UA seniors leave mark despite recent letdowns

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round Saturday.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round Saturday.

— Arkansas’ seniors probably didn’t stop to consider during fall camp whether they would extend their bowl streak to four years.

That seemed like an afterthought for a team flying near the top of college football after 21 victories in two seasons.

The Razorbacks were perched at No. 10 in The Associated Press preseason poll, and the only question heading into the season, despite the firing of Coach Bobby Petrino in April, was whether Arkansas had enough firepower to contend with national champion Alabama and LSU at the top of the SEC West.

“How exciting that was for me to be a part of a team here that matches that 11-win mark,” quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “As a program, you’re flying really, really high. The expectations, everything that went into this year, the term ‘national championship’ was a relative term. Not only to the local media, but the national media.”

Poised to become the first class of Arkansas seniors to go bowling each of their four seasons since the 2003 team , the Razorbacks instead fell flat. A four-game losing streak in September and three SEC losses in their last four games pushed Arkansas out of the postseason.

John L. Smith - 2012 Senior Class

Arkansas football coach John L. Smith talks about the Razorbacks' senior class, which will play its final game Friday vs. LSU. (By Matt Jones)
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Friday’s regular-season finale against BCS No. 7 LSU has become the de facto bowl game for a class that amassed a 33-17 record, the best four-year mark for Arkansas football since the seniors of 1989 capped their careers with a Southwest Conference championship and a 38-11 record under Ken Hatfield. Arkansas’ 22 seniors will be honored prior to Friday’s kickoff at Reynolds Razorback Stadium .

“We went through so much, coming in as young 17-, 18-year-old kids,” receiver Cobi Hamilton said. “I think the biggest thing about this whole year is that we kind of stayed together. ... We’re still a team.”

“We could have splintered and went different directions early in the season, and the season could have turned out way worse than it did, but we didn’t,” defensive captain Alfred Davis said. “And you know, you look back on all the good times and the bad times and at the end of the day you just enjoy it all.”

Safety Ross Rasner said Friday would be a sad day when he takes the field for the final time with a class that helped bring Arkansas football back into the national limelight.

“Three bowl games, won over 30 games, I don’t think there’s many people in the country who can say that,” Rasner said. “A little bit of a letdown this year, obviously, but I think looking back at these seniors’ careers, they’re all going to be happy when they look back one day and see all that they accomplished.”

Coach John L. Smith choked up Monday while discussing the last go-around for the class and the coaching staff.

“This senior class has done a lot,” Smith said. “It’s had great, great days, it’s had some days that are not so great, but they have contributed to this program like maybe none other. I mean, the building that’s going on here, everything that’s going to transpire ... they’re a part of the new facility. They’re a part of the stadium expansion. They’re a part of the new academic center. They’re a part of all of the above.”

For a two-year stretch, the group mingled near the very top of college football, compiling a 21-5 record that included losses to eventual national champions Auburn and Alabama, No. 1 LSU and one-loss Ohio State.

These Razorbacks were key contributors to the program’s first Bowl Championship Series appearance, a 31-26 loss to Ohio State in the 2011 Sugar Bowl, and in 2011 became the first 11-victory team at Arkansas since 1977.

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Tyler Wilson led the Razorbacks to a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State in January - their 21st in five years - but the team h... + Enlarge

“It’s been a fun evolution of things that have happened,” Wilson said.

The class will be best remembered for its record breakers: Wilson, Hamilton and kickoff returner Dennis Johnson.

Wilson owns 27 school records, the most impressive being his 510 passing yards in a 42-38 come-from-behind victory over Texas A&M at Cowboys Stadium in 2010. A two-time state champion quarterback at Greenwood, Wilson passed Ryan Mallett’s record of 409 yards by an astounding 24.7 percent.

Hamilton’s performance Sept. 22, when he caught 10 passes for an SEC-record 303 yards and 3 touchdowns against a Rutgers, won’t soon be forgotten by Razorbacks fans. The 6-3, 209-pounder from Texarkana, Texas, has caught a school-record 80 passes for 1,237 yards this season, breaking Jarius Wright’s year-old school records of 68 catches for 1,117 yards.

Johnson, a fifth-year senior like Wilson, owns the SEC record with 2,763 career kickoff return yards. The short-legged tackle-breaker from Texarkana had his breakout game with 127 yards as a freshman against LSU in 2008 and hopes to gash the Tigers again Friday.

“You’re just proud of them,” said Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who helped recruit the class and coached some of them for a year or two before his two-year stint at Illinois. “Hopefully everybody will come out and wish them a great game in their last game and always think highly of all of them because they’ve done a lot for the program.”

The class also had its share of heartache. Tight end Chris Gragg, linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and defensive end Tenarius Wright all had their final seasons cut short by season-ending injuries.

It also had inspiring stories, such as the intertwining tales of Jared Green and Kaelon Kelleybrew. Teammates at Little Rock Central, the two enrolled at Mississippi Valley State but were essentially forced to leave the floundering program. Believing they could contribute at the major college level, both resettled in Arkansas and after a couple of years of work in the shadows became key contributors this season.

The class also includes one of Arkansas’ all-time best punters in Dylan Breeding, who has been ranked among the top 10 nationally each of the past two seasons.

“Getting to the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, that’s about as good as it’s gotten here,” Breeding said. “It has been one awesome time just to be part of a pretty sweet time in Arkansas history.”

Sports, Pages 19 on 11/21/2012

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