What a difference a year, and a vowel make.
When Bobby Petrino resigned from his position as Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons prior to the completion of an ill-fated 2007 season to take over the helm of the Arkansas Razorbacks, he was vilified by countless members of the national media.
A sports media mob mentality regarding Petrino quickly, and collectively took affect as irate, attention-seeking opinionistas across the nation took a look at Petrino’s meandering coaching resume’ the regretable and admittedly less-than-ideal circumstances surrounding his departure from the Falcons and quickly labeled him a everything from a “coward” to a “wanderer”.
Now, with the first year of a complete program overhaul under his belt, the name-calling has seemingly subsided, and SEC defensive coordinators are the ones “wondering” whether they can slow down a system that even Petrino’s staunchest critics admit is one of the most dangerous in all of college football.
Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt, a widely respected offensive mastermind in his own right, was effusive in praising Petrino at SEC Media Days last week.
“(Petrino) knows what he’s doing,“ Richt said. “He absolutely is a great quarterback developer, and he has a scheme that will allow that quarterback to have a chance to be great. He knows it takes defense and special teams to win also. I mean, he’s just an outstanding coach.”
Richt, the SEC Head Coach with the longest tenure at his current school, knows what it takes to build a program in in the rough and tumble conference, and thinks Petrino may be ready to make some noise after going 5-7 a year ago.
“If you look at the history, recent history anyway, of Southeastern Conference coaches, and coaches I think around the country, there’s been a lot of instances where their second season they kind of broke out,” Richt added. “That’s where he’s at. So that makes me a little concerned, too, that he’s now had a whole year to go through all the debugging of things, and now everybody is on the same page and ready to roll.’
Petrino’s prowess as an offensive guru was built in large part on his tenure at Louisville. In his four seasons as the Cardinals’ Head Coach (2003-2006) Petrino went 41-9 with two conference championships, two Top Ten finishes and a 24-13 BCS FedEx Orange Bowl win over Wake Forest in 2006.
His Louisville teams finished in the top 10 nationally in total offense in each of those four seasons, and were in the top 5 in three of them.
If Petrino is able to get Arkansas rolling to the top of the NCAA stat sheets in 2009, it will be due in no small part to his offensive philosophy, which he has dubbed “Feed the Studs”.
Simple in theory, but sometimes more difficult to implement, the Petrino approach is to locate his best playmakers and methodically feed them the football in a position to make big plays.
The system is only as effective as its quarterback, though, and luckily for Petrino and Razorback Nation that position will be in the hands of Ryan Mallett, a quarterback with a skill set that could ultimately translate into big things in Fayetteville.
Mallett (6-7 238), a high school All-American from Texarkana, originally signed with Michigan out of high school after passing for 8,331 yards and 76 touchdowns and being named the 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Texas. He was ranked as one of the top 5 high school players in the nation.
Mallett replaced the Wolverines starting QB Chad Henne after he was injured during the second game of the 2007 season (a home loss to Oregon on the heels of an embarrassing 34-32 defeat to Appalachian State a week earlier).
He then started games at Michigan’s “Big House” versus college football bluebloods Notre Dame and Penn State in the weeks that followed and though his stats were somewhat pedestrian (23-44 for 260 yards and 3 touchdowns in those two starts) Mallett showed that he is not fazed by the glare of college football’s spotlight.
He finished his only season at Michigan with 892 yards passing and 7 touchdowns and transferred when Wolverines Head Coach Lloyd Carr was fired and replaced by Rich Rodriguez, who runs an offense that relies on an extremely mobile quarterback–something that Mallett is not.
With plenty of options after such a stellar high school career and college debut, Mallett chose to play for Petrino and the Razorbacks, the team he followed as a youngster.
“Ryan had always had a want and a love to go to the University of Arkansas,“ Petrino said. “He has a lot of relatives in the state. So, when he decided to transfer from Michigan, he says that the first phone call he made was to us. He came down, took a visit, got a good understanding of what we wanted to do offensively, kind of knew what we did at Louisville when he was being recruited before, and made the decision to come and attend the university, which we’re very, very happy about”.
