Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
2012 Razorbacks in review:
Recalling a season gone bad
Arkansas wide receiver Mekale McKay leaves the field after the Razorbacks lost to No. 7 LSU 20-13 on Nov. 23 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE No one saw this coming.
The most critical of analysts might have projected the Arkansas Razorbacks to lose to last year’s BCS title game participants Alabama and LSU, drop a few road games on a schedule that included trips to Texas A&M, South Carolina and Mississippi State, and fall to a middle- or lower-tiered bowl game.
But out of the postseason altogether, with a 4-8 record that tied for the most losses in a season by an Arkansas team?
The Razorbacks pulled off what many considered unthinkable in their lone season under John L. Smith, losing five home games for the first time in 20 years and being outscored by a combined 100 points (110-10) in their first two SEC games. Injuries to key players Chris Gragg, Alonzo Highsmith, Kiero Small, Tenarius Wright, Kody Walker, Tevin Mitchel, Knile Davis and Tyler Wilson all played a role in Arkansas’ collapse under Smith, as did a drastic turnover problem, red zone productivity on offense and shaky pass defense.
The Razorbacks tied with Colorado for last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnover margin with a minus-1.58 per game.
Their red zone scoring percentage (.708) ranked 112th nationally, and their pass defense is No. 114 by allowing 285.8 yards per game.
Arkansas ranked No. 52 in total offense with 420 yards per game and No. 73 in total defense with 410 yards per game. The Razorbacks finished No. 89 in scoring (23.5 ppg) and No. 80 in scoring defense (30.4 ppg).
Arkansas was clinging to a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter at Auburn when the Hogs called one of the very few trick plays they used all year. Tyler Wilson handed off to Dennis Johnson going left, and he flipped to Brandon Mitchell coming back to the right. The backup quarterback heaved a perfect strike to Javontee Herndon deep in the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown that sunk the Tigers.
Defensive ends Trey Flowers and Chris Smith both came up big late in the Tulsa game. Flowers batted down a fourth-down fade pass from the Arkansas 5 with the Razorbacks trailing 15-13 late in the third quarter. Smith ensured the victory by sacking and forcing a fumble from Tulsa quarterback Cody Green that teammate Byran Jones recovered in the Razorbacks’ 19-15 victory.
Dennis Johnson takes this honor, with Wilson and Hamilton already capturing awards. Johnson led the Razorbacks in rushing with 757 yards, and touchdown scoring with 10. He finished with 2,036 rushing yards, good for 14th on Arkansas’ all-time list and 2,784 kickoff return yards, the most in SEC history. Also considered: Alfred Davis.
Offensive linemen Travis Swanson and Alvin Baileyhave followed similar paths since redshirting in 2009 and taking starting jobs in 2010. Both have made 38 consecutive starts. Swanson handled team-captain duties and Bailey allowed no sacks.
Also considered: defensive linemen Byran Jones and Chris Smith.
Sophomore defensive end Trey Flowers is rapidly developing into an SEC star.
Flowers snared a starting role and accumulated 50 tackles, 8th on the team, to go along with 13 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. Flowers picked up 3 1/2 sacks against Auburn to earn SEC weekly honors.
Tailback Jonathan Williams and safety Rohan Gaines stood out in a large field of contenders.
Williams ran for 231 yards on 45 carries (5.1 average), had the team’s longest run of 32 yards, showing good vision and instincts.
He must improve his ball security, but he could rise to a starting role in 2013 or share it with Knile Davis.
Gaines ranked second on the team with 75 tackles after snagging a starting job in camp. His ascension spoke to a startling lack of depth in the secondary.
Also considered: receiver Mekale McKay, linebacker A.J. Turner, cornerback Will Hines.
Defensive tackle Byran Jones put together his best season, with 52 tackles, tied with Chris Smith for the most among linemen, 5 tackles for 29 lost yards and 1 1/2 sacks for 17 lost yards. Jones had 4 hurries, recovered a fumble, and blocked a Jacksonville State field goal at the end of the first defensive series. Jones edged out Smith and safety Eric Bennett.
