State of the Hogs: Opener

Ryan Mallett is the big deal, but there are plenty of stories to watch Saturday night when the Hogs open the season.

There are countless story lines surrounding the Arkansas season football opener Saturday night against Missouri State.

The one cited most by fans over the last six months is easily grasped: The arrival of Ryan Mallett.

That's a story as big as the 6-foot-7 quarterback's frame. It's not the wrong lead, either. Mallett has a chance to be as special as any quarterback ever to wear an Arkansas uniform — thanks to the weapons around him and Bobby Petrino's coaching staff.

Quarterback coach Garrick McGee won't be the one everyone trains their binoculars on the floor of War Memorial. Just don't leave him off the list for credit in Mallett's training.

No, most will be watching the head coach with their eyeglasses as the game unfolds. It would be worth the time to find McGee, too. He's done wonders with Mallett, especially in terms of footwork and mechanics as they have fine tuned the big man's touch and accuracy.

You won't be able to find the other key staffer during the game. Paul Petrino, offensive coordinator and wideout coach, will be in the press box, as usual. What he's done with the Arkansas receivers is special.

As many as seven wideouts are ready to play for the opener. Can you remember that? And, it'll be eight when Lucas Miller comes back from a broken collarbone around midseason. In past seasons such an injury might have devastated that position. No longer.

Consider that Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, London Crawford, Greg Childs, Carlton Salters, Reggie Fish and Cobi Hamilton will all probably get snaps at wideout. I'd hate to be a cornerback that sees one after another take turns running precise routes.

The most interesting position: Crawford and Childs splitting time against the boundary cornerback. Both are big and physical. Crawford has more routes in his resume and has been challenged by Childs. That's a position with intense competition. Both have spent time with the first team this fall and it was a tossup midway through the week who would start.

All the receivers are light years ahead of this point last year. All have roles in this offense. They've been such a delight to watch throughout fall camp. You almost forget about the most versatile weapon in the offense, tight end D. J. Williams.

Williams should have a big year. He'll get more open looks with the way this wideout group can stretch the field vertically.

But the man who should benefit the most from improved wideouts and a better deep passing threat is the little man of the offense, running back Michael Smith.

Smith was close to winning the punt return job before a virus reduced his weight a little, reminding everyone that he was probably not big enough to add work. The development of Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo, Broderick Green and Knile Davis should help Smith in the backfield, but none of those are as talented or dangerous in the open field.

What the team needs is a rested Smith, a back capable of beating defenders one-on-one. There wasn't enough of that last year. There were few times that the Hogs went the distance from long range in the running game.

On the other hand, the defense must do a better job of avoiding such long plays. Safeties and corners have to run down the mistakes from the front seven and allow the defense to play another down. If that happens, they are good enough to keep the offense in the game. And, the defense is good enough to pull some upsets.

This defense is more mature. But, can it generate a pass rush without sending linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks?

The other major question heading into the opener — and not likely to be settled against a team like Missouri State — has to do with Mallett's protection. Is it better than last year? And, how will he react to SEC speed?

Mallett is going to get hit at some point. He hasn't been touched for almost 22 months. How he reacts to a little adversity is critical. He's the unquestioned leader of the team, voted captain as a sophomore, unprecedented in my knowledge of Arkansas football.

Hopefully, the supporting cast is good enough to ease him through this first game. I am mindful that we may not know everything about this team until it is on the way back from Arlington and the date in Jerry Jones' new stadium.

By then perhaps the young defensive backs are ready for SEC action. Maybe some depth has been developed at linebacker and in the defensive front.

I'm betting Bobby Petrino, Paul Petrino and (yes) Garrick McGee have once again validated their reputations for offensive wizardry.

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