After sitting out the 2008 per NCAA transfer rules and enduring a troubled offseason that included an injury and an arrest, Mallett is undoubtedly looking forward to getting back on the field and focusing on football.
He possesses one of the strongest arms in the nation, but it can be both a blessing and a curse. Mallett has worked in the offseason on developing touch on his passes and only breaking out his fastball when needed.
Mallett has a fan in starting tight end D.J. Williams, who has learned how to take the heat from the QB’s high octane passes.
“He’s got one of the strongest arms I’ve every seen,” Williams said. “In practice, I’ve got to bring a couple of pairs of gloves because he tears the gripping off with his passes. I know he had some problems at one time, but he’s got great character. I’m glad he’s a Razorback, and he’ll be something to watch.”
Nipping at Mallett’s heels more than many expected, though, is redshirt freshman Tyler Wilson from Greenwood, Arkansas. Wilson played in two games last season for the Razorbacks as a true freshman but received a medical hardship and retained the year of eligibility after missing the remainder of the season due to mononucleosis.
In his limited playing time, Wilson was 11-22 for 69 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. He received a significant number of reps in spring practice and the Red-White Spring game and is more fleet of foot than Mallett.
Although he has not stated how he will divide the snaps at quarterback (Mallett should get the bulk of the snaps), Petrino is not averse to using multiple signal-callers in order to give already burdened defensive coordinators something else to have to consider.
In 2004 at Louisvillem Petrino used two quarterbacks–senior Stefan Lefors, and freshman Brian Brohm–with great success, as the Cardinals finished the season number one in the nation in total offense.
“That was hard to defend because Stefan was a move around, play action, naked, sprint out guy, and Brian Brohm was a drop back passer,” Petrino said. “I felt that was probably one of the toughest things to defend when you could do both of those things.”
Redshirt Freshman Jim Youngblood (6-2 225) is a stocky, but mobile signal-caller that is listed as the number three quarterback.
None of the Razorback Qbs will be particularly effective if the Arkansas offensive line fails to do a better job of pass protection in 2009. In 2008 the Razorbacks allowed 46 sacks and were 118th in the nation in that category, finishing ahead of only Hawaii.
All-American and 2007 Rimington Award winner for best center in the nation Jonathan Luigs is no longer around to lead the offensive line after being taken in the 4th round of the NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Junior Wade Grayson (6-4 296), a Harrison, Arkansas native, takes over for Luigs at Center. He is a versatile athlete that started all 12 games last season at weak guard, and has physically matured, gaining thirty pounds since signing with Arkansas in 2007. Grayson hopes to develop into the kind of player that another former Goblin, All-American Brandon Burlsworth, was for the Razorbacks.
In addition to Grayson the two other returning starters on the Hogs’ offensive front are tackles Ray Dominguez (6-4 329) and DeMarcus Love (6-5 315).
Dominguez, a Bainbridge, GA, native, started 10 games last year at right tackle, and struggled at times in the transition from former Head Coach Houston Nutt’s run-oriented attack to Petrino’s more balanced scheme. His experience of a year ago should make him a better player in 2009. Dominguez will be backed up at right tackle by redshirt sophomore Grant Freeman (6-7 298) from Paris, AR.
Love (6-5 315) is a redshirt junior from Dallas who Petrino has lauded this offseason for his leadership and work ethic in the weight room. Mammoth Matt Hall (6-9 328) is listed as the second-string right tackle.
Although he is not technically a returning starter, 5th-year senior Mitch Petrus (6-4 315) rejoins the Arkansas offensive line to man one of the guard positions. He began spring drills listed as the starter at left guard but will begin fall camp as the starting right guard.
Petrus was a second team All-SEC selection in 2007 who redshirted last season because of academic issues. Despite the layoff, the league coaches thought enough of the former fullback to name him to the preseason All-SEC third team in 2009.
Petrus is a beast in the weight room that can bench over 500 pounds, but he has spent his time off trying to become more flexible so that he can add some punch to the Arkansas offensive line. Fifth -year Senior Michael Aguirre (6-5 320) has two career starts and is listed as Petrus’ backup.
