Arkansas Midseason Report

FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas opened its season in late August, the team was still going through a bit of freshman orientation.

Nealry two dozen newcomers were thrown into the mix and had to quickly learn the demands that come with playing college football. Instead of redshirting, several freshmen were named starters.

After that, the Razorbacks were given a crash course on the Introduction of Bobby Petrino. Players were forced to study their playbooks and get a grasp on offensive and defensive changes that had been implemented in the offseason.

Now midterms have arrived.

With last Saturday's 25-22 upset at Auburn, Arkansas reached the midway point of its regular season with a 3-3 record and a 1-2 mark in the Southeastern Conference. There have been plenty of growing pains and still some questions remain unanswered, especially on special teams.

But the Razorbacks have shown progress as well.

Arkansas has cut down on its assignment errors. The offensive and defensive lines have overcome injuries and personnel changes to become more of a factor. And running back Michael Smith has dispelled any notion that he's too small to be a featured back in the SEC.

"I do like the improvement that we've made in the last few weeks. I think our understanding of how to practice is better," Petrino said, stopping earlier this week to access his team up to this point.

"Our understanding of how to prepare for a game and then putting it together and taking it onto the field and putting together four quarters (is better). So we're improving. We've just got to continue to do that."

Since the halfway point of the season has arrived, The Morning News examines how the Razorbacks have done over their first six games. As a staff, we broke down individual positions and gave a grade to the units, including coaching.

Some areas, of course, have performed better than others. But as with most college courses, there is still another half of the semester for Arkansas to show improvement and pass its final exams.


Quarterbacks — B

Casey Dick has been given much more responsibility in Arkansas' offense under coach Bobby Petrino and the senior has been up-and-down in his role so far.

Dick started strong, throwing for 641 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception in two games. He showed plenty of poise, too, guiding the Razorbacks to fourth-quarter comebacks.

The road has been rocky since. Dick is averaging 192.5 yards in the past four games. He has thrown one touchdown pass and six interceptions. In addition, two of those picks were returned for touchdowns.

But Petrino said Dick has done an "excellent job" of preparing for each game and the quarterback is showing more signs of confidence in the system. For instance, Dick read Auburn's defense at the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter last Saturday, checked to a run play and it resulted in Michael Smith's game-winning, 63-yard touchdown run.

"I think he took a huge step the other day of really keeping his poise, focusing on playing one play at a time and that's the key to quarterback," Petrino said. "Whether the previous play you do something real good or you make a mistake, is being able to put that behind you and play the next play."

Dick has handled nearly every snap. Freshman Tyler Wilson is the only other quarterback to play this season and he has thrown for 69 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in two appearances.

Running Backs — B

Switching from Houston Nutt's run-oriented offense to Bobby Petrino's more balanced spread philosophy meant the Arkansas rushing attack was sure to be down in numbers this fall. Losing Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis to the NFL also hurt.

So far, though, the Razorbacks haven't dropped off as much as most predicted. And almost all of that can be credited to junior tailback Michael Smith. Handling almost the full workload, Smith has ignored the naysayers who thought his 5-foot-7, 185-pound frame couldn't handle the wear and tear of SEC play week in and week out.

Take Smith's 35 carry, 176-yard effort against Auburn for instance, showing Arkansas still is committed to the run under Petrino. And thanks to Smith, the Razorbacks are beginning to establish the running game more and more.

The one issue, unlike last season, is depth. Smith is clearly an all-SEC type back, but freshmen Dennis Johnson and De'Anthony Curtis are seeing very few carries in the reserve roles. If Smith can stay healthy, Arkansas' running game should be fine as the season wears on. But if he goes down with an injury, things could get messy.

Receivers/Tight Ends — B+

FAYETTEVILLE — D.J. Williams was expected to be Arkansas' top receiving threat.

And the sophomore tight end entered the 2008 season with just five career catches.

Inexperience aside, the Razorbacks' tight ends and receivers have proven some of the team's biggest playmakers through the first half of the season. From Chris Gragg's game- and possibly season-saving catch on fourth down against Louisiana-Monroe to key receptions by six true freshmen, Arkansas'' receiving crops has played as key a role as any in the Razorbacks three wins.

Freshman Joe Adams has stood out from all with his tough catches and speed. Adams has 22 catches, with a season-high seven for 89 yards in the win over ULM.

And all the while, Williams has provided quarterback Casey Dick with a sure-handed security blanket. The tight end leads the team in catches (28) and yards (315), finding space through a variety of crossing routes used in coach Bobby Petrino's offensive system.

Offensive Line — C

Before the season started, much of the talk about Arkansas focused on its offensive line, which had experience, a Rimington Trophy winner in center Jonathan Luigs and new blocking schemes.

For all the changes that Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino had brought to the offense, the front line was expected to remain one of the team's strengths.

But then guard Mitch Petrus, a preseason All-SEC selection, was ruled ineligible. Whether that triggered it or not, the offensive line quickly became one of Arkansas' more troubling areas.

The Razorbacks gave up a combined eight sacks in their first two games against Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe, and the front line reached a low point by surrendering seven sacks in a 52-10 loss to No. 1 Texas.

At one point earlier this month, Arkansas had given up a nation's worst 21 sacks. Dick contributed to that total by holding onto the football too long, but still the offensive linemen struggled to provide much pass protection.

Things have improved over the past two games, even though offensive tackle Ray Dominguez has missed time and redshirt freshman Grant Cook has taken over as a starting offensive guard.

