Players Try To Downplay Nutt's Return

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard holds no grudges against Houston Nutt.

While Nutt is regarded as Public Enemy No. 1 with many Arkansas fans, Sheppard considers his former coach to be "one of the best men" he knows.

"Coach Nutt gave me a shot when nobody gave me a shot," said Sheppard, who was overlooked by most big-time schools before signing with the Razorbacks in 2006.

Of course, his high opinion of Nutt isn't shared by everyone.

It has been 11 months since Nutt went through what amounted to a bitter divorce between himself and Arkansas, the school he signed with out of high school and later coached for a decade.

Since then, Razorbacks fans have gone on Internet message boards and sports-talk radio shows to criticize Nutt for turning the past two years into an embarrassing soap opera.

But several Arkansas players tried their best on Monday to downplay the significance of Nutt's return to Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday — this time as Ole Miss' coach.

"The fans obviously didn't like coach Nutt, and you'll probably hear some boos and everything," Sheppard said. "But as a player, I don't get caught up in that. That's entertainment, I guess."

Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs admitted it will be strange at first seeing Nutt and some of the assistant coaches he took with him to Ole Miss standing on the visitor's sideline.

But as Luigs was quick to point out, Saturday's game is between Arkansas and Ole Miss — not Arkansas versus Nutt.

"Once the ball is put down, (the officials) blow the whistle and it's time to play, you really don't think about the coaches and the coaching staff and who you're playing," Luigs said. "I mean, all we know is we're playing the Ole Miss Rebels."

But as much as Arkansas' players tried to make this weekend's game about two teams fighting for a bowl berth, everyone knows which subplot will dominate the headlines.

Despite leading the Razorbacks to 75 wins and a pair of SEC Championship Games, Nutt's last two years at Arkansas got ugly. There were rumors, lawsuits and fans paying for banners that called for the coach to be fired.

It became apparent that a split was needed, and a rivalry was born when Nutt resigned as Arkansas' coach last November and accepted the Ole Miss job two days later.

But the Razorbacks and Nutt will reunite this weekend, though on less friendly terms.

"I don't know if it's dreaded. It's kind of hard to explain the feelings you have," Nutt said of his much-anticipated return to Fayetteville.

"But again, that's where you get lost in your team, get lost in trying to play one week at a time. We knew this week was coming, but you focus on the task at hand."

Like Luigs, Nutt said he believes Saturday's game will be no different than any other one once the football is kicked off. But he acknowledged it will be hard to block everything out.

"You can't help but have a lot of feelings for the guys you recruited there, guys that you know," Nutt said. "You know their families. Naturally, there's a relationship there."

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, meanwhile, is new to the situation. He was hired Dec. 11 as Nutt's replacement, and he admitted that he has "absolutely nothing against Houston Nutt."

For Petrino, he wants Saturday to be about football — not personal feelings.

"I think our players understand that it's our football team against their football team," Petrino said. "Let's take the coaches out of it. Let's take the past out of it."

Luigs said he hasn't spoken to Nutt or any of his former Arkansas assistant coaches over the past few months. He's been too busy during the football season to talk to them.

"But I appreciate everything they've done for me personally and the experience we had," Luigs said. "But they're Ole Miss and we're Arkansas. So you got to move on."

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