In advance of tomorrow night’s showdown between #10-ranked Arkansas and #15-ranked Auburn, I sat down for an electronic conversation with one of the best SEC fans I know–AU Jed.
Jed is an Auburn alum, but he is an avid BlogHawgs reader, he follows all things SEC and he has a very good handle on the State of the Union. Out of deference to him (although he did not request it) I have chosen to use the God-given names for Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, Auburn running back Michael Dyer and Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier in this interview.
Here’s what I had to say in Part 2:
AUJ: Most fans of the SEC would agree that you need to do 2 things to consistently win in this league: 1) Stop the run 2) Run the ball effectively. Arkansas has struggled to do either of these against quality teams thus far. Do you see Arkansas being able to overcome this?
BH: I think Arkansas’ numbers in both areas will improve as the season goes along. That is how Bobby Petrino’s teams at Arkansas have progressed in-season. At this time last year, people were wondering if Arkansas could develop a running game and develop a defensive identity.
Knile Davis then emerged, and, once the Arkansas defense picked itself up after it got Newtoned, the Hogs were able to get enough stops to go on a run and earn the school’s first BCS bowl berth.
Just how much Arkansas can improve in the run game on both sides of the ball this seeason will depend upon injuries on defense, and increased continuity on the offense line. Jason Peacock appears to have grabbed control of one of the tackle positions for Arkansas ahead of true freshman Mitch Smothers. That helps.
Now, Petrino will be looking to establish a few running game staples just as he did with Knile and the stretch play last season. In order to do, so, one or two of the running backs need to emerge and provide consistent production. Dennis Johnson appears to be the most likely candidate to do so, but interestingly, the much-maligned Broderick Green, coming off of a torn ACL in sprng practice, appears to be better than he was before the injury, and could provide some much-needed toughness in short-yardage situations.
AUJ: The last two games we’ve all seen Tyler Wilson take hit after hit in the pocket. How important is it for the offensive line to give him better protection, not only from a offensive standpoint but from a possible injury standpoint as well?
BH: Wilson definitely needs to take fewer hits. He won’t survive at this rate. A few things need to happen for things to change. First, Arkansas needs the schedule to provide a respite, and it should. Alabama looks to have a transcendent defense, and Texas A&M, for all its problems in the secondary, has a very good defensive front and offers as many different and effective blitz look as any team in the county.
AU hasn’t been able to get to the opposing quarterback. And, now that Wilson has shown his toughness and Arkansas appears to be making strides with its protections (Wilson had more time in the 2nd half of the A&M game), the hits on Wilson should decline.
Green has been lauded as one of the best RBs Arkansas has in terms of picking up blitzes and providing pass protection at the RB position (something that Arkansas fans have largely ignored in the past when bemoaning his playingtime). He should help.
One aspect that has not been addressed, at least publicly, is that so far this season, Wilson has taken several very late and/or helmet-to-helmet hits that have not netted personal foul penalties. That needs to change. And, Wilson, per his coaches, also has to do a better job of picking his spots. By that I mean he has often held onto the ball too long.
At times, that is a necessity. Wilson can look at a coverage at times (the first TD to Jarius Wright last week, for example) and know before the snap that if he gives the play time to develop, it should result in a big play. On those occasions, he can do the math and knows that he is going to get hit, but the risk will be worth the reward. At other times, though, he needs to go through his progression quicker, hit an underneath receiver, and avoid an unnecessary hit.
AUJ: Using your insider connections, what guys on the Hog defense will not be on the field Saturday?
BH: As you noted, getting injury information out of the Arkansas camp is a nearly impossible task. They don’t believe in giving their opponents any advantage. Also, Twitter has curtailed some of the info they release. Arkansas previously opened the first 20 minutes of practice, and when they did, folks were able to gleen some injury information based on who was practicing and how limited they appeared to be.
