Sometime in the next few weeks someone is going to try to pin me down about next year's football record. I'll do my usual dance about it being too early.
Instead of picking 12 games, let me tell you the 12 best things about the just completed spring football drills at Arkansas.
1) Depth at running back
The Hogs can't go wrong here. Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo, Broderick Green and Knile Davis are all SEC quality backs. Johnson emerged as a capable leader. He seemed to take control of that quartet. His knowledge of the offense took a big leap. Perhaps the key to his improved leadership. He was the best and most confident back in the spring.
2) Moving Demarcus Love to weakside offensive tackle
Love had started for two seasons at strongside tackle, but his ability to pick up the blitz without help makes him the best candidate for the weakside spot. He had a strong spring and is perhaps the best player in an improved offensive line.
3) Pitting Ray Dominguez against Anthony Oden at strong tackle
This was a battle that promises to continue early in fall camp. Dominguez held the spot through the 14th practice, but the way Oden played in the spring game will make the post-spring depth chart interesting. Oden might be a monster before he's done. I loved watching them battle each day. That's the kind of competition that improves a team.
4) Moving Rudell Crim to strong safety
This could be the move of the spring, but I don't want to underestimate switching Love to weak tackle. Crim has speed that has been missed at safety for several seasons. If there is enough depth at corner, the defense could be much better because of the Crim move.
5) Depth at tight end
D. J. Williams may be the SEC's best overall tight end, but he'll need help in this offense. There are some sets that require two and three tight ends. Chris Gragg, Ben Cleveland and Austin Tate will all help and are quality players. Gragg's return after missing last season is a big development for the offense. Don't forget Van Stumon. He didn't do a lot in the spring after shoulder surgery in the winter, but he'll be solid as a fullback/tight end/H-back in this system.
6) Speed on the edge
That goes for cornerback where Darius Winston stepped up. But speed at defensive end is just as important. It's going to be much improved. Jake Bequette and Demario Ambrose have quickness and speed. Caleb Evans had bright moments during portions of the spring, too. Tenarius Wright missed spring, but he's a playmaker because of his first step. New signee Chris Smith might be faster than all of them. After seeing what assistant coach Steve Caldwell has done with Bequette, Ambrose and Evans, it's exciting to think about Smith's potential.
7) Ryan Mallett playing dodge ball
Seriously, watching the quarterback jump around without a boot or cast in a community service visit with elementary kids gave everyone an idea that his broken foot is healed. The passes he threw in drills also reminded everyone that no one on this team has that type of arm. He's the man in the locker room, the field and you don't want to play dodge ball against him.
8) Quarterback development
When you see Nick Petrino guide the second offense to a touchdown, it's obvious that his father can produce signal callers -- and that's what Nick can do. He doesn't have a strong arm, but he can get the team in the right plays and that's as much about what this head coach does than anything else that happens in his program. That bodes well for Tyler Wilson, Brandon Mitchell and Jacoby Walker. This head coach will always have quarterbacks. Nick Petrino might win a game for the Hogs before he's done. If Bobby Petrino puts him on the field, it won't be because he's his son.
9) The Pistol
It's going to be fun to watch the evolution of this new formation. It's obvious that the Hogs have some option plays that will be tough for opposing safeties. I don't know how you play the wide receiver in the slot with a safety, then get to the corner where the quarterback makes you make a decision there, too. I watched one practice with Ken Hatfield. The old option coach was beaming from ear to ear. He said, "You don't have enough defensive backs for that stuff."
10) Isaac Madison making cuts
There is little doubt that Madison was among the best defensive players on this team 12 months ago. In the spring of 2009, coaches said he made one error in the entire 15 practices. He should have been the best defensive back last year, but went down to knee surgery in August. Madison was kept out of contact this spring, but he made plays in pass skeleton drills. Winston finished spring as the first teamer at field corner, but Madison will be in the mix in the fall.
11) Depth at defensive tackle
Malcolm Sheppard was the best defensive tackle for most of last season. There were a few games that Dede Jones outplayed him, but only in spurts. Sheppard wore down because he had to play too many snaps. He didn't leave the field in the bowl game with Jones out. That shouldn't be a problem this year. The Hogs might be two or three deep at both inside spots if Byran Jones is as good as advertised.
12) Work ethic
It's clear Petrino knows how to make everyone around him grind. There was one day this spring that the team didn't seem to have zip or focus. Petrino made everyone miserable that day and it never happened again. The Hogs brought it the rest of the way. Willy Robinson noted after the spring game that the major breakthrough he saw was 11 defenders playing hard and running to the ball on every snap. He said work ethic made a big jump this spring and it might be the key to next season on that side of the ball.
The good news is that it would be difficult to find many negatives about this spring. For sure, you can't find a dirty dozen.
Perhaps you'd start with the knee injury sustained by Walker, the young quarterback. Mallett didn't practice and that's never good, but it did give the other QB needed snaps.
Jerry Franklin spending time in the weight room instead of the practice field early in spring drills was another minus, but he got stronger and that's a plus.
Special teams didn't stand out, but they never do in the spring. Linebacker play is a question mark, but they did improve.
Some are going to look at these "spring bests" and come up with a 12-0 season. We'll save that prediction for a different spring.
State of the Hogs: Spring Bests
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