Tom Murphy is a Razorbacks beat reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
FAYETTEVILLE Perhaps no team in the upper crust of college football faces as many variables as the Arkansas Razorbacks this fall.
The Razorbacks bring back loads of talent from an 11-2 team that finished No. 5 nationally. There is 3,600-yard passer Tyler Wilson, receivers Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg, a loaded backfield that includes Heisman Trophy candidate Knile Davis (a 1,300-yard rusher in 2010), offensive line stars Alvin Bailey and Travis Swanson, defensive stalwarts like Tenarius Wright, Alonzo Highsmith and Eric Bennett, a stacked front four, and ace special teams players Zach Hocker and Dylan Breeding.
It’s who’s not back that makes the Razorbacks a little difficult to figure.
LSU lost dynamic playmaker Tyrann Mathieu, and Alabama lost a star running back and great defensive talent, but Arkansas lost its architect.
Bobby Petrino, the man whose vision was the driving force in shaping Arkansas into a top-five team and national title contender, won’t be handling the Hogs after his April 10 firing.
The Razorbacks, who will open the season ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press poll, think they can still achieve their aims without Petrino, who was replaced by three-year Arkansas assistant John L. Smith.
“I say zero impact,” Knile Davis said of Petrino’s absence.
“Yes, we lost a head coach, but we didn’t lose what we need to get it done,” said defensive team captain Alfred Davis. “Nothing is going to change. There is nothing we have to adjust to.”
Wilson, the All-SEC first-team quarterback, pointed out that the Razorbacks’ spring practice rolled along virtually unimpeded after Petrino’s April 1 motorcycle wreck that ultimately led to his dismissal.
“I witnessed the best spring that I’ve had since I’ve been here, and with that I think we can have a better season,” he said. “I was here during the five-win season my freshman year. I was here during the eight-win season my redshirt freshman year. I was here during the 10-win season and the 11-win season.
“If you do the math, we’re in good shape at the end of the season.”
Smith, whose selection was roundly applauded by the players, was a part of the Razorbacks building to this moment during his stint as special teams coordinator and strong-side linebackers coach.
“I try to explain to our guys that that window of opportunity in life comes around once in a while, and when it does come around you better be ready to jump through it,” Smith said. “Don’t hold back. We have the opportunity to do some special things and be a special football team.”
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said the team’s ability to work hard and stay on point will serve it well.
“Just do that every day, keep improving every day, and then go out there and go for it. Reach for the rainbow,” Paul Petrino said. “My dad used to say that all the time: Set your goals as high as you can and go for them.
“That’s what we’re going to do.”
From late November to mid-April, the Razorbacks endured heartache and pain, from the sudden death of tight end Garrett Uekman five days before the No. 3-ranked Hogs’ game at No. 1 LSU, to Bobby Petrino’s abrupt dismissal.
“Through everything that happened, every situation, we always focused on what we had to do,” fullback and linebacker Kiero Small said. “We took time to grieve and things of that sort, but when it was all said and done, we just went on and did what we had to do.”
National poll voters had trouble agreeing on Arkansas’ prospects, as the Razorbacks were ranked as high as No. 3 in The Associated Press poll and as low as No. 21, but they are one of just 10 teams in the top 21 on all 60 ballots.
A sense of maturity and focus on the big goals — instilled by Bobby Petrino — has continued under Smith, who is guaranteed only one run as the Razorbacks’ coach as his contract runs out in February.
Smith, 63, has overseen a transition to a calmer on-field vibe in which coordinators Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes are in command of their sides of the ball. Where Bobby Petrino controlled practices with an iron fist, his “Get back in the huddle!” shout perhaps being the most frequently uttered phrase of the last four seasons, Smith is known for having a softer side.
“I have to be myself,” Smith said at SEC media days. “I’m a little bit different as far as I’m going to let my coordinators coordinate. Bobby, he had a hand on that offense and he ran that. But I’m going to let Paul and Paul, they’re going to coordinate, and Coach [Steve] Caldwell is going to coordinate on those special teams, with a little bit of help there as well.”
The Razorbacks are determined to add balance to both sides of the ball.
Wilson and the passing game ranked 13th nationally with 300.7 yards per game last season. But with Davis out for the year rehabbing a broken ankle, the Razorbacks fell from No. 69 in rushing to No. 81, averaging 137.4 yards per game.
Davis, who emerged in the second half of 2010 on his way to 1,322 rushing yards, would like to take off from game one this season. The junior did not take live tackling in camp as the coaches made sure he entered the season in full health, so he’ll have an early adjustment to make to big contact.
A lot rides on the defense. Arkansas ranked No. 25 against the pass and No. 18 in pass efficiency last year, but the Hogs were No. 73 against the run, allowing an average of 167.6 yards per game, and No. 47 in total defense (362.8).
Haynes said he thinks the manpower on the front four, led by tackles Alfred Davis, Byran Jones, D.D. Jones and Robert Thomas, and ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, will allow the unit to play with less gambling on the blitz.
“When you talk about being a sound defense, well, the more you blitz, the more there’s holes in it,” Haynes said. “The offenses in this league are really good at picking up things, and if they can you’re going to give up big plays.
“I’m not about giving up the big play. If we can make guys earn every yard and be tough and sound, then something good is going to happen, usually.”
The Razorbacks had a odd camp from a defensive standpoint, with team captains Wright and Highsmith, the inside linebackers, and Bennett all missing significant time because of injuries. That allowed for senior Terrell Williams and true freshman Otha Peters to work extensively with the first team at linebacker.
Junior Jarrett Lake’s rise at the “star” position, which subs for strong-side linebacker Matt Marshall on likely passing downs, gave Ross Rasner a chance to work at safety to help with youngsters like Rohan Gaines and Alan Turner while they practiced without Bennett.
The net result was more players earning quality time with the starters, and the starters held up better against the Hogs’ prolific offense in camp than they had previously, all of which points toward a stronger defense.
“There is better depth on that defensive front than any time I’ve been here,” Smith said. “Like I told them, we need to be good defensively for us to be a great football team.”
The Razorbacks must make do without All-America punt returner Joe Adams, but senior Dennis Johnson, who is poised to become the SEC’s all-time kickoff return yardage leader, looks like a capable replacement.
Junior kicker Zach Hocker needs 58 points to tie Steve Little’s school kick scoring record of 280 points and 72 points to tie Bill Burnett’s overall scoring record of 294 points. Senior punter Dylan Breeding, coming off an SEC-best 45.3-yard average in 2011, has displayed a booming leg in camp.
The Razorbacks enter 2102 with unbridled optimism, despite their series of personnel setbacks.
“There’s no ceiling on us right now,” linebacker Alonzo Highsmith said. “Right now we’re like a storm that’s just got a little eye. We’re just going through islands right now before it gets to the main spot. Every team is an island and we’re the storm. We’re going through the days island by island.”
Knile Davis said he is confident the coaches will get the players in the best position to make the plays.
“At the end of the day, we have to make the plays, and I feel like we will,” he said. “As long as we’re together, we’ll be OK.”