When you think of University of Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino, fun might not the first word that comes to mind.
Organized, smart, serious, stern, disciplined, an offensive genius and so and so forth.
Petrino said Monday afternoon that he is indeed having that with his team this holiday season as the Razorbacks (7-5) continue on-campus preparations for their Liberty Bowl match-up with East Carolina (9-4) on Jan. 2 in Memphis.
"The preparation has been fun," Petrino said. "I've been very impressed with our football team. Saturday we went out and probably practiced for an hour and 20 minutes and then had some scrimmage work. The player's attitudes were great. They flew around. They played with a lot of intensity and emotion, had a lot of fun out there really, going against each other. It was great work for us."
Petrino, who was unable to speak with the media following Saturday's practice due to a scheduling conflict, said that his team's practice Monday started by introducing eight new graduates to the rest of the team.
"We introduced the graduates today to our senior class - the midyear class," Petrino said. "We had eight guys who graduated. So what better thing could you have than that?"
The Razorbacks, who will practice again Tuesday and Wednesday before heading home and reassembling in Memphis on the Dec. 27, continued to get the older guys a lot of work early and the younger ones work late.
"The ability to get young guys work has been something where we've seen tremendous improvement. All the young guys are working together, staying after practice or getting reps with the ones or the twos, jumping in there and throw them in," Petrino said. "It's been very, very good for them, very good for our football team. And it will certainly help us when we get to spring ball. We're kind of in a game week mode this week where today was a normal Tuesday practice for us. We kept the young guys out and got them extra work. It's been good preparation. The attitude has been good."
Upon being questioned about message board reports that starting quarterback Ryan Mallett had been sent in early from Friday's practice and back-ups Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell getting all the work, Petrino seemed to indicate that Mallett had been late to a meeting.
"Ryan is doing good," Petrino said. "Obviously we expect every person on the team to be on time, and come to practice, have a great attitude and work hard. Ryan came out Saturday and had a great practice, was really accurate with his passes. I think this preparation has been very good for Tyler because he has got a lot of reps with the ones and the twos. Brandon's got reps with the twos at times. and a lot of reps with the threes. The other day we were able to throw Brandon in there with the twos in the middle of the scrimmage and he did a pretty good job. He moved the club down the field. and we've done that with a number of players. That's what we talked about when we said we needed to be in a bowl game to get better as a football team and to be able to mix guys in with the ones, mix guys in with the twos. And get that on video and see how they react to it has been good for our football team."
Was Mallett late?
"I just expect every player on our team to be on time," Petrino said. "When we have meetings, we're there on time at the meeting and that's how we operate. That's how we operate."
The UA coaching staff has certainly put the miles in during December with practice in the mornings and flying out to recruit in the afternoon and then back into Northwest Arkansas at night.
Petrino says the coaches have showed back up wondering just what day it is at times.
"It's been kind of a balancing act for the coaching staff between the bowl preparation and recruiting," Petrino said. "I know our coaches a little bit worn down from all the traveling last week. Between practicing and recruiting, getting back late and practicing early in the morning. I'm sure they're looking forward to the break when we break out of here in a day or two."
The coaches are loving what they see in the morning from the second team offensive line as it gets more time to show off its improvement.
Redshirting freshman in center Travis Swanson (6-5, 305) and guard Anthony Bailey (6-5, 323) have joined tackles Anthony Oden (6-8, 328), Matt Hall (6-9, 328) and Grant Freeman (6-7, 298) and guard Zhamal Thomas (6-5, 343) to form a massive back-up contingent.
"I like when you line up with our second team offensive line and look at the size and athleticism," Petrino said. "It's really a good-looking group. We got Swanson in at center and he's really done a nice job there. He's learned the position. He's snapped the ball. He's gotten bigger and stronger as the year's went on. The two guards we've been working, Alvin Bailey and Zhamal Thomas, are both big. Alvin's done a very good job. He's very athletic. We've rotated three tackles in there. Anthony Oden, Matt Hall and Freeman. All three of those guys are big, athletic guys. So it's been a lot of fun. That's a group that's really benefited from these practices."
Colby Berna (6-5, 293), another redshirt freshman, is getting to practice now after rehabbing a shoulder injury that happened in high school.
"Colby actually is practicing now," Petrino said. "He's been working with the threes. He's got a long way to go physically with that shoulder operation and doesn't have quite the strength that you need yet. But we're looking forward to the off-season for him. He's playing guard and center."
Petrino also lauded De'Anthony Curtis for how he has taken on the move from running back to cornerback during these bowl practices.
"De'Anthony has had a big smile on his face," Petrino said. "He's enjoying it. We're basically just giving him individual work at the position. I want to see how his feet are. the other day I was walking in the weight room I looked up at our top 10 40-yard dash times and he's sitting there at number 4 or 5. So I felt like, hey, let's get him over to corner and see if he can play at corner. Willy really likes what he's seen from him. He will play running back in the bowl."
The Arkansas head coach is happy with his team's season so far, but can't help but look back at a couple of the road losses.
"We're building it (the program)," Petrino said. "I thought our season was good. I think if we had a win against LSU or a win against Florida the two games we had the lead in the fourth quarter, then it's a better season. But I think our players understand now what it takes to win big games. We have a bunch of young players out there. I'm happy with the way we're building it. I think we've got great attitudes and good work ethic and a lot of good, talented, young players."
Things are different from the head coach in one aspect in that this is the first time in seven years that he hasn't has his brother Paul at practice with him. He took the offensive coordinator's job at Illinois last week and was replaced as OC by Arkansas quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee while the younger Petrino's wide receiver coaching duties are being handled by graduate assistant Chip Long at the moment.
"Certainly I miss him," Bobby Petrino said. "It was a great seven-year run. He's an excellent coach and a great motivator for our players. Excellent recruiter. So certainly I miss him not being around here. but I'm excited about Garrick and his leadership and what he'll do with our offense. We're still in the process of looking for a receiver coach. I'll probably wait until after the bowl game to make a move on that position."
"Chip is doing real well," Petrino added. "He's been with me now, this is his third year, so he really understands the position. He understands what we want in a football coach. He knows the day-to-day operations and he's a good young football coach."
Arkansas is 11-22-3 in its 36 bowl apperances and 2-11 in its last 13.
"I'm a little bit familiar with it," Petrino said. "The thing I saw is 2-11 in the last so many years or something like that. Frst of all, we want to learn how to prepare for a big bowl game. I think that's something with these young guys we have on our team, we're taking it very serious. We're understanding that we want to be in a bigger bowl. We want to be in a bowl game that is playing for national rankings and playing for a national championship. All of our preparation and everything we do to be like that. Our guys learn how to prepare for a bowl game - how to conduct your business. How you travel at the site, that's what we're trying to work on."
While some other schools have announced players will not play in their bowls do to academics, Petrino does not have anything on possible ones at Arkansas.
"I think we have until Wednesday to find that out," Petrino said. "The school closes on Wednesday and then we'll know that."
Wednesday is also the day that the Razorbacks will get to go home for Christmas.
"We always try to do that. Get them home for Christmas and make sure they see their family," Petrino said. "They'll travel and then we'll meet Sunday at the site."
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino and his eight mid-term graduates. Front row: Michael Smith, Coach Petrino and Michael Smith. Back Row: Robert Salinas, Matt Harris, Lucas Miller, Mitch Petrus, Joseph Henry and Clay Bemberg.
Photo courtesy of the University of Arkansas.
Photos by Marc F. Henning
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