State of the Hogs: Improvement
It was minutes after the loss to Florida. Arkansas assistant coach Paul Petrino was on his way out of the interview room when he stopped to acknowledge a positive comment from a reporter about the day's offensive plan against the Gators.
"Thanks, but we just have to get it all together," the offensive coordinator said. "We need to have it worked out pretty soon, by Kentucky. We are getting better with our techniques, but we just have to keep working and it'll start showing up on the scoreboard."
It happened one week sooner. Things came together last week at Auburn, perhaps against one of the best defenses the Hogs had seen in their first six games. They rambled for 417 yards on what had been a good Auburn defense. The Hogs were especially good on first downs, making 5 yards or better 12 times. That was probably one of the keys to converting third down eight times against the Tigers.
Defense was improved, too. The front four has improved each week, and a stabilized linebacker group provides encouragement. It appears the techniques stressed since last spring are starting to take hold throughout the squad.
Now, let's see if the Hogs can take their improved execution — with hopes that it also spreads to special teams — on the road for a second straight week. Can they handle a little success?
I have not seen enough of these players, this offense or this team to know the answer. Perhaps that is the reason they were still a double-digit underdog when the betting line opened this week.
There just isn't enough data yet to know how to figure this team. What I have seen is enough to know the coaches are on the right path. Most everything I've seen is correct.
Practices continue to be tough and physical. Fundamentals and technique are stressed. Coach Bobby Petrino makes sure his staff emphasizes those key items every step.
That doesn't mean he isn't aware of fatigue and the nature of a long season. He has a plan for everything. Every other Wednesday, Petrino takes the full pads off from the waist down in an attempt to keep legs fresh.
"We are in a stretch of eight straight weeks with games," he said. "That's a grind. So we'll try to make sure we don't do too much. Every other Wednesday, we'll go in shorts. I've found that helps a little."
Petrino gets a lot of credit for calling plays. He's good at it, too.
However, it's clear that fundamentals and technique are the essence of his coaching style.
If a quarterback throws an interception, usually it comes down to a breakdown in footwork, or technique. That will be corrected first, along with the decisions.
It was interesting to hear Petrino discuss the chances of DeMarcus Love returning to the field this week after missing a couple of games because of an ankle injury. Grant Cook has played well in Love's slot at strongside guard and probably won't fall from the rotation there either way. But if Love wants to play, he has to do more than just get back on the practice field.
"He's tough and he's fighting through the injury and is back out there," Petrino said. "But earlier this week I didn't think his technique was very good. You could tell he wasn't trusting his technique yet. That happens when a player comes back from an injury a lot of time. I want to see the video tonight to see if his technique was better."
Coaching technique doesn't just apply to the starters. Petrino has a definite eye for the future with his weekly routine. The redshirts and scout teamers are getting a nice dose of coaching, too. Perhaps they are getting more time during the season than I've seen on other staffs I've covered over the past 30 seasons.
Every Sunday night, while the starters do some running to take the soreness out of their bodies, Petrino and his staff work with the redshirts and those who didn't play the day before in a 40-minute practice. That answers the question as to whether ineligible quarterback Ryan Mallett is getting any team snaps during his redshirt season.
It gives the position coaches time with some players they see only during individual drills during the week. For example, Bobby Allen has seen enough of scout teamer Alfred Davis to be excited. Davis, a true freshman, came to school overweight, around 340 pounds.
"He had to lose some weight and our strength coach, Jason Veltkamp, has done a nice job," Allen said. "He's down to 315. He's probably been our big surprise over the last few weeks. He's really doing well, getting better. He's going to be really good."
Some have fretted over the lack of depth in the defensive line, but Allen has been pleased with the progress of Patrick Jones, too. The true sophomore sustained a bad ankle sprain in two-a-days and fell to the scout team.
"We pulled him up to the varsity the last two weeks because he's done well," Allen said. "We actually had plans to play him at Auburn, but we just didn't have as many snaps as we thought, not many in the first half at all. Our guys up front were fresh in the fourth quarter. But we had Patrick ready."
When you hear the defensive tackles speak on their development, all start with their new keys on technique and the way they help with their stunts and inside moves.
"The stunts are starting to work, if we stay with the techniques that are being taught," said junior Malcolm Sheppard. "That's what our coaches preach. It works."
That is music to Allen's ears.
"They are listening," Allen said. "They see results. Winning helps. That's the biggest adrenaline rush." Indeed, they are listening. I recall Bobby Petrino's thoughts on the key to offensive development in the spring. He asked his offensive line to lead the team, show the way with pure energy snap after snap. His thoughts after Wednesday's workout are telling.
"Our offensive line led our team," Petrino said. "They brought a lot of energy."
That may be the key at Kentucky. The Wildcats have one of the best sets of inside tackles in the SEC. They are also good at middle linebacker and free safety. Like a baseball team, you'd like to be good through the middle, and the Wildcats are that.
How do you combat the Wildcats' strengths?
"We want to play our techniques faster than they play their techniques," Bobby Petrino said. "If we can do that, we'll be all right."
I'm starting to listen.
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