's open here." He pointed to the back in the flats.

One of the promises was that 7-on-7 passing drills would feature 42 plays in 20 minutes. I've tried to count each day and haven't gotten to 42. Paul Petrino said they got to 38, 39 and 38 the first three days. That's about what I've counted, too. That's still double what I remember at most workouts in the passing game no matter what coach was in charge at various schools.

The obvious key here is that Petrino believes that more repetition means more work on film for coaching in the video room. The fancy new equipment that is in the Broyles Center now allows for complex telestrator work with coaches showing players the good and the bad.

All of that is good, but the way toughness is stressed is just as important. And, it's just not at quarterback. Petrino can and does coach all positions. I'd been led to believe that he would be very much hands-on with the QBs, and he is. But he'll move to other stations during individual work and help the position coaches with technique there, too. On Tuesday, he was emphasizing the steps of the running backs on specific plays.

Personally, there is excitement to what is happening with Arkansas football. Don't mistake that for a prediction of a 10-victory season in 2008. There are still missing pieces of the puzzle. Some of that will start to fall into place in August when Petrino's first recruiting class arrives, but it's still going to take time in some areas.

In the meantime, the best skilled player on the team might be sophomore D. J. Williams. He could be the best tight end, best H-back, best fullback and some ways the best wide receiver. He's cut in the same mold as Peyton Hillis, perhaps better.

Perhaps right behind Williams is Andrew Davie, another tight end. The former pro baseball player has blossomed this spring with improved skill as a pass catcher. He was already a solid blocker.

There is good to see in a lot of other areas, too. Offensive guard Mitch Petrus drew praise from the head coach after the first major scrimmage for sticking more to his technique and eliminating some of the "wildness" that has plagued the offensive guard in the past. Petrus has always had the toughness, desire and effort. Now he's adding sharpness.

So it isn't just about coaching toughness. Bobby Petrino is going to polish as much as he pounds. And, he's just getting started.

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