Quarterback - #18 Robert Johnson
After holding off true freshman super recruit Mitch Mustain during fall camp, Robert Johnson will start the season under center for the Razorbacks. Johnson started the 2005 season in a similar position, but was replaced by true freshman Casey Dick before the season's eighth game. In those seven starts (plus one relief appearance), Johnson completed 89 of 158 passes for 876 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions.
In last season's game against the Trojans, Johnson got off to a relatively quick start, completing eight of 16 passes for 91 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He missed the third and fourth quarters after being hit hard towards the end of the first half and suffered a bruised lower back.
In this year's game, Johnson may be facing a greater test than the improved Trojan defense. Arkansas' new offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, straight from Springdale High School, has attempted to integrate his patented no-huddle offense into the Razorback playbook. If Malzahn elects to go with that style of attack, it will be interesting to see if Johnson is able to adapt to it in a game situation.
The other aspect of Malzahn's offense that will alter the Razorback's look from last year is his commitment to the passing game. Last season, Arkansas was one of the nation's best running teams, something they should be again this year. But with Malzahn's love for the passing game, will Johnson be able to shoulder that much of the offensive responsibility?
Overall, Johnson is a solid quarterback. He has great feet and a strong arm, but his decision making must improve and he must become a leader for his team. He has great mobility but is not a constant threat as a runner. Last season, he rushed 37 times for just 20 net yards and zero touchdowns.
As he comes off a season in which he was unable to maintain his starting job, the game against the Trojans will go a long way in determining his job security this season. Everyone is pointing to the nerves that will be on the Trojans' sideline, but Johnson has as much riding on this game as anyone on that playing field.
Tailback - #25 Felix Jones, #21 Michael Smith
Without standout sophomore Darren McFadden, the Arkansas' running game falls from one of the nation's best to one of the SEC West's best. Felix Jones and Michael Smith are two great players at the tailback position, but they can't replace McFadden's productivity.
Jones possesses the same breakaway speed, but he can't replicate McFadden's "wow" factor. Both of the runners averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season, but with Jones getting just 99 carries, he posted "only" 626 yards and three touchdowns.
Against the Trojans last season, Jones carried the ball 12 times for 66 yards, with a long of 17 and looked like the most dangerous Razorback ball carrier even though he and McFadden were both true freshmen.
Another true freshman running back last season, Michael Smith used his redshirt year in 2005 to recover from a pulled hamstring that left him behind McFadden and Jones on the depth chart. This year, the diminutive but fiery Smith will look to make an impact. He is a burner and will be a very real threat out of the backfield. With the injury situation in the Razorback backfield, Smith could see a handful of carries against the Trojans.
Fullback - #22 Peyton Hillis
Peyton Hillis is one of the best blocking fullbacks in the nation, but you'll never hear him referred to as a blocking fullback. Out of the backfield, he's one of the team's best receivers and with the ball in his hands, he's one of the team's best runners.
Last season, Hillis led the team with 38 receptions, resulting in 402 receiving yards and four touchdowns. On the ground, Hillis chipped in with 65 carries for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
Against the Trojans, Hillis will again make his mark catching and running as well as on special teams. He will be put to work in short yardage and goal line situations as well.
Wide Receiver - #85 Marcus Monk, #10 Cedric Washington, #1 Damian Williams
Marcus Monk is by far the biggest receiving threat for the Razorbacks. With a somewhat inept passing game last season, Monk finished the season with 35 receptions for 476 yards and seven touchdowns, one coming against the Trojans. With the Razorbacks' newfound determination to produce in the passing game, Monk should have a huge impact this season.
Standing 6-6 and 222 pounds, Monk is one of the nation's more physically imposing wide receivers and he will be matched up against smaller cornerbacks all game long. The ability of the Trojan corners to stay physical against Monk while making sure they don't get beat deep will be a vital component of the USC defensive attack.
