State of the Hogs: Tough Enough?

Quarterback play is important, but being tough enough probably is near the top of the list, too. Afterall, it's football.

Most want to know if Ryan Mallett is healthy? Can he throw the short pass? Is he going to be sharp after missing spring and summer workouts with a broken bone in his left foot.

Those are all good questions. But how Arkansas does this season will come down to blocking and tackling.

It's still just basic football. Give me the team that outhits the other team and in most cases, I'll have the winning team.

Yes, quarterback is important. But Arkansas has the quarterback. In fact, the Hogs may have three quarterbacks. Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell are developing nicely as SEC options. Arkansas has never been as solid at quarterback as it is (and will be) under Bobby Petrino.

No, I don't worry about Mallett or quarterback as long as Petrino is head coach for the Razorbacks. Quarterbacks will find him and he'll find quarterbacks. Then magic happens. It's a carefully orchestrated magic. There is no one on the planet at the college level who can develop quarterbacks the way Petrino does.

So it's going to come down to whether or not this Arkansas team is tough enough, physical enough, nasty enough, mean enough and deep enough in the trenches. Can it play football?

The good news is that everything that's been done since the start of offseason program has been designed to improve the toughness. It's a bigger, stronger team, but the real issue is whether or not it's tougher and nastier.

Everyone knows that the catch word associated with new offensive line coach Chris Klenakis is nasty. He's nice enough off the field, but he becomes down right nasty when he crosses the line. A switch comes on. Players know that if they don't play nasty, they won't play.

All of that will pay dividends this season. It's a nastier offensive line. I haven't seen anyone bit this fall, but that's not to say it hasn't happened. I did see DeMarcus Love, perhaps Mr. Nasty, with a nasty cut under his chin.

"I give it out most days, but they got me back yesterday," Love explained a week ago, smiling so big it probably hurt that gash. "I know I deserved it. I was owed that one. You dish it out, you better be able to take it."

The Hogs plan to be dishing it out this year. They think they are more physical than they were the last two seasons.

"I think we are definitely a more physical football team," Petrino said. "That's been a priority. We've worked hard in the spring to be more physical. I think we've had a good, physical fall camp. I think we are more physical on both sides of the line of scrimmage."

Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee mentions toughness in almost every media briefing. He said the goal of the last eight months was to become tougher so that the Hogs win the fourth quarter. He expects several games to be decided in the fourth quarter. He reminds that the Hogs let the Florida and LSU games slip away in the fourth quarter. How tough they are at the end of games will determine if the season is successful, he reasons.

That's what I'm talking about. Can the Hogs sustain toughness for four quarters? Can they ring the bell in the fourth quarter? They've been ringing it so far this fall.

That's the emphasis from Petrino and the staff every day in practice. You can hear coaches tell players during a tough period, "Are you going to win the fourth quarter?" There are other phrases that are shouted that ask for toughness in the fourth quarter throughout practice.

Petrino's reputation is as a innovative playcaller. He's given credit for being on the cutting edge as far as designing schemes that produce great matchups. He is all of that. I'm convinced of that after watching three springs and three fall camps.

But what he wants more than any of that talk is to be known as a coach who produces tough, winning teams. That's what his father did at Carroll College.

The Hogs are definitely tougher and more physical. I believe him on that. I think they are better and deeper in both lines. It's the key to playing in the SEC. If you are good there, backs have fun on both sides of the ball.

I think the Hogs are much improved at defensive tackle. Alfred Davis, Byran Jones, Dede Jones, Lavunce Askew, Zach Stadther and Patrick Jones represent the best and deepest group of inside tackles on defense that the Hogs have fielded in years. That rotation is good, nasty and talented.

The Hogs are much improved at defensive end. Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose, Tenarius Wright and Chris Smith are talented and deeper.

Byran Jones and Chris Smith are true freshmen, but they are in just the right role. They are part of a supporting cast. They don't have to play, but they are going to play. That's one of the best developments of this camp. Freshmen don't have to play, but they can if they are good enough.

There has been no need to write in any true freshmen in the offensive line depth chart. That's a nice group -- Luke Charpentier, Denton Simek, Cam Feldt -- to have waiting in the wings. It's even nicer to leave them in the wings for a year or two. It's improved over last year when Alvin Bailey was listed as a backup behind Mitch Petrus even while on the redshirt list. That isn't needed now.

Klenakis has worked lots of offensive line combinations this camp. He said he's tried to get several centers ready. Seth Oxner and Travis Swanson have been the main combatants, but Wade Grayson has snapped, too. They've also looked at Tyler Deacon at center. Deacon has been the surprise of camp, getting plenty of work at backup tackle ahead of Anthony Oden.

"Deacon can play," Klenakis said. "I've really liked him. He's a natural tackle, but he's shown us he can snap, too. He's going to be a player for us down the line. Oden has come on lately, but Deacon has held that spot (at backup strong tackle) so far. He's been a very pleasant development."

Klenakis thinks he can play as many as seven or eight offensive linemen in games right now. His goal is to get that number to 10 before the end of camp. I don't remember the Hogs having that many O-linemen ready at this point in the past.

Oxner and Swanson are both ready at center. Grant Cook, Bailey and Grayson are ready at guard. Zhamal Thomas is close. Ray Domingez, Grant Freeman and Love are ready at tackle. All three can play weak or strong tackle. Deacon is close to being in that group.

"You probably aren't going to play more than seven on a regular basis," Klenakis said. "That's the most I've ever had that I thought were ready. But I like this group. They are working hard. They are getting better.

"Are they where I want them to be right now? Nope. But I have high standards. This university has high standards. This head coach has high standards. We are going to keep working. What I tell them, get better every day. I see us doing that right now."

Are they tough enough and nasty enough up front on the offensive line?

"Better, but I have high standards," he said. "It's a good group. They want to be good. They don't shy away from work. They understand the challenge and they want to take it."

They may not have unleashed all of their fury just yet.

"There are certain things you don't want to do in practice," Klenakis said. "We believe in taking care of our teammates. We are looking forward to getting into a game where we don't go against our teammates."

Yeah, it may get nasty then. Afterall, it's football.

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