By Clay Henry
Arkansas does not play its football season opener anytime soon, but if that were the case, coach Bobby Petrino would start Ryan Mallett at quarterback and insert Tyler Wilson for the first series of the second quarter.
That was the news from the Arkansas head coach five days after the close of spring drills. Mallett, the highly-regarded transfer from Michigan, sat out last season with a redshirt when the Hogs struggled through a 5-7 campaign in Petrino's first year as head coach.
Petrino said things could change after summer workouts and two-a-days in August. But his post-spring review included positive remarks for both Mallett and Wilson, the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart throughout the 15 workouts in March and April.
Petrino spent the first part of his spring review praising the improvement by the defense, but most of it was reserved for the front seven, especially the defensive line. He singled out cornerback Isaac Madison for an impressive spring, but noted the secondary could use the competition at safety and cornerback from a highly-regarded recruiting class.
As always, quarterback play seems to carry the most interest from fans. The highly anticipated battle between Mallett and Wilson was the focal point throughout the spring and proved to be a healthy battle. Mallett got most of the snaps with the first team offense so Petrino's decision that Mallett was the first teamer in his review did not surprise.
But those that thought Wilson impressed, too, probably were on target.
Petrino said Mallett had a better overall understanding of the offense, but Wilson's passing ability was a major plus, too. And, Wilson did complete 14-of-16 passes in the spring game when he did move to the first unit for a few possessions.
"If we were playing Saturday, Mallett would start," Petrino said. "The first series of the second quarter I'd bring in Tyler and let him play that first series That's what I'd do if we were playing Saturday, but we aren't playing Saturday. We have a long way to go and the evaluating process will continue. We'll do that throughout the summer and make sure they are doing everything right, and into two-a-days."
There is plenty of experience back from a team that relied on 16 true freshmen in the depth chart last season. There are nine returnees with at least a handful of starts on
"Defensively, we improved a lot," Petrino said. "I'm very impressed with our front four. We have a chance to be a good defensive line. We are going to need one or two guys to come in and add depth and some size on the front. Our linebackers are much better. A year of experience and a year of understanding the defense made us play a lot faster.
"Jerry Franklin has shown he can be a great player there. Wendel Davis is showing he is getting comfortable there and becoming a much better player."
Petrino wasn't satisfied with the running game.
"There were times in the spring I thought we were getting it, then in the spring game we took a step backwards in the running game," Petrino said.
The backfield was in constant rotation because of spring injuries. Michael Smith got a little non-contact work the last week at running back, but the Hogs had to battle keeping good depth on the field at that position. Freshman Knile Davis, a midterm enrollee, went down with a broken ankle in the second week. He had surgery to repair the break with a bigger plate and a bigger screw in a spot that had been fixed in high school. Brandon Barnett, who missed two weeks because of the death of his stepfather, sustained a broken leg in the third week, just when he started to step up. He also had surgery.
Broderick Green, a transfer from Southern Cal, got a lot of work in short yardage, but his status is still clouded for the fall. The school is awaiting word on an appeal to the NCAA for immediate eligibility.
One of the many bright spots was the deep passing game with Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, London Crawford, Greg Childs and Reggie Fish. Tight end D.J. Williams also had a fine spring, improving his ability to block in the running game. Ben Cleveland and Chris Gragg also had solid springs, although Gragg missed the final two weeks with a high ankle sprain.