Arkansas Backs Ready To Play Catch

FAYETTEVILLE — Free safety Matt Harris is well aware of the frustration that goes along with defending Arkansas' offense.

The Razorbacks' sophomore has had to do it every day.

So after two weeks of chasing wide receivers and keeping track of tight ends, Harris can safely say there's nothing more maddening than watching running back Michael Smith slip out of the backfield, catch a pass and gain a first down.

"(The running backs) are like the silent killers in this offense," Harris said. "They'll do that little swing route. We'll be covering these (Bobby) Petrino route systems, crossing routes, switch routes. And then these backs will slip out a yard behind the line of scrimmage and get the ball."

Arkansas' wide receivers and tight ends are obviously enjoying much bigger roles in Petrino's offense, but preseason drills have proven the running backs will be another important — if not forgotten — element in the passing game.

Their primary job will be to grind out rushing yards in an effort to keep Arkansas' attack balanced. However, multi-dimensional players like Smith and De'Anthony Curtis will also be asked to frustrate defenses with their route-running.

"We're trying to create mismatches and trying to keep the defense off-balance," Smith said. "That's our involvement."

It has been evident on the practice field and in scrimmages, where running backs have made their share of catches.

In fact, Curtis and running back Chip Gregory caught touchdown passes in Arkansas' first open scrimmage. Dennis Johnson scored on a screen pass in the second scrimmage.

"(Petrino) told me that was going to happen," Curtis said about a running back's role in the passing offense. "So I had to get prepared and learn the offense. ... And just work on my hands because we do (run) routes."

It's not unusual for an Arkansas offense to employ the running backs in the passing game.

Peyton Hillis, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were the Razorbacks top three pass catchers last season. Arkansas running backs — which included Smith's four receptions in 2007 — accounted for 51.4 percent of the team's catches.

But the job has changed. Backs won't be the first, second and third options anymore. At least, not all the time.

"They'll play a big role in stretching the defense and (the quarterback) checking down to them," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "Some of the routes you have there, they're the main guy in the (quarterback's) progression.

"They're going to play a big part in the passing game."

In 2003 and 2006 — Petrino's first and last year with the Cardinals — Louisville running backs combined to catch 48 and 50 passes, respectively. They accounted for 20 percent of the team's receptions in each of those years.

Atlanta Falcons running backs caught 71 passes last season, which was 21.1 percent of the team's receptions.

It may not look like much, but Smith said Petrino does a good job of getting the backs out in space where they are comfortable. Arkansas doesn't have bruising backs that prefer running between the tackles, so flipping the ball to the flat will give them more chances to work in the open field.

"Coach Petrino knows that he doesn't have the biggest backs in the world," Smith said. "He's just trying to get us out in space and in one-on-one situations."

Said Harris: "You try tackling Mike Smith in the open field. He's guaranteed to get by the first guy every time. We could do a swing route and get a first down every time."

Position coach Tim Horton said it's easier to do, considering Arkansas' running backs all seem to have good hands and know what to do with the football when they get it.

According to Horton, there isn't a "claw hammer in the bunch" so the Razorbacks won't hesitate to throw the ball to Smith, Curtis, Barnett, Gregory or Johnson.

That's bad news for Harris and the rest of the defense as they try to slow down Arkansas' passing attack — running backs and all — in practice the rest of the preseason.

But there is a bright side: It won't be long before Harris gets to watch the backs frustrate an opponent on game day.

"They're going to hurt someone other than us pretty soon," Harris said with a laugh. "That's what I'm excited about."

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