It's easy to see why the coach is eager to get back on the field following a run of good luck for the Razorback football program. After finishing the 2008 season strong with a 31-30 win over LSU in Little Rock, Arkansas landed one of the nation's top recruiting classes in February. That was followed with a solid spring, the installation of a new synthetic playing surface and the news that highly-touted transfer running back Broderick Green would be immediately eligible to play this fall.
"We're anxious to get back on the field and work with the players," said Petrino, the second-year Arkansas head coach. "It doesn't really matter what we say. What we're anxious to do is to get back out there and coach, and evaluate, and continue to work hard to get better as a team."
The coach has rarely spoken in the last few months without mentioning the team's improvement from year one to year two of his tenure in Fayetteville. Arkansas went 5-7 last season and is picked to finish in the middle of the pack in a loaded SEC Western Division this year.
But the addition of quarterback Ryan Mallett - who sat out last season after transferring from Michigan - and an incoming class full of size and speed has the second-year coach expecting an overachievement in the eyes of the pundits.
"I think we earned some respect toward the end of the season last year after getting off to a tough start, but our football team got better and better," Petrino said. "We learned to play with some passion, how to play hard and compete. We should be a lot better this year. The experience is there and they have a much better understanding of what we want; how we're going to practice, how we're going to prepare and the schemes that we use.
"I think one of the important things is that the coaches now know (the players), too. We know if we need to cut back or ask more of them, and that's how we get better is the knowledge and experience of knowing each other."
Much of that improvement will have to come from the defensive side of the ball, where the Razorbacks ranked last in the SEC a year ago in both total defense and scoring defense. Arkansas started as many as nine underclassmen on that side of the ball in 2008 and a year of maturity coupled with strong summers from newcomers has defensive coordinator Willy Robinson cautiously optimistic heading into fall practice, which begins Thursday.
"It's hard to tell because we don't have the pads on, but the work ethic of the kids we have had here this summer - they've really made a heck of a transition," Robinson said. "They have to go through the detail of the length of the day; what's asked of them in weight training, the academic part of it and how they've adjusted to that with their time calendars. When they've got out there in the individual workouts all we got back was positive input from our varsity players. We only see great additions from that.
"They're all great additions for us. We've really helped ourselves on our side of the ball and on the offensive side of the ball with the size we've added. We're starting to look like a football team that's only going to continue to get better."
Redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Wilson and Mallett each showed separate strengths and flaws in the spring, leading Petrino to say both will likely play in the upcoming season.
The main concern with Wilson is his ability to take snaps from under center after working exclusively out of the Shotgun at Greenwood High School. Arkansas quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee said he doesn't expect it to be much of an issue when the players return.
"He'll be much better," McGee said. "When we get out there next week I think you'll see he's much better under center, dropping back and delivering the ball in the run game."
McGee expects improvement out of both quarterbacks. He said both having a year's experience under their belt in the Petrino offense will give Arkansas a chance in every game.
"We want to win them all, there's no doubt about it," he said. "We have a goal and that's to get ourselves in the SEC Championship, win that game and put ourselves in a position to win a national championship. That's the only goal we have and what we're pushing for."
Running Back Health
The backfield took more than just hits from the defense in the spring. With 2008 leading rusher Michael Smith already sidelined with a hamstring injury that kept him out of the Hogs' season finale, Razorback coaches saw Knile Davis (broken ankle) and Brandon Barnett (broken fibula) go down in the same week in April.
With a full summer to recover, running backs coach Tim Horton said the injury front is looking good.
"They've all progressed very well," Horton said. "Michael Smith could have played in the spring game if we really needed him, but that would have been a real gamble. Knile Davis is coming back from his injury really well and will be ready to go the first day of practice.
"I don't know if Brandon will be ready to go the first day of practice but we're confident that at some point in the season he'll be ready."
With the risk of mounting injuries, depth is always a key at the position. That made Horton all the more happy to learn Green's bid for immediate playing time was accepted by the NCAA.
"That's terrific. We're happy for the kid first and foremost because he's a terrific young man," Horton said. "He'll help the football team and our group and we're excited about that."
With one of the nation's top senior high school running backs - Michael Dyer - residing in Little Rock, Horton was asked if there was any urgency to sign another back in a class that already includes Heber Springs' Braylon Mitchell.
"We're always going to recruit a running back; you better believe it" said Horton, who can't comment on any specific recruit per NCAA guidelines. "There are some great ones out there and we'll try to get them here next fall."
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