Friday, August 21

Arkansas Razorbacks '09: When everyone says you're underrated, you're no longer underrated

The 2008 Season in a Box
At times, Arkansas probably felt like they were the last decent gift in a White Elephant gift exchange. First, they run Houston Nutt out of town (I still don’t like that, by the way), then they somehow luck into Atlanta castoff Bobby Petrino. Now, Petrino also inspires his own set of White Elephant jokes since he’s apparently contractually bound to not serve out his contracts, but that’s neither here nor there – the important thing is that he’s still at Arkansas. Once the season began, they were a bit out of place running Petrino’s system with the Dick brothers, but somehow things worked out as well as they could and the Hogs ended up at 5-7. It wasn’t some kind of hot mess, but it wasn’t something to be particularly proud of.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
It’ll only help when the coaching staff hasn’t been run out of town thanks to overzealous high school football fans. Arkansas’s offseason wasn’t one of excitement this year, and that can only be a good thing. On the non-intangibles side of the ball, this will be the second year of Petrino’s system for most of the crew. Even with QBs who could be generously described as “decent”, last year’s passing attack wasn’t half bad; when you remove some Dick and add Mallett, apparently this turns out to be a positive addition. As such, it can only be a step up to have a talented QB (who has had a year to learn Petrino’s offense, let’s not forget – that transfer was two seasons ago) and a mostly returning offense and defense. Arkansas was more consistent than they appeared to be (they mostly fell off the radar after losing to Alabama, Texas, and Florida in succession by a combined 139-31), so they’re in great shape to move up in the world.

On Offense
Put it this way: last season, Arkansas attempted a pass on about 54% of their plays from scrimmage. All but 22 of those passes were thrown by either Casey Dick or Nathan Dick, who are probably most well-known as “the guys who got to hand off to Darren McFadden and Felix Jones”. Casey is somehow Arkansas’s third leading passer in history (this seems to be a confirmation that Arkansas hasn’t had much in the way of passers more than a confirmation that Casey was any good), but he’s graduated and Nathan transferred. That in turn leaves the offense in the possibly-capable hands of Ryan Mallett. Mallett had a previous life at Michigan, but transferred after Lloyd Carr retired; back in ’07, he was pretty ineffective as a true freshman. It’s probably a decent chance that Mallett’s figured a few things out and grown up a bit since transferring; in addition, Petrino’s always done a good job of developing QBs, so Mallett should be in good shape all around.

It should only help Mallett’s development that nearly everyone who caught a pass returns this season. TE DJ Williams is one of the best pass-catching TE in the country; there aren’t many TEs out there who can make a claim to over 500 yards receiving in a season, but Williams is one of them with room to spare (700+ yards and 3 TDs last year). At this point though, Williams is the only consistent receiving option; Lucas Miller. Jarius Wright, and Greg Childs are the only receivers with more than 12.5 ypr last year. That’s a sign that the defenses weren’t getting stretched enough unless the Razorbacks were rolling out packages with two of those three guys. Mallett should help add a legitimate downfield threat to the Hog offense, which – from a passing standpoint, at least – they haven’t seen in at least a few seasons. If Joe Adams or London Crawford can emerge as a consistent possession threat as well, Arkansas’s passing game should be set.

Arkansas’ rushing attack was pretty much a one-man show last year with RB Michael Smith racking up nearly 1,100 yards in only 10 games played. The problem therein is in that Arkansas played 12 games last year, and the two games that he missed – Western Illinois and LSU – Arkansas only averaged 3.7 yards a carry. Still, those 10 games are even a bit of a misnomer; he only saw limited action against South Carolina (7 carries, 25 yards) and – to an extent – Texas (13/42) and Mississippi State (14/60). Frankly, if Smith didn’t get on track Arkansas’s running game was toast last year; the aforementioned MSU game was the only time Smith got bottled up and Arkansas topped 100 yards rushing. Some of the non-Smith numbers last year were staggering: Alabama (12 carries, 1 yard), Texas (13/-31), Tulsa (8/-17), and South Carolina (24/29) were all examples in ineptitude.