Redshirt sophomore Grant Cook (6-4 322) from Jonesboro, AR begins the season as the starter at left guard. He has been a spot starter during his career, and will have to hold off Monticello, AR native Seth Oxner (6-4 315) for the starting left guard spot.
Oxner began spring practice in a battle with Cook and will enter the season vying for the center spot with Grayson. Even if he does not supplant Cook or Grayson, Oxner figures to log his fair share of snaps in 2009 at both positions.
Junior College transfer Zhamal Thomas (6-5 343) originally signed with LSU out of high school and redshirted there in 2006. Thomas’ athleticism has already caught Petrino’s eye, and he could factor heavily into the mix.
“I would anticipate (Thomas) to really get in there and make a run at it,” Petrino said. “I didn’t see it, but I was told he actually did a back flip the other day out on the indoor field. I would like to see it. I’d like to see a 350 pound guy do that.”
If the offensive line can improve in pass protection and continue to open holes in the running game, it may be the Razorbacks’ “skill” position players who are doing flips by season’s end.
Mallett’s primary target will likely be junior tight end D.J. Williams, who was recently named to the 2009 John Mackey Award Preseason Watch List after being a semifinalist for the award in 2008. The Mackey Award is given annually to the nation’s best tight end. One of 30 players on the list, Williams is only returning semifinalist from last season.
The 6-2, 215 pound junior from Little rock caught 61 passes for 723 yards and 3 touchdowns, and was named All-SEC first-team selection by the Associated Press in 2008.
Williams was also impressive off of the field, as he has been nominated for the 2009 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which honors college football players who make outstanding contributions in areas of volunteerism and civic involvement.
Williams credits Petrino for helping him progress as a player.
“Sometimes, I’m in practice, and he’ll be getting on me, but when I look at the video, I see he was right,“ Williams said. “One thing he’s been telling me for a while is that I need to work on my blocking. Typically, when you tell a player anything’s wrong with their game, they’ll be offended, but when you adjust, you see he was right, and that’s why he’s just about as good as anyone in the country.”
Redshirt junior Ben Cleveland (6-4 256) is a very capable second tight end whose production has been slowed by injuries and the emergence of Williams as the primary receiver at the position.
Chris Gragg (6-3 230) moved to tight end from wide receiver in the spring. His lone catch last year was a big one–a 25-yard reception versus Louisiana Monroe on 4th-and 1 that helped the Hogs salvage a 28-27 victory at War Memorial Stadium. Gragg, barring injury, will not see much playing time in ‘09, but could develop into a big target in time.
Mallett should have plenty of other options at wide receiver, including sophomores Joe Adams (5-11 182), Jarius Wright (5-10 180) and Greg Childs (6-3 217) as well as seniors London Crawford (6-2 205) and Lucas Miller (6-3 205).
Adams caught 31 passes for 377 yards and a touchdown a year ago and is extremely elusive. Wright is a big-play threat that was all the rage in the ‘08 preseason, but struggled out of the gate before having big games versus Tulsa (5 catches for 124 yards receiving), South Carolina (a 70-yard touchdown catch, the first of his career) and LSU (46-yard touchdown catch).
Childs and Crawford have the size of prototypical NFL receivers, and Miller, who is coming off of kneee surgery after tearing ligaments in ‘08, may have the best hands of the group, as he displayed in his record-threatening 10-catch, 201 receiving yard performance against Mississippi State in 2008 in a 31-28 Razorback loss.
True freshman Cobi Hamilton (6-3 209) is a lanky, lightning quick former teammate of Mallett’s at Texas High in Texarkana who chose the Razorbacks over the Longhorns and several others. The Arkansas staff would like to redshirt him, but he could be called on if injuries occur or his freakish athleticism is too much to ignore.
Arkansas was terribly thin at running back at times last season, and has rectified that situation by amassing an impressive stable of running backs. After waiting his turn behind All-Americans Darren McFadden and Felix Jones during his first three season on The Hill, Michael Smith enjoyed a breakout season in ‘08 but broke down due to shoulder and hamstring injuries before its end.
