Here are the top 10 things to watch as Arkansas plays host to Tennessee Tech in the season opener Saturday night at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
1 ) Ryan Mallett. Might as well put the junior quarterback first. That's who everyone comes to watch. There are more important story lines, but not a more important player. He's the most exciting passer ever to play football for the Hogs. Never has there been a better preseason candidate to win first-team All-America honors. The key area to watch will be in his checks and reads, along with the check downs in the short passing game. The Golden Eagles have an experienced defense and should be good at disguising blitzes. How Mallett goes about setting protections and executing the checks is an important aspect in his overall development.
2) Linebacker. Jerry Franklin moved from weakside to the middle late in fall camp. It was the breakthrough Anthony Leon made at weakside linebacker which made it possible. How do those two play together? Tech plays two to three quarterbacks and has different schemes for each. How do the linebackers adjust to those changes? Do Franklin and Leon make plays from sideline to sideline. That's where Tech will probably try to expose them.
3) Strong safety. Rudell Crim and Elton Ford will split time at this spot. Crim is listed as the starter, but Ford had a fantastic camp. It's an ongoing competition. Ford is lighter and quicker, but the main improvement probably just stems from his confidence. He was coming off a broken neck last season. It took him most of the year to get back into the flow. Perhaps that made him a little tentative. That's gone. Safeties get banged up in the long SEC schedule. So both will be needed. This is the position that could improve the most from last season and go a long way in eliminating the big plays that have haunted the Hogs on this side of the ball.
4) Center. It's difficult to watch this position for extended time. All eyes generally follow the ball. You see the snap, but then the center just disappears. But it's a big deal. Seth Oxner was the regular last year, but Travis Swanson has pushed him throughout fall camp. Oxner sprained a foot eight days ago in the final scrimmage and may not be 100 percent. Oxner has practiced all week and should be available. He knows he can't risk extended time on the bench because Swanson may never give up the spot if he gets through the door. Swanson has the quickness and nasty demeanor that Chris Klenakis covets in the line. He had to get bigger in the offseason to play in the SEC. It will be interesting to watch this battle in the first game. If you can take your eyes off Mallett, you might learn a big key for the season by watching the centers slug it out. Expect both to play and the best to get the starting nod next week.
5) D. J. Williams. Is he quicker and faster than last year? He says he is. He's about 15 pounds lighter. Does that get him down the field in vertical routes a little easier? Does Mallett find him? Mallett said Williams was bracketed by safeties and linebackers last year making it hard to work free. Williams wants to beat that coverage with better speed. Williams may be one of the best players on this team. He's also fun to watch on the sideline because he's a vocal leader. As they say, he's tight with his teammates. That's only fitting for one of the best tight ends ever to play for the Razorbacks.
6) All aspects of special teams. The kicking battles have been interesting all fall. Dylan Breeding appears to be set at punter, but the placekickers might duel all the way through pre-game warmups. So get in your seat early and find the placekickers. Make your pick. Will it be Alex Tejada or Zach Hocker? And check them out in the kickoff race, too. How does Joe Adams handle the punt return duties? He looks like the right fit, but can he do it in games?
7) Find Byran Jones. He's No. 54 and he'll be a quick, fast wide body in the middle of the defense. One of the most improved spots on defense is the middle of the defensive line. Jones is pushing Alfred Davis for the starting spot at nose tackle. Davis made a big jump in stamina in the offseason. These guys are listed as co-starters. Like center, it will be an ongoing battle. Does Jones play like a freshman? Can Davis put together more than a couple of plays without giving out, his problem the last two seasons? This is one of those battles like center, tough to watch for long periods of time because your eyes want to follow the ball. It's a place that gets dark and nasty, too, just like center. The Hogs are better here, but by how much?
8) The Operation. I like to watch the entire operation. How do the coaches and players interact on the sideline? Does it look like things are going smoothly. Bobby Petrino takes special pride in the way the operation goes during the game. He wants the plays to get to the signal caller -- offense and defense -- quickly and smoothly. He's had two mock game scrimmages to make sure everything goes smooth. There are four new coaches, counting graduate assistants. There's some newness there. That's another thing to watch, just how smooth is the operation?
9) Defensive end Damario Ambrose. He's going to play a different role, not just a defensive end. He's been cross trained at outside linebacker to get more size and speed on the field. He's lighter, maybe by 25 pounds. He spends part of his time with the outside linebackers and assistant John L. Smith in practice. How will he be used? This is another case of trying to get the best 11 on the field.
10) Cornerbacks Isaac Madison and Darius Winston. The Hogs were void at field cornerback last season. They had to play Crim, a natural safety, at this spot when Madison hurt a knee early in August practice. If Madison and Winston can provide solid coverage at this spot, it allows the open (or free) safety to play center field and not have to give over-the-top help on the sideline on the field side of the formation. That should eliminate some of the big plays and take the Hogs out of the Tampa Two coverages that opened up the seam down the middle. But it starts at field corner. Check out Madison and Winston. Are they the corners the Hogs have been missing for most of the last 10 seasons?
Actually, there are more than 10 more. How does the running back rotation fall? Does Ben Cleveland have his quickness back to help in the passing game as Petrino has hinted? Is Austin Tate really the fullback, or will Knile Davis and De'Anthony Curtis help there? How will Ray Dominguez protect? Is Alvin Bailey an adequate replacement for Mitch Petrus? What about Brandon Mitchell? Does he get into the game in the option package added with Klenakis installing new aspects of The Pistol or Shot formation? Does he play in the first half to give future opponents something to keep them busy? How many freshmen get into the game? What about those three new wide receivers? How fast is Maudrecus Humphrey?
Questions, questions, questions. There's so much to watch for tonight. Now, I'm ready to watch.
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