Arkansas' offensive line put together its best performance in last Saturday's win over Auburn, not allowing a sack and opening up holes for running back Michael Smith to rush for a career-high 176 yards.

"Our offensive line did a nice job. They really controlled the line of scrimmage," Petrino said. "We talked all week long about getting these guys off their feet and we had a lot of knockdown blocks.

"But we had tremendous effort, guys playing hard, playing full speed."


Defensive Line — C-

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino identified this unit as a strength when he first arrived in Fayetteville, but results have been mixed.

The Razorbacks rank last in the Southeastern Conference in total yards allowed (355.5). They rank last in rushing yards allowed (172.5). They rank last in sacks (eight). And while the collective play of the defensive line has contributed mightily to those numbers, the Razorbacks showed some improvement in Arkansas' 25-22 win last Saturday at Auburn.

Junior defensive end Adrian Davis and junior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard have performed with the most consistency. Davis ranks first among Arkansas defenders in tackles for loss, ranks second in total tackles and his interception and forced fumble keyed the win at Auburn. Sheppard ranks second in tackles for loss and sixth in total tackles.

Senior defensive tackle Ernest Mitchell, Arkansas' most experienced lineman, missed the Florida and Auburn games with a knee injury and just returned to practice. True freshman Zach Stadther has performed adequately in Mitchell's absence.

Three other defensive ends are receiving steady playing time because of Arkansas' commitment to keeping its linemen fresh — senior Antwain Robinson and sophomores Damario Ambrose and Jake Bequette.

Linebackers — C

This was the biggest area of concern entering the season. Easily the thinnest group on the team, the linebacking corps was forced to turn to numerous freshman at the start of the year after suspensions and injuries took their toll.

On the field, this group has taken its lumps. Struggling to help fill the gaps and gang tackle in the first four games, things finally picked up around the Florida contest when more healthy bodies arrived to help out. Freshman Jerry Franklin has been the clear star of the group — totaling 46 tackles and emerging as a leader on defense — while Freddy Burton's and Wendel Davis' returns from suspensions have also been a big lift.

As young as these linebackers are, there will be more times of mental breakdowns this season. But the good news for the Razorbacks is the worst might be behind them.

Secondary — C+

The Razorbacks' secondary has had its fair share of ups and downs, but with so many new starters playing those positions, what else would anyone expect?

Although Arkansas gave up a season-worst 213 passing yards in a 52-10 loss at Texas, it's only given up an average of 172.5 yards per game. In fact, the Razorbacks' best performance to date was holding Alabama to 74 passing yards.

However, the numbers can be very misleading, considering how much success Arkansas' opponents have had running the ball — to the tune of 183 yards per game.

Cornerbacks Isaac Madison, Ramon Broadway and Shedrick Johnson have all shown signs of aggressive coverage, but have also given up big plays at crucial times, including a 33-yard pass against Louisiana-Monroe early in the second half.

Safeties Jerico Nelson, Elton Ford, Matt Harris and Dallas Washington have all combined for 68 unassisted tackles and only one interception, which came from Harris at the end of the game against Auburn, securing Arkansas' upset victory.

Special Teams — D

Arkansas' special teams have caused plenty of headaches for Petrino in the first six games. He should've known it was coming, too, considering the Petrino era opened with freshman Elton Ford's fumbled kickoff in the first game against Western Illinois.

In fact, the Razorbacks have managed to commit nearly every single special teams blunder imaginable.

Arkansas has had one field goal, one extra point and one punt blocked. In addition to Ford, freshman Dennis Johnson also lost a fumble on a kickoff. And running back Michael Smith muffed the ball on a punt. If that's not enough, the Razorbacks just surrendered a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Auburn.

None of that even covers the problems the Razorbacks have had with place kicker Alex Tejada, who shanked three field goals and an extra point before being benched during the Texas game.

But it's not all bad news: Johnson has proven to be a dependable — and dangerous — kick returner. Punter Jeremy Davis is having a career year, averaging 44.2 yards an attempt. And new kicker Shay Haddock has been solid in his stint, making 3-of-4 field goals so far.

Coaching — B

The first six games of the Bobby Petrino Era have tested the coach's patience and given him reason to be optimistic at the same time.

Petrino and his coaching staff revamped Arkansas' offense and defense, got rid of the player-friendly feel that marked Houston Nutt's tenure and brought a business-like approach to practice.

So far, the results have been mixed.

Petrino and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino have shown that their pass-happy offense can gain yards and quarterback Casey Dick can handle the increased role.

Dick, who had never passed for more than 228 yards before this season, is averaging 235.2 yards passing per game. Meanwhile, the offense is gaining 362.8 yards per game despite averaging just 18.7 points.

The Razorbacks have struggled to get off to a fast start, causing them to trail by double-digit deficits in each of their six games. Players are mostly responsible for the poor execution, but some of the blame must go to the coaches for not getting the team ready.

However, there were signs of improvement in last Saturday's win over Auburn, in which the Hogs gained 416 yards and put together four scoring drives of at least 62 yards.

The struggles on defense and special teams have been even more glaring, causing some fans to criticize defensive coordinator Willy Robinson and special teams coordinator Kirk Botkin.

Arkansas' defense is young and inexperienced, so it's no surprise that the unit is giving up 35.3 yards per game. But it's hard to explain the almost weekly gaffes that seem to occur with the special teams.

Everyone assumed it would take at least one season for players to get adjusted to the new coaching staff. That seems to be the case, but some areas have adapted quicker than others.


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