by Chris Bahn
Posted 8/1/2012 11:15 am
Updated 10 months ago
Arkansas players gave John L. Smith a standing ovation on the day he was introduced as coach. They loved his quirky personality and appreciated his willingness as an assistant coach to dole out either pats on the back or kicks in the butt as needed.
How will they respond to him this season? There might be no bigger question hanging over the 2012 season as the team prepares to report today. Practice begins Thursday.
Inside and outside the program people see enough talent for another run at the Top 10. Some consider the Razorbacks as again a contender for the SEC West title and possibly a trip to the BCS title game.
Smith, hired in April to replace Bobby Petrino, is the wild card.
This is his first head coaching gig since going 22-26 at Michigan State. Ending his tenure with the Spartans the way he did was tough on Smith, who figured his days of big-time head coaching were behind him.
This situation is a little bit different, of course.
Smith jokes that all he has to do is stay out of the way of his assistants. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but the Razorbacks do have a system in place that has served them well the past two seasons as they’ve gone 21-5 with a pair of Top 10 finishes.
How the players and assistants — most of them familiar with Smith — respond to the new head coach during practice and games will be key. It’s the biggest question for the Razorbacks entering the season, but far from the only one.
Below we look at five other crucial areas that will be addressed during camp:
I. Linebacker Search
Alonzo Highsmith is coming off an injury that kept him out of spring practice. Tenarius Wright is a converted defensive end after playing as a linebacker. These are the Razorbacks’ top options at linebacker entering camp. Coaches like what they have in both despite the perceived downside to each. It’s what they have beyond Highsmith, the top returning tackler from last season (80), and Wright that concerns the Razorbacks. Fullback Kiero Small, recruited out of junior college for defense by most schools not named Arkansas, is getting a look there. Incoming freshman Otha Peters could help if veterans like Braylon Mitchell, Terrell Williams and Robert Atiga aren’t ready. Walk-on Austin Jones was a surprise in the spring. Whoever it is, the Razorbacks need somebody besides Wright/Highsmith to emerge.
II. Knile’s Health
Knile Davis was drawing all-SEC and Heisman Trophy hype this time last year too. Then, Davis missed last season with a fractured ankle. While his weight room performance suggests he’s ready (did you see video of that 600-pound squat? !!!) nobody will know how Davis responds to contact until he gets hit. Coaches say they’ll work Davis in and not rush him, leaning more on Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo Jr. and others. When he’s healthy Davis is remarkable. Will he be — and can he stay — healthy?
III. Cobi, Gragg, Then Who?
It seems safe to assume Cobi Hamilton is set for a breakout year. He’s caught 95 passes for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns in three seasons, primarily as an option behind NFL-bound receivers Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs. Hamilton should be the No. 1 option this season for quarterback Tyler Wilson. Tight end Chris Gragg also figures to be in line for a big year. Gragg has 50 receptions for 714 yards and four touchdowns. As we’ve seen in years past this system isn’t set up for one or two guys to catch passes. So who will offensive coordinator Paul Petrino look for as he draws plans to “Feed the Studs?” Sophomore Keante Minor is worth keeping an eye on as are juniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton. Tight end Demetrius Dean could put up nice numbers if his conditioning and knowledge of the offense are where they need to be. JUCO transfer Demtrius Wilson was brought in to play right away and it’s possible freshmen like Keon Hatcher and D’Arthur Cowan make an impact. Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Dennis Johnson might see more passes out of the backfield. Both have shown the ability to catch passes.
IV. Chemistry On The Line
Travis Swanson will start at center. Alvin Bailey, like Swanson, has 27 starts to his credit. Jason Peacock returns after starting nine games. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell just who the Razorbacks have ready on the offensive line and how they’ll play together. Offensive line is a spot where the five starters have to work well together. Sometimes that means not having the most physically talented players on the field, but the guys with the best chemistry. Swanson admits the team struggled with chemistry in 2011 as they allowed 2.15 sacks per game and the running game averaged only 137.38 yards on the ground. Can they figure it out before Sept. 15 when ‘Bama comes to town? They better.
V. Secondary Play
Perhaps no unit has been more consistently frustrating the last four seasons than the secondary. Missed tackles in run support. Failure to locate the ball in the air. It is always something. Sophomore Tevin Mitchel and senior Darius Winston showed flashes last year that they could be what the team needs. Both figure to start for the Razorbacks this season and if capable backups emerge this unit could be a source of pride for the team. Arkansas needs strong play in the defensive backfield to compete this year and it’s up to Mitchel and Winston play like veterans.