Razorbacks Take Important Steps

FAYETTEVILLE — When Michael Smith got his copy of new coach Bobby Petrino's offensive playbook this winter, the Arkansas running back admitted he and the rest of his teammates were a little overwhelmed.

"Whoa," Smith said, when asked to describe his initial feelings. "That's it. Whoa."

But Smith had different thoughts about that playbook after rushing for 157 yards in the Red-White Game on Saturday night. He was part of a first-team offense that piled up 601 yards and showed plenty of promise during the spring-ending scrimmage in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

"It makes sense," Smith said with a big smile. "It's how football should be played. And if we can perfect it, it's going to be an exciting season."

Smith's reaction summed up the journey the entire roster traveled during its first spring under Petrino, who replaced coach Houston Nutt in December.

Both offense and defense alike took an accelerated course in Petrino-ball this spring, digesting new playbooks, soaking up new terminology and learning new techniques on the field over the course of a month. They had to get used to new practice routines, different demands from the new coaching staff and an overhaul in coaching philosophies.

It wasn't easy. But now that the 15-practice spring session is over, Petrino said there is promise.

"We've made some big strides," Petrino said. "We certainly have a long way to go. We've got a lot of new faces in there. I feel good about our front on both sides, offense and defense. We're going to need some help from some of our freshmen at the skill spots. But players have done a nice job of really working hard at learning the schemes, working hard at the technique and fundamentals of their position.

"So even though I feel like we have a long way to go, we certainly had a positive spring."

At the very least, the Razorbacks identified a group of players that will help on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Casey Dick "impressed" Petrino this spring with his ability to learn the offense and understand defenses. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said receiver London Crawford has the potential to be a big-play receiver, while tight ends D.J. Williams and Andrew Davie were the offense's most consistent performers.

Like Smith, Williams said the first impression was that it was an impossible task. But it didn't last.

"Petrino is a great coach if you just listen to what he says," Williams said. "He knows football. He's trying to instill that in us. Once we get to that point, we're going to raise a lot of eyebrows."

Defensively, Petrino said he was continually surprised by a secondary that was replacing four starters from the 2007 team. He said the Razorbacks have "three, maybe four" defensive ends they can count on. He also said the strength of the team could lie on the offensive and defensive lines.

"They were on the gas pedal as much as they could to see who would fall or who would crumble and who would step up and emerge," said center Jonathan Luigs, who is one of three returning starters on the offensive line. "They've definitely been hard. But as a team we've grown together and fought through some battles and hardships and the lows and highs."

Of course, the spring is just the beginning.

Arkansas now enters a long summer with plenty of work to be done. The spring helped answer some questions, but plenty remain until the fall.

The Razorbacks' defense remains unsettled at linebacker, where inexperienced players like Jerry Franklin and Ryan Powers had up-and-down springs.

Outside of Smith, there is concern at tailback after Brandon Barnett experienced fumble problems and Chip Gregory was slowed by an ankle injury.

But Petrino and the Razorbacks believe the questions that remain won't overshadow the progress that was made this spring.

After all, there aren't many Arkansas players feeling overwhelmed about the changes anymore.

"It's been a long spring," free safety Matt Harris said. "It's been a new spring. It's been a little different. ... But there's been a lot of excitement."

Five to Remember

Here's a quick look at five players who made an impression during spring practice, which wrapped up with the Red-White Game last Saturday:

1. QB Casey Dick — The senior was a completely different player under Petrino's guidance. Dick is now being asked to make plays and showed some of that potential in every spring scrimmage.

2. DE Antwain Robinson — Robinson is coming off a disappointing 2007, but made plays in a new scheme this spring. He recorded a handful of sacks in scrimmages and earned praise from coaches.

3. TE D.J. Williams — The junior nearly left after Nutt's departure, but should thrive in Petrino's offense in 2008. The dependable pass catcher has also proven to be an effective blocker.

4. CB Darrell Glasper — The former LSU walk-on is small (5-foot-8), but made big plays in a scrimmages. He intercepted Dick twice on April 19 and broke up two passes in the spring game.

5. WR Carlton Salters — London Crawford is the big-play threat, but Salters proved to be a dependable receiver in the slot. He grabbed seven passes for 108 yards in the spring game.

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