But, when Knile went down, and observers (some media members) broke the rules and Tweeted about it, Arkansas’ coaches were livid. They feel that a kid’s parents should find out about a season-ending injury before the Twitterverse, if possible. That’s understandable.
Having said all that, I expect defensive end Jake Bequette and defensive tackle Robert Thomas to play this week. Darius Winston was walking with only a slight limp last Saturday after leaving the game due to a leg injury and was also riding an exercide bike on the sidelines. My guess is he will play, but if he is hampered, they will pull him out. Tevin Mitchel (no typo) amd Greg Gatson played pretty well last week, and might provide better options than Winston if he is less than 100%.
Safety Tramain Thomas is a mystery. He was thought to be an emerging playmaker in the preason and he hasn’t been, yet. He dinged his shoulder in two-a-days and one wonders if he is having problems, there. His porous tackling this season suggests he may be favoring it. That is a scary development for a safety especially since it is the thinnest position on Arkansas’ roster. Tank Wright is still on the mend from a broken wrist and is a few weeks away from coming back.
So, in short, help seems to be on the way this week. If Arkansas can get through this game without additional major injuries, the OFF week next week should provide some salve for its wounds.
AUJ: Auburn has had a lot of success recruiting the state of Arkansas in recent years, with two kids from Arkansas expected to play a big part in this game. How can Arkansas keep those top recruits in state and limit Malzahn’s ability to recruit the state?
BH: Well, that’s the $180,000 question, isn’t it? It’s interesting that you used the word “base” earlier in relation to Springdale and Malzahn because he really has a cult-like following amongst some high school players and coaches with connections to his previous high school jobs. He has done a good job of cultivating that–no doubt.
But, I think his ability to continue to do so will depend on the individual recruit. Dyer was set to come to Arkansas, by most accounts, if Arkansas had been willing to offer his BFF, Dakota Moseley, early. They didn’t and the Dyer/Arkansas relationship soured quickly and the Malzahn/Dyer relationship flourished.
Frankly, I think the Dyer situation actually worked out for the better for both programs. Knile emerged as an All-SEC back, and Dyer helped lead AU to the BCS Championship. AU got Moseley and all his baggage, and the black eye and wrands that came with it.
From what I understand, Frazier was going to go wherever Malzahn was, and if that was indeed the case, there isn’t much Arkansas could have done to change it. Luckily, under Petrino, quarterback should never be a problem.
Time will only tell how well Malzahn will do in Arkansas recruiting in the future. I can tell you, though, that anecdotally I have seen that there are definitely parts of the state (Northeast Arkansas for example) exhibiting some Malzahn fatigue. Let’s just say that people sometimes tire of being told (whether explicitly or implicitly) that another person or peer is the smartest guy around.
Malzahn doesn’t necessarily say that, but his minions do, and making it worse, they seem to put off the vibe that simply by osmosis, or from worshipping at the altar of Gus, they have also become the smartest, most righteous guys in the room, too.
All of this, of course, ignores the Big Pink Trooper in the room–ie Auburn “super recruiter” Trooper Taylor the question of just how much of AU’s recruiting success has stemmed from being one large, happy towel-waiving family and how much of it stems from Auburn using alternative recruiting methods and pushing the envelope (proverbially, of course).
I keep hearing recruits (at AU and elsewhere) talking about making “business decisions”. That just seems like curious wording considering all that has gone on in the last year.
But, more than anything, I think Malzahn’s future recruiting success in Arkansas will depend on where he lands. If, as I predict, he becomes the next Mississippi Coach next year (the eff you of all eff yous) he will continue to be a threat to Arkansas recruiting.
Then again, if Arkansas continues to establish itself as a Top 10 program that produces tons of NFL-ready offensive talent (am I the only one who think Wilson is well on his way to being 1st Team All SEC if he stays healthy?) its recruiting should continue to improve.
Thanks for your time, Jed. It was fun. Good luck tomorrow. You’re going to need it.
BlogHawgs Prediction: Arkansas 45 Auburn 35.