Arkansas Emphasizes ‘Special' Play

FAYETTEVILLE — If any doubt about Arkansas' added emphasis on special teams remained this spring, special teams coordinator John L. Smith said it should've been eliminated Tuesday.

The Razorbacks kick return team was working on its blocking assignments. That in itself was no surprise because Arkansas has done so nearly every day this spring. But the presence of one well-known player they were supposed to block grabbed everyone's attention.

"You've got Ryan Mallett, your first-team quarterback, running down on scout team versus your special teams," Smith said. "Everybody sees that. What they say is, ‘This is a part of the game we better invest in.'"

Arkansas has made special teams a team-wide priority this spring, determined to drastically improve an area that was laughable in 2008.

The Razorbacks were characterized by botched kick returns, missed field goals and other calamities last season. They gave up huge returns, struggled to get many in return and, more times than not, lost games by their inability to win the special teams battle.

It's something Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said must end.

"One thing I've learned in this conference is a lot of the game are going to come down to how you execute in special teams," Petrino said. "Can you make a big play in special teams to change the momentum or change the outcome of the game?

"So we're going to work at it harder and we've got to get our best players on it and be a lot better this year than we were a year ago."

Petrino took one step when he hired Smith to run Arkansas' special teams. Smith has spent most of his career as a head coach (at Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State) or defensive coordinator, but Petrino said he also is regarded as an "expert" in special teams.

The added emphasis on special teams was evident during the first practice this spring when big boards were carried to the field and lined up before a punt protection drill. The purpose: Showing players where they must line up in order to keep the proper spacing on a punt.

Kickoff and punt returners field balls every day. Return teams members are quizzed about who they must block. And place kicking in front of screaming teammates has ended nearly every practice.

"That was the missing link last year," Arkansas place-kicker Alex Tejada said. "I'm not just talking about field goals, PAT, kickoffs, whatever. We're trying to be consistent and bring that every game.

"That's an important element in the game and it's often overlooked."

How much it will pay off won't be known until the fall, but Smith believes the Razorbacks have made important progress this spring.

He said players now understand they all have critical roles on special teams. They're hoping it will be a reason they win games in 2009.

"The biggest thing is the head coach standing up and saying this is going to be a special part of the game and this is going to be a part of the game that we're going to put a lot of emphasis on," Smith said. "He has said this is going to be a part of the game that we're going to win and, consequently, we'll win some football games with this."

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