Smith started 10 games in 2008 (he was suspended for the opener and missed the finale due to injury) and racked up 1,072 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. In addition to being Arkansas’ leading rusher, Smith also caught 32 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns and was the Hogs’ second-leading receiver.
Smith’s 1000-yard rushing season was only the 9th in school history and it earned him second-team All-SEC honors from the league coaches and Associated Press. He had surgery in the offseason and is back to full speed.
Unlike last year, Smith should have plenty of help in a suddenly crowded backfield. Sophomores Dennis Johnson (5-9, 205) and De’Anthony Curtis return to the fold and are searching for more carries.
Johnson showed that he has big-play potential in Arkansas’ season-ending 31-30 victory over LSU in 2008, in which he piled up 230 all-purpose yards including 18 carries for 127 yards. Curtis was a highly touted freshman entering last season who failed to show much explosiveness in ‘08 and had a costly turnover late in Arkansas’ 21-20 loss to Kentucky after taking over for a dinged up Smith. Curtis had a solid spring, though, and is listed as the number two tailback.
A pair of true freshmen, Ronnie Wingo, Jr. (6-3, 218) and Knile Davis (6-0, 213), possess the speed and athleticism to play right away in the SEC. Wingo, an All-American from St. Louis, Mo., chose the Hogs over Missouri and was ranked the number two prospect in in the Show Me State.
He earned that ranking by showing his opponents the back of his jersey for a whopping 48 touchdowns and 4,449 rushing yards during his career at Class 6A St. Louis University High School.
Davis was selected as the second-best running back in the state of Texas by the Dallas Morning News, despite being hampered by injuries throughout his high school career. He missed games as a junior because of a broken collarbone, and then broke his right ankle during the second game of his senior season ending his high school career.
Davis graduated from Fort Bend Marshall High School early, and enrolled at Arkansas in the spring semester hoping to gain a leg up on his competition. But he again broke his right ankle, this time during Arkansas’ fourth spring practice, and missed the remainder of the workouts.
This time around, Davis had the ankle repaired by world-renowned orthopedic surgeon to the sports stars, Dr. James Andrews, whose patients include athletic icons Michael Jordan, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith.
Davis, who was born in 1991 and won’t turn eighteen until the Hogs’ fifth game of the season, has tremendous skill. In light of his injury history, though, Davis will have to prove he can stay healthy before fans should get too excited about his immense talent. Davis has been cleared to practice when fall camp opens.
While Wingo and Davis are big backs by just about any standard, the biggest thumper of all the Razorback tailbacks will be Broderick Green. Green, a Parade High School All-American and Little Rock product, transferred to Arkansas in the spring after two seasons at Southern California.
At USC, Green played in six games in 2008 and carried the ball 32 times for 168 yards and three touchdowns. He redshirted in 2007.
After being granted a waiver by the NCAA which allows him to be immediately eligible in 2009, Green (6-2 248) should help the Hogs out right away in 2009 in the short yardage/goalline situations that plagued them in 2008.
Senior tailback Brandon Barnett (5-8 211) missed time in the beginning of spring practice because of family reasons, and upon his return, suffered a broken leg. Given the injury and the logjam at the position, Barnett may be the odd man out. Redshirt junior Van Stumon (6-1 266) and sophomore Mitchell Bailey (5-11 227) will split the fullback duties.
Junior placekicker Alex Tejada struggled mightily last season, going 4-9 on field goal attempts after making 17-23 in 2006. He will be given another shot to prove himself in ‘09 but is on shaky ground after missing some key kicks in ‘08.
Petrino thinks his squad will be better, but with a schedule that features road games at Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU, he, just like the SEC defensive coordinators plotting to slow the Hogs down, is left to wonder just how much the improvement will be reflected in Arkansas’ won/loss record.
“We’ll play better football…” Petrino said. “How many wins that comes out to is yet to be seen. What we need to understand is we got to get the game in the fourth quarter in a position to win, then, hopefully, our off season conditioning, our off season strength work, and our depth will allow us to win more games than we did a year ago.”