After Hillis and Monk, Cedric Washington was really the only other receiving threat for Arkansas last season. A shifty speedster, Washington hauled in 27 passes for 365 yards and one touchdown in 2005. He will need to improve his hands and route running if he's going to provide a true threat to remove some of the pressure that will surely be focused on Monk.
Damian Williams is a true freshman and one of four players that new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahm brought with him from Springdale High School. He has a solid frame and brings a very impressive high school resume to the Razorbacks. His familiarity with Malzahm's offense should give him an advantage over the other receivers, but in his first collegiate game, he'll find out what it's like to go against a next-level defense.
Tight End - #89 Wes Murphy
After catching just one pass last season for 17 yards, it would be easy to label Wes Murphy as nothing more than a blocking tight end, but with the commitment to establishing a passing game this year, Murphy will spend much more time downfield. His hands are definitely good enough for him to be an asset in this phase; he'll just have to hope that Robert Johnson can get used to the idea of seeing a tight end downfield.
Murphy will still be a key cog in the Razorback running game, and that should remain his number one priority against the Trojans.
Offensive Line – LT #66 Tony Ugoh, LG #74 Stephen Parker, C #63 Jonathan Luigs, RG #61 Robert Felton, RT #69 Zac Tubbs
The Razorback offensive line is downright nasty. Even after losing star center Kyle Roper, the line returns five players who started games last season and is both confident and experienced.
Tony Ugoh is a two-year starter returning at left tackle who should be up for post season SEC awards.
Stephen Parker is in the same boat as Ugoh, returning for his third straight season as a starter on the offensive line. Parker has unbelievable strength and should be the point of attack for the Razorback running game.
Jonathan Luigs is the only guy stepping into a new full-time role this season, but that transition should be made easy by the fact that he started ten games along the line last season, three of which came at center. The youngest player along the line, Luigs earned several Freshmen All-American nods last season and enters 2006 as one of the best centers in the SEC.
Robert Felton filled in at tackle over the past season and a half, but he'll move back to right guard to open 2006. Felton combines a guard's strength with a tackle's quickness and won't miss a beat as he moves one spot to the left this season.
At 6-6 and 330 pounds, it's hard to call Zac Tubbs the weakest link of the Arkansas front line. But having played just one game since midway through the 2004 season, Tubbs will need to shake off some serious rust if he is to have a positive effect for the Razorbacks on Saturday.
Razorbacks on Defense
Defensive Line – #92 Jamaal Anderson, #55 Marcus Harrison, #99 Keith Jackson, #91 Anthony Brown
After moving into the starting lineup when teammate Anthony Brown went down with an injury, Jamaal Anderson made his mark on the defensive line. Seeing time in all 11 games but starting only the final five, Anderson piled up 47 tackles, including four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, good for second on the team. This season, Anderson hands onto his starting spot at left defensive end and will provide a physical presence at the end of the Razorback line.
Marcus Harrison and Keith Jackson team up in the middle of the defensive line and provide a couple of wide bodies capable of stuffing the run and putting pressure on the quarterback. Jackson is one of the best tackles in the nation and last season, he recorded 74 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. They were both shoved around by the Trojans last season, but steadily improved after that and will look to make an impression this time around.
A former wide receiver, Anthony Brown was moved to defensive end before last season, but his campaign was cut short after just six games due to an ankle injury. This season, Brown returns to his right end spot and will provide a quick pass rush to the Razorback line.
Linebackers – #24 Sam Olajubutu, #23 Desmond Sims, #44 Freddie Fairchild
Sam Olajubutu is the star of the Arkansas defense and might be the team's best overall player. At just 5-9, Olajubutu is undersized for a linebacker, but Trojan fans will remember Matt Grootegoed as being an undersized linebacker. Olajubutu plays with the same intensity and sideline-to-sideline ability. Already being mentioned for every defensive award there is, Olajubutu will anchor the Razorback defense and should provide a stiff first test for the Trojan freshmen running backs.
