When Hogs fly

When a coach known for his innovative passing attack takes over a program known for a smash-mouth ground game ... well, something's got to give.

That's the situation at Arkansas, where Bobby Petrino and his traveling aerial circus have replaced replaced Houston Nutt and his ground-hugging ball-control attack.

The transformation was dramatically illustrated in the Razorbacks' spring game. Casey Dick, who threw for just 130.4 yards per game in 2007, completed 33 of 49 passes for 404 yards.

Although the change in scheme was dramatic, Petrino insists it was not all that challenging to implement.

"It hasn't been difficult," he said at the recent SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "It's been a learning experience."

It certainly has been a learning experience for Dick. Overshadowed last fall by superstar tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones – both first-round NFL Draft picks – he's preparing to play a starring role, instead of a supporting role, in the 2008 offense.

Still, Petrino says the biggest adjustment is for the Hogs' offensive linemen. Instead of drive-blocking on nearly every play, they're having to learn the nuances of pass protection.

"They're a group that is very used to coming off the ball and run-blocking," he said, "and they do an excellent job of that."

Getting the Hogs equally competent at pass-blocking remains a work in progress.

"The newness to the techniques of pass protection and the different types of pass protection is something that they've worked extremely hard at," Petrino said. "After the second week of spring ball, I was very impressed with the group."

Having the 2007 Rimington Award winner back for another year as the first-team center certainly helps.

"Jonathan Luigs is a guy that adds a tremendous amount of leadership to that group," Petrino conceded. "And he's a young man that is very energized by learning the new techniques, the new fundamentals, the new schemes that he knows will carry on to his days playing at the next level."

Dick's perceived inadequacies as a passer made him the frequent target of fan frustration during the past two years. He is solidly entrenched as the No. 1 quarterback, however, even with a pass-happy guy like Petrino calling the shots.

"Casey Dick came out of spring ball as our starting quarterback," the head man said. "He did a nice job of learning and working hard on understanding the offense. I thought he did a real nice job of getting to know the other side of the ball – understanding what defenses are trying to do, the difference in coverages, the difference in zone blitzes and man blitzes, and really performed well in our last two scrimmages and spring game.

"He's a guy that has experience, has won games, has won games at the end of the game playing the position. I have a lot of confidence in him and he has a lot of confidence in himself coming out of spring ball, which is a great thing."

Fans who were unhappy having Dick at quarterback last fall will be doubly dissatisfied this year. There will be two Dicks at quarterback in 2008. Nathan Dick, Casey's younger brother, is the Hogs' chief backup.

"His younger brother Nathan came out of spring ball as second," Petrino noted. "He's bigger than Casey. He's a guy that likes to run around and has a real knack for understanding where the rush is coming from."

Nathan Dick reportedly is a more dangerous ball-carrier than his older brother. This skill was rarely exhibited in spring practice, however, because Arkansas quarterbacks were not "live" (subject to being tackled).

As Petrino noted: "He might make more plays when it's live because of his ability to run, move around, throw the ball down the field after that."

The obvious question around Fayetteville is how the ground game can survive the loss of two rushers the caliber of McFadden and Jones. The heir-apparent is Michael Smith, a 5-7, 173-pound junior. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry en route to 303 total yards last fall.

"Michael Smith is a smaller running back that is very quick and has a great burst; you can do a lot of things with him," Petrino said. "He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can run routes as a receiver. So we're going to have to try to figure out ways to utilize his strengths and get him the ball in the open field."


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