State of the Hogs: Big Uglies
I'll see my good friend Jim Daniel this weekend. As I write, he is making the long trek by truck from his ranch near the Rockies for the football season opener. He does not want to miss the start of the Bobby Petrino era at Arkansas.
Jim grew up in the Fourche Valley, Ark., schools. It took me awhile to figure out the exact location of his hometown hidden deep in the Ouachita mountains. I have to apologize, I've not been there. Actually, Jim didn't live exactly there. He lived in the nearby hills. He tells me he rode a horse to grade school. That beats me. I remind my daughters, I walked about half a mile to school.
Jim has taken me fly fishing several times in the Rockies. We've ridden horses to high alpine lakes, camped for a few days and caught beautiful cutthroat, brook and rainbow trout on either side of the Continental Divide.
While waiting on sleep in our tent, Jim always posed a couple of simple football questions when he finally worked the conversation away from fly fishing (or whether or not the horses are OK). Do we have enough big uglies? Can we protect the passer? Can we get to the passer?
That would generally lead to about 20 minutes of football talk from my side of the tent. Jim listened. As I'd go through the line prospects, two deep, there wouldn't be another word from him.
I'd slow to a whisper hoping he'd fallen asleep, then I'd stop and close my eyes. It would be dead quiet with nothing making a stir at 9,800 feet. Then, came the inevitable final question. Kicking game?
Really, those questions are always the same and important. Do the Hogs have talent, experience, heart and character in the line? Can they win the kicking game?
We've read about the large number of freshmen in the two-deep throughout this fall camp. Petrino could play as few as a dozen true freshmen against Western Illinois and perhaps as many as 18. Never has an Arkansas team depended on so many true freshmen to start a season.
That is scary and the reason I won't predict more than six victories even if things go right.
But there is good news. There are talented, seasoned big uglies, Jim's description, at every position on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
The kicking game has experience in Alex Tejada and Jeremy Davis. The return men are true freshmen and that is scary, too. But, Jarius Wright, the rookie punt returner, might not make as many mistakes in the kicking game as we've seen in recent years. He may even improve that part of the kicking game. What I will be watching most for Saturday night will be in pass protection. And, whether a rotation of four talented defensive ends can get to the opposition quarterback.
Over and over on those nights in the Rockies in those soft conversations from our sleeping bags, I've told Jim that what concerned me the most about the upcoming season was pass protection.
Since the Danny Ford days, I've not seen an Arkansas offensive line that I thought could protect the passer in passing situations. Yes, they've been fine on some play-action situations where the defense is playing run, but not when everyone in the stadium knew a pass was needed.
If you want to be truthful, the last Arkansas head coach that worked enough on pass protection was probably Lou Holtz. All of them since have depended on the fake of the run to buy a little time for the passing game.
Petrino and his staff have a great play-action series. They will run the ball. They will be able to run it when they need to run it.
More importantly, Petrino, per his announced goal on the night he was hired, will be able to pass both when the Hogs need to pass and when they want to pass. There's a difference and the first speaks to the time commitment in pass protection.
Mike Summers, the line coach, has 12 different pass protections for all situations. In talking to the linemen, they feel both a confidence to execute all of them and a great level of faith in the man making the calls, All-America center Jonathan Luigs.
"We've done well starting in the spring, spreading into the summer and carrying over to fall practice in learning a new language of how we'll block things," Summers said. "We've gotten it down so the calls can be made and executed in that short timing period before the snap of the ball. We've come together as an offensive line and we believe in each other."
Just as important, these Hogs should be able to get to the passer better than in the past. The key to the defensive success will be whether Antwain Robinson, Adrian Davis, Jake Bequette and Damario Ambrose can get to the quarterback from the outside. Those four are going to rotate at defensive end. If they can create pressure, the Hogs will have fun playing zone coverages at linebacker and in the secondary. They will feast on turnovers.
It goes back to what Petrino said on that first night as Arkansas coach. The defensive plan is to hit the quarterback and force turnovers. That's what these defensive ends can do.
It won't be that simple Saturday night against Western Illinois. The Leathernecks enter with a good running game. They have a fine tailback/fullback tandem, perhaps among the best in their classification. They are going to test the Hogs' young linebackers. That's why Petrino said the first mission against the Leathernecks is to stop the run.
The good news, again, comes up front where Mitchell and Sheppard, the two tackles, are good enough to offer some protection for budding middle linebacker Jerry Franklin.
Things aren't perfect for this Arkansas team. They really haven't been at Arkansas for about 20 years. The Hogs have been climbing up hill ever since coming into the SEC. They will be better next year than this year. They'll be even better in 2010. That's when Petrino's program should mature.
But for now, Jim Daniel, yes, these Hogs have some big uglies.
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