After moving from linebacker to defensive end last season, Sims returns to his old position as the starter at middle linebacker. As a defensive end, Sims led the team in 2005 with 5.5 sacks among his 63 tackles. After showing that he's capable of playing in traffic, Sims' physical step backwards heading into this season should allow him to be even more of a playmaker.
As a freshman last season, Freddie Fairchild stepped into the starting role at SAM linebacker last season against USC and will continue his stay there this season. He piled up 59 tackles last season and will be one of the best linebackers in the SEC this season.
Cornerbacks – #2 Chris Houston, #9 Matterral Richardson
After losing Michael Coe (transfer) and Darius Vinnett (knee surgery), two of the Razorback's best cornerbacks, the Arkansas secondary will start the game already stretched fairly thin. Chris Houston is the better cover corner and tied for first on the team last season with eight pass break-ups.
Matterral Richardson had 44 tackles last season and moves into the starting role at right cornerback after spending some time at free safety in 2005.
Safeties – #6 Randy Kelly, #8 Michael Grant
Michael Grant will take over at free safety for the graduated Vickiel Vaughn this season. Grant is an absolute burner in the secondary, but he must show that he's not just moving very quickly in the wrong direction. After playing cornerback all last season and intercepting three passes, Grant moved to free safety during the spring, after no one else stepped up to claim the spot.
Randy Kelly takes over the strong safety spot and could be a target for the Trojan offense. The Razorback secondary is the weakest part of the defense, even though both Kelly and Grant are players.
Razorbacks on Special Teams
Kick Off Specialist – #52 Brian Vavra
Brian Vavra should be fully healed from surgery to repair a sports hernia to handle kickoff duties for the Razorbacks this Saturday. In 58 attempts last season, Vavra forced just 13 touchbacks.
Placekicker – #59 Stephen Arnold
Stephen Arnold replaces Chris Balseiro as the Razorbacks' placekicker this season. Arnold has attempted just one kick in his career, an extra point in last year's season opener. During spring practice, Arnold was perfect on three field goal attempts and three extra point attempt over two scrimmages.
Punter – #14 Jacob Skinner
Jacob Skinner will be a viable threat for the Arkansas special teams unit on Saturday. Last season, Skinner punted 50 times and carried a 41.8-yard average, including a career-long 58 yarder. Nearly half of his punts resulted in fair catches by the opposing returner while he pinned 15 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Kick Returner – #25 Felix Jones
Felix Jones might be the best kick returner in the nation. Last season, he finished the year second in the nation with a 31.9-yard average and one touchdown on 17 returns. On Saturday, if Trojan kickers give Jones a chance to return kickoffs, the USC coverage unit will be put under the gun.
Punt Returner – #22 Peyton Hillis
Peyton Hillis provides the Razorback special teams with a sure-handed punt returner, although he lacks the breakaway speed to be a real threat to the opposing team. Last season, Hillis returned 16 punts for 165 yards.
The Arkansas Razorbacks are something of a trendy pick this season to challenge for at least the SEC West crown and possibly challenge for the SEC title. All of that will hinge entirely on Robert Johnson's ability to take control of the offense and move the Razorback offense through the air. If Johnson struggles out of the gate, Casey Dick is still too far away physically to offer help and Mitch Mustain, as a true freshman, won't be mentally ready for several games if at all this year. Johnson hasn't exactly shown the ability in the past to light it up through the air, and with this newfound responsibility of the no-huddle offense, the Razorback quarterback could really start to press.
Defensively, Arkansas is talented. The front seven are better than the back line, but the entire defense is fast and physical. Obviously, don't expect the Trojans to register another 70-point outburst against the Razorbacks, but the talent gap between the two teams is still evident. Arkansas will be fired up in front of their home crowd and the atmosphere might be the best that the Trojans are exposed to all season. If the freshman tailbacks and John David Booty are able to keep their composure and play to their abilities, the game should go the Trojans' way.