State of the Hogs: Expectations

Best way to overcome high expectations is to grind. That's not a problem for Arkansas coaches.

If it was a stock, Arkansas football would be a tough buy. It's gone up so much the last six months most might fear a crash.

Two of the last three national champs are on the schedule for 2010. With a road trip to always tough Georgia followed by a date with Alabama to open SEC play, it's not going to be an easy season. Still, expectations around the state and really the nation are soaring for the Razorbacks.

Seldom is a team that finished 5-11 in conference play the previous two seasons given a consensus top 25 spot in the preseason polls. That's where the Hogs are right now.

There is good reason. There might not be a better returning starter at quarterback in the SEC than Ryan Mallett. Coupled with one of the nation's top returning cast of wide receivers, solid tight ends and depth at running back, the Hogs should be able to score.

There is even a belief that a porous defense is going to be improved. There is help at cornerback, safety and in the lines and some experience finally at linebacker. The only area that needs substantial help from incoming freshman might be the kicking game where neither the returning punter or placekicker seems adequate.

However, those question marks in regards to special teams are the most this writer can come up with to douse the fire that burns in the Razorback Nation. There are real reasons to have high expectations. The most realistic start with the solid belief that Bobby Petrino can get it done in his third season.

I don't see it as hope anymore, but belief. I did think it was more hope the last two summers because of the severe lack of experience and talent in the Ozarks.

I know Petrino can coach. I think he's got the right weapons to coach now.

But I do worry about the expectations. Petrino and his coaches have a job to keep their players grounded and not fall prey to the hype. They have to keep an underdog spirit -- even if the team leader doesn't like that approach -- that keeps a team hungry. Quarterback Ryan Mallett wants to shed that underdog role and hopes the Hogs approach the season with a swagger.

However, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, the QB coach, knows the sure way for Hogs to meet the expectations is to grind -- something this Arkansas coaching staff does best.

"Right now, for the summer, what we have to do is focus on day-to-day business," McGee said. "The pressure is exactly what you want as a coach. You want everyone around the country to put that on you and for your fans to be excited.

"But we have to make our players understand how tough it is in our league. You want them to believe they are going to win every game. You want fans to feel that way, too.

"But reality of the situation is that it is a very tough league. Everyone in the SEC expects to be better this season. We have the last two national champions in our league.

"If you take care of your business, wins will come. I want that pressure of expectations, but we have to make our players understand that the way to manage expectations is to grind every day. If we do that, the score will take care of itself."

Mallett, in a post-spring interview, said he doesn't really want to be an underdog anymore. He doesn't want fans to feel like "little old Arkansas" either.

"I feel like even growing up the state feels like we are always an underdog," Mallett said. "That's the thing we have to change. We want to let the fans know going in it doesn't matter who it is, we are going to go out there and play Arkansas football. We are not the underdog anymore. We've got the players. We've got the coaches. We've got everything we need."

I think special teams will be better. I think the competition for the kicking jobs will be more intense than last year when Petrino candidly admitted he had no choice but to play Alex Tejada as the field goal man even when he struggled. He said, "We don't have a choice." I think having a choice this year will mean better kicking.

The one area that seemed to improve in the spring in spring was punt returns. I've never seen a team focus on that aspect as much in spring drills. It wasn't just catching punts. It was setting up all sorts of return schemes and the way to block them. You got the idea that Petrino is determined to win a game with a punt return.

Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton are talents that could make a huge difference in the return game and all got extensive looks in the punt game. Some suggest that there is a great punt returner in the 2010 freshman class, perhaps Tulsa product Eric Bennett.

If you could promise right now there is a home run hitter out of that crew (Wright, Adams, Hamilton or Bennett) along with a comethrough by a kicker, I'd buy every bit of stock on these Razorbacks that can be found -- and see you in a January bowl.

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