Scouting the Opponents: Arkansas

The anticipation and excitement of the Ole Miss-Arkansas game from last season, won in Fayetteville 23-21 by the Rebels, could be matched again in Oxford on Oct. 24, depending on how the season has gone for each team.

That's the day Coach Bobby Petrino brings his second Razorback team into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to meet Coach Houston Nutt's second Rebel squad. Last season's contest was quite a spectacle and a close, hard-fought contest. This year's should be as well.

The Hogs are coming off a 5-7 season with a 2-6 Southeastern Conference record. Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons after only one season as head coach to take over at Arkansas after Nutt left the Razorbacks to take over at Ole Miss.

"I really believe we'll be a much better football team this year than we were a year ago," Petrino said. "That started in our winter conditioning and our off season program, continued through spring ball, and now with what the players are doing throughout the summer. We've worked extremely hard on having a good attitude and a tremendous work ethic. I feel like our team chemistry is where it needs to be to have a chance to be a special football team."

Petrino said the Razorbacks in year two are a team that has the makings of a squad that can win more games than year one.

"We are also going to be much bigger and stronger than we were a year ago. When we start practice, the competition and the depth will be something that will really help us become better each day in practice. With returning starters we have on both sides of the ball and in the special teams, the guys that we have coming in that want to compete, take their job, that will certainly help us be a better football team."

The Hogs indeed have higher hopes this time around, although they're being picked near the bottom of the SEC Western Division in the preseason. Arkansas returns nine defensive starters and eight offensive starters. A total of 32 players who started at least one game return – 17 on defense and 15 on offense.

Arkansas returns players that accounted for 99 percent of its rushing and 97 percent of its receiving from the 2008 offensive side of the ball.

Not a quarterback on the roster has started a single game as a Razorback, although sophomore Ryan Mallett of Texarkana was 3-0 as the starter at Michigan in 2007 before transferring. The top five rushers from last season return, including senior running back Michael Smith who led the ground attack and rushed for 1,072 yards on 207 carries with eight touchdowns.

The Razorbacks suffered some losses along the offensive front but return several players who saw action. Center Wade Grayson is the lone returnee on the offensive line that started every game last season. Left tackle Ray Dominguez started 10 games, while right tackle DeMarcus Love and left guard Grant Cook had eight starts each.

Tight end D.J. Williams, a junior, is the leading returning pass catcher with 61 receptions for 723 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore Joe Adams is the top wide receiver back after catching 31 balls for 377 yards and a touchdown.

The Razorback defense returns a host of players. Each of the top 10 tacklers from last year will be available in 2009, including sophomore linebacker Jerry Franklin who led the way with 87 total tackles. All the starting linebackers from last season are back.

Senior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard is back after leading the team last fall in tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles. Besides Sheppard, the entire starting defensive line returns, giving the Hogs great experience and depth in that important area.

The secondary isn't as deep as the other defensive areas with sophomore free safety Elton Ford and junior cornerback Isaac Madison returning as starters.

Former Louisville and Michigan State head coach John L. Smith was hired in January to coach special teams. Arkansas enters 2009 looking for a punter. Junior placekicker Alex Tejada is back after going 4-of-9 in the field goal department with a long one of 30 yards and also 20-of-21 on extra points.

The schedule is difficult with SEC road games at the predicted top contenders Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss, and LSU. Home league encounters are against Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State.

The final home game of the season, against the Bulldogs, is set for Little Rock. The season opener is also a capital city game against Missouri State. The Razorbacks, one of the few remaining teams in the country to have two home stadiums annually, play their other five home games on campus in Fayetteville.

"We have a tough schedule, there's no question about that," Petrino said. "We did play 16 true freshmen last year. But with the schedule, that will really challenge our experience that we have coming back. It will challenge the depth that we have coming back. Then we're going to have to be a very, very well conditioned football team. We have a unique schedule in the fact that we have a season opener, then we have our bye, then 11 straight games."

In addition to the Missouri State non-league contest to open the season, the Hogs face Eastern Michigan and Troy in Fayetteville. The headline non-conference game comes on Oct. 3 in Arlington, Texas, at the Cowboys' new billion-dollar facility. The Razorbacks and the Texas A&M Aggies begin a new and lengthy series called the "Southwest Classic."

Final Analysis:

There's depth and experience on defense, but a lack of experience at quarterback on offense. There will be the familiarity that comes from a second-year head coach and his staff concerning all things new in year one.

So Arkansas appears to have the potential, although with a difficult schedule especially outside the state of Arkansas, to perhaps win six, maybe seven, and go bowling.

Still that could be a tall order if some of the inexperienced players don't grow up quickly, and if the Hogs don't get at least a couple of wins out of the gate through their first five games – Missouri State (in Little Rock), Georgia, at Alabama, Texas A&M in Arlington, and Auburn.

Arkansas is just a season removed from a trip to the Cotton Bowl and only two years back it was Orlando's Capital One Bowl for the Hogs. So despite the losing season last fall, many of the players have experienced some success. The Hogs will call on those upperclassmen to show the way as Petrino's program continues into season two.

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