SEC spring practice preview: Arkansas

Arkansas Razorbacks
2009: 8-5 (3-5)

Arkansas opened spring practice last week with quarterback Ryan Mallett sporting a black walking boot following surgery to repair a broken left foot. But the injury that will sideline the Heisman hopeful for spring drills is the least of third-year head coach Bobby Petrino’s concerns. That’s because Petrino, the players and the entire state of Arkansas know what they’ll get from their junior signal-caller on Saturday afternoons this fall after his coming-out party last season. The former Michigan transfer amassed 3,627 yards through the air and tossed 30 TDs against just seven interceptions in leading the Hogs to an eight-win season. While his play must improve in the team’s biggest games and his accuracy must get better — he completed only 55.8 percent of his passes in ‘09 — Mallett possesses all the physical tools to be the best quarterback in the nation and a future high first-round draft pick.

In other words, his absence from the field this spring shouldn’t send panic through Fayetteville, Ark.

In Mallett’s place under center is redshirt sophomore Tyler Wilson, who has had his share of exchange problems with the center in the past, and it’s an issue he’s been working overtime on with lineman Seth Oxner. Wilson is the most experienced quarterback in camp, with true freshman Jacoby Walker, redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell and walk-on junior Nick Petrino behind him. While the group hasn’t exactly looked impressive in camp thus far — specifically against the blitzing defense during scrimmages — they will get plenty of snaps to work on their mechanics and familiarize themselves more with the offense. The first-team reps for Wilson will be huge for Arkansas if Mallett happened to get sidelined during the season — a disastrous thought even if Wilson makes strides this offseason. But it can only help to have the backup as ready as possible in case of injury.

At running back, sophomore Ronnie Wingo will open as the top dog on the depth chart. At 6-3 and near 230 pounds entering camp, Wingo is the big back that Petrino loves. He improved as the ’09 season progressed, finishing with 319 yards on just 49 carries and three scores. Big and fast, Wingo will see a huge jump in his numbers next fall. However, he is just one of four running backs who Petrino will count on throughout the season — including sophomore Knile Davis, junior Broderick Green and junior Dennis Johnson.

Davis received limited carries last season but played well on special teams and possesses the size, speed and aggressive running style that fits the Hogs’ offense. Green, the former transfer from USC, was the Razorbacks’ leading rusher after Michael Smith suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. While he was prone to go down after first contact early in the season, he became a more punishing back as the year progressed. He’ll likely get most of his carries in short-yardage situations. Johnson has big-play capability, but injuries have always seemed to hold him back. The speedy and diminutive rusher also returns kicks and is one of the most dangerous returners in the league.

The Hogs are set at wideout, where the top five receivers from a year ago return. Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright alone combined for 19 scores in ’09, and Cobi Hamilton is poised to have a big season after showing flashes in his debut campaign. Undoubtedly this is the strongest receiving corps in the SEC and an overlooked group in the discussion of best in the nation. Tight end D.J. Williams will also get his share of looks from Mallett.

When Petrino arrived on campus, the offensive line was a disaster, ranking as one of the worst in the nation in sacks allowed. Last year, the Hogs improved but still had its issues as it moved to a more complex blocking scheme. This season, despite the loss of starting tackle Mitch Petrus, the Hogs are optimistic that the line will be solid. The four returning starters will even have competition for their jobs as overall depth has improved in the last few seasons.

Petrino believes that the Hogs’ defense will be better in 2010 — and it better be if Arkansas expects to compete for an SEC West title. No matter how prolific the offense is on Saturdays, the Razorbacks are eventually going to have to come up with some key stops and win a tough conference road game.

Depth is a concern at linebacker, as well as finding a starter in the middle. Senior Jermaine Love will get the first shot, and he’s expected to fill a leadership role on the defensive unit. He’s very fast, incredibly strong and is considered one of the best athletes on the team. However, he is inexperienced. Sophomores Austin Moss and Terrell Williams will be his competition in the middle. Junior Brett Harris, a former safety, will try to grab a starting role at outside linebacker, and fellow junior Jerry Franklin returns at weakside linebacker. He’s been a starter since his freshman campaign. Senior Freddy Burton and junior Jerico Nelson will also look for reps, as both have started in the past.

Having a healthy Isaac Madison back in the secondary is huge. The junior cornerback, who missed last season with an injured knee, likely will have a light spring as he continues to recover. But he was the best cornerback on the team before the injury and the secondary suffered immensely.

The defensive backfield should have something to prove next fall after consistently giving up big plays in ‘09 — especially after the prolific offense would put points of their own on the board. Highly recruited sophomores Darius Winston and David Gordon return, and Petrino brought in what looks to be an impressive defensive back class this past February. Former junior-college transfer Rudell Crim played well at corner and can also take snaps at safety, while safety Anthony Leon — the cousin of the late Sean Taylor and a former Florida State Seminole — and cornerbacks Andru Stewart and Ramon Broadway will also see time.

With the departures of seniors Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis, the Razorbacks lose two talented and experienced defensive linemen who combined for 99 career starts, 66 tackles for loss and 23 1/2 sacks. Defensive end Jake Bequette is the veteran of the group now, along with senior backup Damario Ambrose. Former longtime Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Caldwell was brought in to coach the ends in an effort to make the rushers off the edge a collective dominant force. Tenarius Wright is expected to line up on the other side when he returns from a foot injury, while the coaches have confidence in tackles Patrick Jones, a senior, and sophomore D.D. Jones. Caleb Evans and Colton Nash also add depth to the unit. Nash is an intriguing 6-6, 261-pound sophomore who has a chance to shoot up the depth chart.

It’s really simple in Fayetteville: if the Razorbacks play even average defense next fall, they’re going to win a lot of games because the offense can carry a heavy load. But can the Hogs exceed eight wins and legitimately compete with Alabama and LSU for SEC West supremacy? Never discount a team lead by Mallet’s right arm — unless, of course, the defense doesn’t do its part.

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