State of the Hogs: Best News

There were winning shots everywhere you looked at Bobby Petrino's golf outing Thursday. But the good news is that many happened in some informal interviews before the golf began.

There was plenty of good news at Thursday's golf outing with Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino and the media. None of it had anything to do with my golf game at Paradise Valley Golf Club.

In fact, after conversing with assistant coaches Chris Klenakis, Reggie Johnson, Garrick McGee, Tim Horton, Willy Robinson and Bobby Allen, this ex-golfer should have headed home and skipped the four hours in the heat. Frank Broyles, one of my playing partners, inquired after a few holes, "Clay, are you injured?"

The problem is that golf is no longer part of my thought process. And the idea of hitting practice balls, with a neck full of bad discs, has been put on the back burner probably forever. Coach Broyles has played with me many times and didn't recognize my game from Thursday.

There were enough good players on our team that we still finished third. Got to pick between three sets of prizes -- a Bobby Petrino autographed football, a Daisy air rifle and a gift certificate to a barbecue king. I took the cue. Best we could have done would have been second. Petrino, with Lyndy Lindsey in his cart, had first when the pairings were made.

"Coach can play," Lindsey reported afterwards. "He's awesome from 100 yards and in. We used his wedge almost every time."

And with Lindsey cracking 320-yard drives -- I saw their position looking back from the green -- there were only approach shots under 100 yards.

However, the day's winning shots, in my opinion, came from the coaches before the golf began. Both at a more formal media session with Petrino, Robinson and McGee. All had bright spots to cover through a lengthy question and answer period. The light bulb went off in my head when Petrino talked about summer weight lifting and conditioning and pointed to defensive tackle Alfred Davis as one of the best positives.

That pointed me to Allen, the assistant on staff who handles the two interior tackle spots. He's beaming at the thought of rotating six players at the defensive tackle and nose tackle spots, the two positions he coaches. Along with Davis, he's pleased with the prospects there with Zack Stadther, Patrick Jones, Lavunce Askew, Dede Jones and true freshman Byran Jones. All are strong and in perfect condition.

It's been a summer full of breakthroughs on the conditioning front from Davis. He's been either too big or out of condition in his first two seasons at the UA. He was too heavy as a true freshman to contribute and took a redshirt. He played against some run-oriented teams last year, but his conditioning still didn't allow him to play six to eight plays in a row. That's changed.

"He's much better," Allen said of Davis. "I think he's had a great summer with our strength and conditioning coaches. That's the one thing he lacked, the ability to stay out there for a lengthy time. I think you can play him in a rotation a little longer now.

"He's always been a guy you couldn't move, but you needed him to be a little more active in the passing game. I can remember putting him out there against Alabama, a team you knew was coming right at you, and he'd anchor a spot and you didn't see him get knocked back. But he wasn't going to run down anything. He can now. He's changed his body a little bit and that's all he needed. There is more movement and better condition."

Is Davis lighter?

"Not a big change there," Allen said. "He's just in better condition from what they tell me. He's able to put more plays together. He doesn't give out so quickly now. We are excited to see him when we get started."

Allen likes the rest of his inside guys, especially Jones, the highly regarded newcomer from Junction City. He said Jones fit in with the veterans in all areas of the summer conditioning program, much better than any freshman defensive linemen in past summers. Jones came to campus ready to compete.

Robinson said he got a phone message the night after the high school all-star game in which Jones made several big plays, including a smashing hit for a quarterback sack.

"I was gone and my phone had been turned off," Robinson said. "It was the game here in Fayetteville, but we were out of town. It was pretty late that night. I heard the message the next morning. It wasn't very long. Byran doesn't say a whole lot, but he said plenty in this phone message.

"He said, 'Coach, did you see me hit that quarterback?' Then, there was a pause and a little chuckle, like, 'Ha, ha, ha.' Nothing else. Just a click. Well, as a coach, I got a little chuckle. He's got that fun attitude you love as a coach with a defensive lineman. He does like to hit the quarterback on the other team. You got that out of that phone message pretty clear."

Six defensive tackles will make a defensive coordinator feel a lot better. Robinson said after the bowl game that the thing that would help the Hogs the most is for his defense to look bigger in the inside. That's happening. There is nothing wrong with the bodies they have in their now. Dede Jones has gotten his weight back to around 300 pounds after a productive offseason. Patrick Jones made more plays in the spring than at any time in his first four years on campus. Like Davis, he's changed his body and got his motor running for a longer sequence of plays.

I like Askew and Stadther, too. Both are solid defensive tackles and plenty good enough for the SEC. In fact, I think all six are SEC quality defensive lineman. There have been knocks on this group, but I don't think this is an area that will hold the Hogs back this season. It may be the best situation the Hogs have had at inside defensive line since the late 1990s.

I even feel better about linebacker. There is more depth there than in recent seasons. The Hogs may be three deep there after starting the season two years ago with so few linebackers that they couldn't line up in a conventional 4-3 look. Johnson, the linebacker coach, is comfortable enough with the depth that he's starting the year with no thoughts about playing Jerry Franklin, a swing man the last two years, anywhere but weakside linebacker. He's a playmaker there, but just average when he has to play middle linebacker.

Instead, if the Hogs go from a 4-3-4 to a 4-2-5 or 3-2-6 to play the spread, Freddy Burton is the swing man.

"Freddy is our best strongside backer, but he's also very good at moving to the inside and playing a back or tight end," Johnson said. "I think Freddy gives us versatility. But he won't have to play mike in the 4-3. I think we are going to be alright there."

Johnson wants to give true freshman Braylon Mitchell, one of the first to make it to campus this summer, a look at middle linebacker through the early portions of camp. There have been signs this summer that he's a quick learner and it could be that he provides some depth behind Jermaine Love, Turrell Williams and Austin Moss.

"We'll give him a lot early and see how much he can handle," Johnson said of Mitchell. "He's very bright and looks the part physically. All of our young guys are great workers. He's a really good worker. He wants to give it a shot."

That's great news. But the best news is that my golf clubs have been tucked away in the garage.

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