State of the Hogs: QBs and DTs

When it's time to talk recruiting, I want to know about quarterbacks and defensive tackles. Bobby Petrino got what I wanted in this class.

Football is the ultimate team sport. You must have good players in every area. I know that's true. However, excuse me, but I scan the recruiting lists for two positions.

My needs — at least for my own personal rankings — settle on quarterback and defensive tackle.

All of those national recruiting rankings add up their stars for all positions. I get excited about those two spots — and whether or not coaches signed players in the need areas.

Most of the national services ignore that key area, team needs. And, they haven't figured out a way to add extra points for the most important position on the field, quarterback.

Continuity and talent at quarterback is the most critical aspect in the process. You must be good at quarterback to survive in the SEC. It's the great equalizer. You can be good everywhere else and a void at quarterback — either through experience or talent — will take you down several notches. And, if you are not so good in other areas, you still have a chance to compete with a great quarterback.

I pay attention to the quarterbacks on signing day. The best name on last year's list was Ryan Mallett, along with Tyler Wilson and Jim Youngblood. Bringing in three quarterbacks was necessary last year. That's because Arkansas has been down for so long at quarterback.

The Mitch Mustain situation — his signing, then his departure — was a huge story for that reason. Arkansas (and Houston Nutt) had not done a solid job with that position. It was the single most important area over his last five seasons with the Razorbacks.

Quarterback development is the biggest key to the hopes of the Bobby Petrino era. More than anything else, Petrino develops quarterbacks. It is at the core of his resume.

Petrino and his staff are truly excited about the signing of Brandon Mitchell, the run-pass operator out of Amite, La. He was the lone QB signee in this year's class. Mitchell is big, athletic and can make plays with his arm and feet. What got Petrino pumped was the assessment from a high school coach who saw Mitchell gobble up his playbook at an all-star game this winter — in just three days.

Mitchell probably won't be ready to contribute this fall. That's not the point. What is important is that there is continuity at that position and healthy competition. That appears to be the case under Petrino. No one is going to play QB by default at the UA anytime soon.

The other key aspect in this class is defensive tackle. It's the second hardest position to fill in football behind quarterback. It's a simple equation, the world is not full of big, strong, fast people.

Through the years, Arkansas has not signed great defensive tackle talent. Just the numbers of big, fast athletes produced in our state puts the Hogs at a disadvantage in recruiting. That means they have to go into enemy land to find defensive tackles.

Sitting with three old-timers before the basketball game Wednesday night rehashing the recruiting haul, I wanted to know the number of defensive tackle recruits with any national reputation Arkansas had signed over the last 40 years.

Throw out Dan Hampton, Wayne Martin and Jimmy Walker. They were great players, but Hampton and Martin were skinny and unheralded. Walker was too short, too little to be on the national radar.

The best tackle signed by the Hogs in my memory had to be Billy Ray Smith. When he came out of Plano, Texas, Smith was considered among the finest players in Texas and on all of the blue-chip national lists. The Hogs were lucky that he was a legacy, following in his father's footsteps in picking the Hogs. Loyd Phillips was another great one out of Texas.

The Hogs beat top teams for Smith and Phillips, but have rarely hit on those kinds of defensive tackles through the years.

This is nothing against Tony Cherico. He's one of my favorites. But, there have been too many cases where the Hogs have had to go that route for Band Aids in the defensive line.

Petrino's staff didn't settle for that, landing a plum on the final day in DeQuinta "DeDe" Jones from Bastrop, La. Jones was committed to Michigan before switching to the Hogs, spurning several other SEC bids in the final month. He's 6-4, 305 and has the rare feature of a man that size, great change of direction. He plays with an active motor.

There are other defensive line prospects in this class. Ryan Calendar, 6-7 and 226 with freaky athletic ability, is another that brings great hope to the defensive front. John Henderson, juco transfer, and Robert Thomas are tank-like tackles and also important signees.

A lot was made of the secondary size in this class, both at corner and safety. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, who will coach those two spots, likes those big, long athletes the Hogs added in the back of the defense. They will make him a better coach. But Robinson was most proud of signing Jones at the end.

"That was a statement," Robinson said. "Getting a big, athletic guy inside, that is what you have to have to make your defense. You have to have those big guys up front. It was a great statement."

The Hogs did that on hope. Petrino gave the Hogs that this year, notably in the final game of the year, the comeback victory over LSU on national TV. The way the Hogs competed in the second half to end the season was just what the Hogs needed for the final push in recruiting.

"Now, we have to make some statements next season," Robinson said. "We need a better recruiting class than this next year. And, to do that we have to have some big-time statement victories on the field. We do that, we'll sign more great players."

I want more quarterbacks, more defensive tackles. Those are statements that add up to victories.


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