Tyler Wilson’s 28-yard fade route to Mekale McKay for a third quarter touchdown against LSU is exactly the way the pass is drawn up. McKay located the ball as it went beyond cornerback Jalen Collins and pinned it to his body after making the grab at his maximum jump.
Julian Horton brought in a 20-yard scoring catch in the back of the end zone with one hand, just before being hammered by two Louisiana-Monroe defenders for a first quarter score.
Sequence of plays
Arkansas trailed Ole Miss 27-20 with less than three minutes remaining in Little Rock on Oct. 27, tailback Dennis Johnson took the ball on consecutive running plays and carved the Rebels for 21 and 20 yards.
QB Tyler Wilson
Wilson was one of the few players who stood up and showed leadership on a team in which John L. Smith seemed to cede some of that responsibility.
Wilson’s record breaking prowess in just two seasons as a starter was noteworthy.
Perhaps his most significant school marks will be his career passing yards of 7,765, which he snagged away from Ryan Mallett with 359 yards in last week’s 20-13 loss to LSU, and his single-game record 510 yards, which proved decisive in a 42-38 victory over Texas A&M in 2011 what was probably his finest hour.
WR Cobi Hamilton
Much was expected of Hamilton after the departure of three key seniors from 2011, and Hamilton delivered all that and more with a record-smashing campaign.
Jarius Wright’s single-season school records of 68 receptions for 1,117 yards lasted a year, as Hamilton grabbed 90 passes for 1,335 yards. The Texarkana, Texas, product also took over Arkansas’ career receptions mark with 175.
None who witnessed it is likely to forget Hamilton’s SEC-record performance against Rutgers: 10 catches for 303 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Star Ross Rasner, DE Chris Smith
Rasner led the team with 92 tackles and was valuable in his linebacker/safety role in helping younger defenders line up and being a strong run support and coverage guy. A few teams, like Rutgers, gave Rasner trouble in personnel match ups, but the senior wound up with a thick stat line that included a team best 3 interceptions, 7 pass breakups, 8 tackles for loss, 21/2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a quarterback hurry.
Smith took over as a first-year starter and tied for sixth on the team with 52 tackles. The junior led the team with 9 1/2 sacks for 65 yards in losses and 12 hurries, and tied Trey Flowers with 13 tackles for loss. Smith also had 4 pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Punter Dylan Breeding
Punter Dylan Breeding followed up a strong junior season with a senior year that was just as good.
Breeding, a four-year starter, averaged 45.6 yards per punt to rank No. 6 nationally, and he led an Arkansas punt team with a 40.8 net average that ranked No. 3 nationally.
Breeding finished with 9,387 punting yards, third most by an Arkansas punter, and a career average of 42.9, which ranks fifth.
Punters aren’t a big draft commodity in the NFL, but Breeding should get a shot in someone’s camp on the next level.
Sequence of plays Arkansas led Louisiana-Monroe 28-21 in the fourth quarter when it took possession at its 27 with 7:19 left in the game. Three incomplete passes by freshman Brandon Allen later, the Hogs punted to the Warhawks having taken only 34 seconds off the clock.
Illegal formation The Razorbacks appeared to have completed a potential game-tying 15-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Wilson to Austin Tate on the second play of the fourth quarter, but it was called back by a disputed illegal formation call. The Hogs had to settle for a field goal, and Ole Miss won 30-27 on a last-play field goal.
Quarters of play Arkansas was outscored in three of four quarters this season, winning the first quarter by a 96-45 count. The Razorbacks were beaten 129-86 in the second quarter and 72-53 in the fourth quarter. But the real trouble spot was the third quarter, where the Hogs were pummeled 113-44.
Sports, Pages 20 on 12/03/2012