If Smith can’t come through, then the rushing game’s success will be contingent on one of Broderick Green, De’Anthony Curtis, or Ronnie Wingo stepping up to fill the gap. None of these guys are particularly known; of the three, only Curtis has seen PT with the Razorbacks, and he was limited in action last year thanks to a knee injury. Wingo is a true freshman who will hopefully end up as a redshirt (I’m always partial to giving true freshman a year to adjust to the college game, but Arkansas may not have that luxury). Green is the most intriguing of the three options; he’s a transfer from USC who was recently cleared to play. He’s more of a true power back than Curtis, Wingo, or Smith at 6’1”, 248. He’ll have a definite role within Petrino’s system, even if it’s strictly the Jovorski Lane Honorary Goal Line Truck. One additional RB we haven’t mentioned yet is Dennis Johnson, who also doubles as a KR specialist and may be the fastest among the group at 4.3 speed; however, he’s of a similar size as Smith (both stand 5’7” and are in the 185-200 range), so he doesn’t really offer much that’s new and different.

As far as schemes, expect this year’s Arkansas team to look more like typical Petrino teams than last year’s team did. To this date, I’m still not sure how the brothers Dick ended up with more than a 57% completion percentage, but if they could do that under Petrino, then Mallett should be in great shape. The offense will tend slightly toward the pass, and if there’s a legitimate second option if (and possibly when) Smith goes down for the rushing attack then Arkansas’s offense should be in great shape. All the pieces are there at this point, and with a season to mature next season looks even better (provided Petrino is still there, of course).

On Defense and Special Teams
Personnel-wise, this defense will look a lot like last year’s; they return their top 10 tacklers, and among the starters, only SS Dallas Washington departs. That’s a blessing and a curse for a team who turned in one of their worst statistical performances of the 21st century; their 31.2 ppg allowed was the highest in six years, the 4.4 ypc allowed was the worst since the 6-6 campaign of 2004, and while the pass defense wasn’t quite as bad as the numbers made it out to be, it certainly wasn’t good.

Since most of the unit returns intact, they’ll continue with their 4-3 base scheme; DT Malcom Sheppard is the name to remember on the line (tied for 3rd in the SEC last year with 14.5 tackles for loss, 6th in the SEC last year in sacks with 6.5) and strongside LB Jerry Franklin is the best LB of the bunch. DE Adrian Davis is also a quality pass rusher, with 5 sacks on the season. The secondary, oddly enough, is more notable for being short than anything else; only FS Elton Ford even grazes 6’ among the starters, and it’s a bit of a trek down the depth chart before running into someone who’s above 6’ – for the curious, that’d be second-string FS Anthony Leon, who likely wouldn’t see a ton of playing time. While height may not matter in most cases, it does mean that the secondary will have their work cut out for them against deeper passing teams – and if the front seven can truly stop the run this year.

Special teams returns a pretty decent K in Alex Tejada, who somehow got the yips last year when passing 40 yards and got replaced for a period of time by the now-departed Shay Haddock. The punting game could be in a bit of trouble, as P Briton Forester was basically the last guy to be picked at kickball growing up – and the backup P is none other than Ryan Mallett. The return game should be solid, though; some of the RBs that don’t end up top 2 or top 3 in the depth chart will end up there. Last year Dennis Johnson returned kicks (good) and Michael Smith returned punts (bad). Johnson will likely return kicks again and depending on how roles shake out, may move to the punt return game too. Smith really wasn’t that exciting as a punt returner, and there’s better things to do with RB1 than put him in a position where he can just get unloaded on by gunners.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
On the basis of talent alone (coupled with the improvements that’ll come from Year 2 of Petrino’s schemes) Arkansas should make a bowl game. However, that’s not always how these things work. Drawing the top three SEC West teams on the road is asking for trouble; while they’d have a passable shot at pulling an upset if any of the games were in Fayetteville, they’ll have more than their work cut out for them on the road. If that wasn’t rough enough, there’s also a road trip to Florida on top of that. Now, the good news is that all the road and neutral site games are winnable – Georgia, South Carolina, and possibly Troy(!) are the toughest of the home games – but Arkansas isn’t a good enough team to win all those games. They have to go 6-2 (or better) against those teams to make a bowl, though (chalking up all their road games as losses); if they do that, they’ll end up at some Independence Bowl equivalent – technically that’s a step up from last season. While it’s not unlikely they’ll make a bowl, it will be difficult.