The best thing I've seen so far in fall camp didn't have anything to do with Ryan Mallett or any of the much-hyped newcomers.
Don't get me wrong, I like Mallett. He can really play. He is a rare talent.
There are some new talents joining Mallett.Ronnie Wingo, Cobi Hamilton, Rudell Crim, Anthony Leon, David Gordon and Darius Winston all look like playmakers. There are some fantastic new offensive linemen. Zhamal Thomas is a stud, as expected. And, Alvin Bailey may be better than advertised.
Bailey is a true freshman from Broken Arrow, Okla., who got a rare mention by the head coach at media day for a true freshman offensive lineman. Bobby Petrino said Bailey could be an "exceptional" player and might be tough to keep on the redshirt list, the goal with all freshman offensive lineman. The bet is he redshirts, but I'd remember the name.
Don't forget Colby Berna, either. Berna is a sure redshirt. The Fayetteville product had offseason shoulder surgery. His recovery is on schedule, but he's not cleared for contact. Berna passes the eye test at 6-foot-5, 293 pounds and will be a factor at some point.
Again, none of that is as important as what happened midway through Wednesday's practice. It centered on the comeback bid of redshirt sophomore Elton Ford. The big safety is trying to bounce back from broken bones in his neck. There have been nothing but positive reports on Ford during the spring, summer and in fall camp.
However, during practice Wednesday a hush fell over the practice field when Ford struggled to get up after a big collision over the middle with receiver Lance Ray. Practice came to a halt as trainers leaned over Ford, on his knees with his hands extended to the turf, his upper body parallel to the ground. Slowly, after much discussion with trainers, Ford gently stood up and slowly walked to the sideline. Perhaps there was a little wobble in a couple of early steps.
Then, it happened. I've never seen it before at any level. Teammates — the entire team — began to applaud. Fans in the stadium joined.
Trainers stayed with Ford for about 15 minutes, first taking his helmet away and then allowing him to jog on the sideline in a brief fitness test. Eventually, he returned to the scrimmage for a few plays. He practiced Thursday.
That moment was not mentioned in Petrino's post-practice assessment, but it had to be the highlight of what's taken place in fall camp.
It's not the fact Ford can play football again, although his return could be huge. He could be a great boost to the physical presence of the defensive backfield. He's a fine prospect at safety. He was a starter as a true freshman last season until his neck injury.
No, what I'm talking about is just the obvious thoughts from his teammates. They know what he's been through. They saw him with the neck brace for all of those weeks last fall. They saw him go through spring practice with a non-contact yellow jersey.
It's clear that coaches think Ford has come all the way back. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson hasn't seen Ford flinch once in fall camp. Robinson has watched him produce big hits in one-on-one tackling drills, one of them perhaps the perfect high form tackle that left tight end D. J. Williams with a "tweaked" ankle.
The point is the way his teammates care for him. Football is a tough, grizzly business. It's a vicious sport. Often we just see players as numbers, memorizing their heights, weights and 40 times.
These are people. Players understand more than anyone. They know the heart, the human side of their teammates. They know their personal battles and how they fight through them.
These guys know Elton Ford. They know him and understand how much football means to him. They are pulling for him — not because he'll help the football team but because they love him.
We forget about that part of the game. The Arkansas football team reminded us all of that this week.
State of the Hogs: Elton Ford
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