It's the midpoint of spring football drills. So who is stepping up for Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino?
To be honest, it's been a long list and a solid spring practice so far. There is good news on both sides of the ball. HawgsIllustrated.com publisher Clay Henry has put together a list by position:
Offensive Guard - Alvin Bailey. He's obviously gotten a chance to work with the first team though the injury to Wade Grayson. He looks like he is making the most of it.
Offensive Tackle - Anthony Oden. He is now playing behind Ray Dominguez since Dominguez and Demarcus Love swapped sides. Oden isn't perfect and he has not gotten everything right, but he is a beat and does some nice things in the run game. He has to clean up pass protection and be right every play. Dominguez seems to be responding to a good challenge. This is a good battle.
Tight end - Austin Tate. He's taking advantage of extra time with Ben Cleveland (appendectomy) out this spring. Since they roll tight ends and often use two in one set, he's getting a big taste of heavy action. So far, he appears to be stepping up to the challenge. He was very good in blocking and catching in Friday's scrimmage. D. J. Williams and Chris Gragg step up on a daily basis, too. You can't go wrong just following these three through a complete practice. You'd get a feel for why this position is a team strength.
Running back -- Hard to say Dennis Johnson is stepping up, because he was already way up there in my opinion. But he's been the leader of the running back. He's had a nice run in almost every practice. He looks great. I mean great, like an SEC back. Petrino hopes that improvement by the other backs keeps anyone from having to carry a load like Michael Smith had to the last two years and keeps Johnson fresh and "not nicked up."
Cornerback - Rudell Crim and Darius Winston. Crim hasn't been getting many passes to his side. If you don't notice a corner, they are doing something right. He's a good SEC player. I think his ability to read routes and change direction is obvious. He's stepping up and is having a fine spring. Remember, he did not have spring drills last year and you can see he is a better player. Winston still gets beat at times. But he is making many more plays than he did in August. He has made some nice hits, but still misses tackles. And he is getting to passes in the secondary.
Wide receiver - Cobi Hamilton has made plays and looks like a solid SEC wide receiver. He's also involved in special teams. They are going to get this big, fast body on the field. He has great hands and that goes well with his wonderful speed and body. You have a hard time leaving out any of the other wideouts. They have lots of great ones in Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs. They all sparkle each day. De'Anthony Curtis is going to stick at this spot. He doesn't know everything, but he can catch it and he is tough to tackle. A fun position to watch if you want to spend a whole day just stufying these guys. You feel a little sorry for Carlton Salters. He's a good player, but he can't dent this rotation because the guys ahead have superior talent and speed.
Linebacker - Jerico Nelson is the best player on the defense. He is playing through an injury now, but is still fighting and making plays. He had several lost yardage plays (and some sacks were not called) in the scrimmage. He is a fine SEC player.
Defensive end - Jake Bequette is the next best player on the defense and in some situations might be better than anyone on this team. He has the speed rush they covet. He's playing the run better. He is also developed into a leader in the defensive huddle this team so badly needs.
Defensive tackle - Lavunce Askew, Zack Stadther, Patrick Jones and Dede Jones have all stepped up. This is a fun position to watch. I wish Jared Green was eligible because the transfer from Mississippi Valley can be an anchor point inside and provide depth in the rotation. You need that in the SEC. This is an area that gets beat up and you'll need every body you can find before the season ends. Askew is a guy who is making a statement this spring. He is pushing Stadther, but so far Stadther has answered the bell.
Safety - Ross Rasner moved from outside the depth chart to first team at free safety. He has been ready to step up when Anthony Leon and Jerry Mitchell did not. You can win the offseason weight room classes, but you better know how to line up and be ready to make plays. This is a wide open battle. So far it looks like Rasner is a little ahead, but this could change daily. I'll be interested to see how they line up after Friday's scrimmage when they return to the practice field on Tuesday.
After going through those lists, it leaves a couple of questions: who needs to step up the rest of the way for this to be a productive spring. We'll take a crack of the question marks the rest of the way:
Linebacker - Jerry Franklin has been a non-factor after a solid finish to last season. He did not complete the winter weight lifting in a pleasing manner, so Petrino ordered him to the weight room each day at the mid point of practice until Thursday. He was out there for the full practices to end last week, until he sustained what may be a minor leg injury in Friday's scrimmage. Franklin should be one of the best defenders and a solid linebacker. He needs to step up the rest of the way.
Safety - Anthony Leon was slated to be the free safety heading into spring and he's not stepped up yet. He's made some plays in the running game, but not enough enough. And he doesn't always get in position on passing plays. He has to step up more the rest of the way.
Offensive line - This has been a solid area, but there still needs to be some improvement in protection situations. The running game has improved and this is a area that continues to need more excellence. Offensive tackle Ray Dominguez is getting a push from sophomore Anthony Oden. That would suggest Dominguez needs to step up a little more. That's going to be a fun race to watch develop over the next three or four months. It's not over yet.
Kicking game - There hasn't been a proven punt returner develop, although Joe Adams has the most wiggle in his step of those in that battle. It would be nice to see Adams step up and grab that spot and make it a position of strength. It hasn't quite happened yet. Same goes for the placekicker spot where Alex Tejada is plagued by inconsistent field goal work. Punter Dylan Breeding has improved, but his consistency isn't there yet. Overall, the entire kicking game is still in need of a step up.
State of the Hogs: Stepping Up
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