Arkansas search to extend past weekend

Travis Swanson has heard about the prayers, seen the text messages of support.

The Arkansas center understands and appreciates why his friends have felt the need to offer kind words in recent weeks. He knows just how chaotic the Razorbacks’ spring must have appeared to the outside world.

Swanson, however, isn’t a part of that outside world. His life revolves around Arkansas football, a program that’s experienced a spring to remember for all the wrong reasons.

Bobby Petrino’s ouster as coach, the sordid details of his affair with a football department employee, the arrests of three teammates – Swanson and his teammates have done their best to avoid the drama.

”They are kind of making it seem like a bad thing, but to me the whole situation is out of my hands,” Swanson said. ”It’s not a negative thing to me. What happens, happens. I’m just going to come here every day and work.”

The Razorbacks have put all of their effort and energy into spring practice, which has served as an escape of sorts. And they’ll have the chance to show just how far they’ve come this spring when the take the field for the annual Red-White game Saturday afternoon.

The game attracted a record crowd of 42,000 last spring, a number Swanson hopes to best this year. The junior can’t think of any better way to finally turn the page on the last few weeks.

”I think the whole Razorback Nation just really needs to come together,” Swanson said. ”I know that this is a difficult time, not only for us but for the diehard fans out there.”

Arkansas entered the spring full of expectations after an 11-2 record and No. 5 finish last season. Quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis led the list of returners, both bypassing the NFL draft in favor one last chance at both Southeastern Conference and national championships.

All of the attention spiraled away from the players following the April 1 motorcycle accident that eventually led to Petrino’s firing. The 51-year-old coach returned to practice just two days later, but he lied about the presence of a 25-year-old female football staffer he had hired upon that return.

It was only shortly before Jessica Dorrell’s name was revealed in a police report that Petrino came clean to athletic director Jeff Long, who initially put Petrino on paid leave before eventually firing the coach April 10.

Long has kept the rest of Petrino’s staff in place, at least through the end of the spring game. He announced Friday that the search for a new coach, either a permanent solution or interim fix, would continue at least through the weekend – hoping to turn fans’ attention from the search back to the players.

While the coaches have continued post-Petrino in a state of limbo, they’ve found time to look past their own uncertainty to appreciate the work ethic and drive of the players.

”I think it’s unbelievable,” Arkansas special teams and defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell said. ”They have stayed focused. I know there are a lot of distractions out there and everybody’s wondering, `What’s next, who’s going to be the next coach,’ but they know what it’s all about.

”They’ve come to work just like they’ve been taught, and they’ve been grinding every day trying to make themselves better and get ready to go.”

Petrino’s firing hasn’t been the only distraction this spring for the Razorbacks.

Since practice began, offensive tackle Jason Peacock, wide receiver Kane Whitehurst and linebacker Tyler Gilbert have been arrested. Peacock was arrested for using a stolen debit card to buy $35 worth of gas, Whitehurst for possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia and Gilbert for his role in an apartment break-in last week.

Still, through Petrino’s daily soap opera and the arrests, Arkansas wide receiver Cobi Hamilton insists the team is still primed for a championship run next season.

”I think we came closer as a team,” Hamilton said. ”We know what we have up against us, what we’ve got to do to get there. We’ve got a big dream and a big goal, and we’ve got to complete that.”