State of the Hogs: Protection

With the maturation of the offense, quarterback sacks will decrease. One of the keys will be more and bigger running backs.

It takes 11. How many times have you heard that cliche from a football coach?

No doubt, a bunch.

This time it came from Paul Petrino when the 46 sacks Arkansas gave up last year during a tough 5-7 season were mentioned in a pre-spring interview.

"That was way too many sacks," said Petrino, the offensive coordinator.

The only time the Hogs have been close to that number in recent years was 1997 when Kay Stephenson was hired to put in a pro passing scheme. Clint Stoerner, then a spunky sophomore, spent a lot of time on his back. The Hogs gave up 42 sacks in a 4-7 season that ended the Danny Ford era at Arkansas.

One thing to note in those stats is the number of pass attempts. The Hogs had 443 last year. There were just 370 attempts in 1997. And, the only time the Hogs have thrown anything close came in 2000 when there were 392 attempts.

It's my prediction that the Hogs won't be close to that high ever again in sacks as long as Bobby Petrino and his brother are together at Arkansas.

And, it has nothing to do with the job Mike Summers, their highly regarded offensive line coach, does up front.

Paul Petrino insisted before spring drills that if there was blame to be placed for all of those sacks last year, it shouldn't go to the line. It takes 11 to make an offense work. It takes 11 in protection.

"Quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, running backs -- it takes all 11 with those offensive linemen to defeat the blitz," Petrino said. "You don't do it with just five blockers in the offensive line."

It's the details that make the Petrino scheme work, not just what often is brilliant playcalling or the game planning that finds the defensive weak link to attack. And, that's where the Hogs will improve this spring.

"If there is one thing that will help us come out of spring with a good offense, it's the attention to detail," Petrino said. "We have to get 11 guys playing as one and that's how we will reduce the sacks. That means the quarterback doesn't hold the ball. That means the wide receivers run precise routes and read the blitz.

"We were a pretty good zone blitz team last year. We were able to make some plays against the zone blitz. The man blitz was where we got some sacks. We'll be better there this year. We will get to the point where we defeat the blitzes." "

It means quarterback and receiver will operate as one when the blitz comes and all go to the right option route. It means the backs and tight end get the blocking calls right.

Yes, some of it will be on the offensive line. And, that unit will improve in the second year with a complex set of protections. Summers is tinkering with his options up front right now.

You could see that in the first two days of spring drills when only Ray Dominguez at weakside offensive tackle was in the same spot he played last fall.

DeMarcus Love moved from strong guard to strong tackle. With the return of Mitch Petrus at weak guard (after missing last year because of an academic hiccup), Wade Grayson has moved from guard to center (to take Jonathan Luigs' spot).

That leaves an open spot at strong guard where Grant Cook and Seth Oxner are getting tryouts.

Oxner is an interesting option. He was a guard as a senior in high school at Monticello. He blew out a knee playing in a student-faculty basketball game just after signing day. He toiled in obscurity last year as the backup to Luigs. Then, he exploded in the right way with a huge winter in the weight room.

"Seth Oxner tested out as well as anybody up front," Bobby Petrino said Monday. "He has ability to run and move. He'll play both guard and center."

`Grant Cook took the snaps at first team strong guard on Tuesday, but Oxner was with the first group there on Wednesday. Oxner also worked some with the first group at center on Wednesday.

"That's not a big deal," Oxner said. "If you know center, you know guard. I don't want it to sound like this is the same as high school, because it's not. But I played guard my senior year in high school, so I've played there."

Center may be the toughest since that's the spot that makes the calls on blitz protections. Petrino said the Hogs will continue to work with several centers trying to find the best fit for this group.

Petrus, a fifth-year senior, called it typical spring stuff.

"They are trying to see who works best where," Petrus said. "This happens every spring. It's time to test things out. Come fall, you want to know where everyone is going to be. We are trying to rotate and see who can do what. Take people in and out. That's just part of it."

The same thing is happening at running back where there are finally enough athletic bodies, including some that are much bigger. It looks like those backs are more comfortable with the pass protections, perhaps the key member of the scheme in reducing sacks.

It's what I like best about the first two days of spring. It may be where the Hogs are most improved with the development of Dennis Johnson and the addition of Broderick Green and Knile Davis. Bobby Petrino knows that a big, physical back and the burst that Johnson has added will take a huge amount of pressure off the quarterback, perhaps reducing the number of pass attempts and also sacks.

"I think that's going to make a big difference to the offense," he said. "The thing that I'm most excited about is more depth at running back and more power in the running backs. That will help our quarterbacks a lot."

It will also help that the Hogs don't have to plug in a freshman back that doesn't understand protections. It's probably the key reason Michael Smith had to absorb too much of a beating last season. He was only back who could be trusted to handle protection switches, but he was undersized to handle all of the situations in pass blocking.

Yes, it takes 11. And, it takes diverse talents at all 11. The Hogs are closer to that. I doubt they ever have "way too many sacks" any time soon.

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