Razorbacks Appear on the Rise

By Tom Murphy
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 

Fayetteville – The Arkansas Razorbacks’ 3-3 record at the halfway point of the

season isn’t impressive on the surface, but the Hogs seem to be on an upswing

heading into the second half of the year despite losing at BCS No. 1 Florida on

Saturday.

The Razorbacks weren’t able to notch a third consecutive victory over an

unbeaten opponent last week at Florida, but they led much of the way – even

without top offensive stars Michael Smith and Joe Adams – and drew national

sympathy for their handling by the SEC officiating crew in a 23-20 loss at the

Swamp.

Many viewed Arkansas’ six-week span from the Georgia game in Week 2

through the Ole Miss game this Saturday as a run through some of the most

treacherous terrain in college

football.

While the Razorbacks are 2-3 during that difficult stretch, they appear

to be improving in most areas and are in strong spirits after pushing Florida to

the edge of an upset.

“We came out playing against the No. 1-ranked team in the nation,”

receiver Greg Childs said. “Many had us losing by countless touchdowns and

saying we weren’t even going to have a chance to play with them. But then we

stepped on the field Saturday and showed the whole world we do have a great team

and we can play with anybody we step on the field with.” So, while the

Razorbacks look to be out of contention in the SEC West behind unbeaten Alabama,

the incentive is still there to contend for a quality postseason berth.

“You can take and build confidence from it, understand you were right

there, playing the No. 1 team in the country and you’re there and had an

opportunity to win the game,” second-year Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino said.

The following is a position-by-position look at how the Razorbacks have

fared at the halfway point of the season:

QUARTERBACK

Ryan Mallett’s strong arm and the Bobby Petrino offensive system have

been a nice marriage, though Mallett’s completion percentage should be better

than its current .551. Mallett’s efficiency rating is 150.5, second-best in the

SEC and No. 23 in the nation.

Petrino pointed out that Mallett makes two or three throws a game that

few quarterbacks in the country can pull off, such as his 75-yard pass to Greg

Childs at Florida and a 46-yarder to Childs earlier in the game.

Mallett still has periods of inaccuracy, but he’s thrown only three

interceptions in 187 attempts. The 6-7 sophomore has 14 touchdowns and 1,646

passing yards, and his 274.3 passing yards per game is 12th in the country.

Mallett struggled with completion percentage against top-rated defenses

Alabama and Florida, but against the Gators, he still found ways to make huge

plays.

“He got hit and completed passes,” Petrino said. “He wants to complete

every single pass, but when you’re going against a great defense, it’s just as

important to take care of the ball and not turn the ball over, and he did that

very, very well for us. … He gave us a great opportunity to win the game.”

RUNNING BACK

There have been games when it seemed the full power of the Hogs’ big

corps of backs would be unleashed, but the occasions have been rare, and they

came after the first three games when the running attack was underutilized.

Michael Smith’s hamstring injury would have been a critical blow early

last year, but Dennis Johnson had a 107-yard performance in Smith’s place last

week. Smith (325 yards, 2 TDs) had one breakout game, 145 yards vs. Auburn, and

is questionable this week against Ole Miss.

Broderick Green (114 yards, 4 TDs) is running tougher in short yardage

and helping in the passing game. Ronnie Wingo (174 yards, 1 TD) had a flash of

brilliance with his 62-yard touchdown against Texas A&M.

This group also has 245 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns

combined and has blocked pretty well.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Through six games last season, the Hogs had allowed 22 sacks on their way

to 46. This year, Arkansas has given up just 12 for 73 yards at the halfway

point.

Pass protection is significantly better, and now that the Razorbacks have

made more of a commitment to the running game, the blocking in that department

is showing much more consistency. Seth Oxner has been a solid first year starter

at center, while the return of guard Mitch Petrus, paired with DeMarcus Love on

the strong side, has been critical for the front.

Tight end D.J. Williams isn’t getting the number of catches he had last

season, but his blocking has been more than commendable.

False starts and holding calls were killers against Georgia and Alabama,

but the linemen have cleaned up their performance in that area in recent weeks.

RECEIVERS

Remember that vow by sophomores Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright

to lead Arkansas in becoming the best receiving corps in the nation?

They are on the fast track in that regard, though the indefinite loss of

Adams (mild stroke) is a harsh blow. Childs (25 catches, 480 yards, 5 TDs) is

rapidly putting together a body of work that will catch the eye of NFL scouts,

while Wright (19-358, 2) has slowed after a fast start.

Seniors London Crawford and Lucas Miller returned from broken collarbones

just as Adams went down, so they’ve contributed, though not at the game-breaking

pace of Adams. Williams needs a couple of more touches per game. Freshman Cobi

Hamilton has had flashes, much like last year’s freshmen did, but he’s been up

and down.

DEFENSIVE LINE

It took a few games for this group to crank up the pocket-collapsing, but

they have been excellent the past three weeks.

Jake Bequette and D.D. Jones had two sacks each of Tim Tebow last week,

Malcolm Sheppard is the team leader with eight tackles for loss, and Adrian

Davis tops the sack count with three. Zach Stadther is playing well, and he’s

been the designated fumble recoverer the past two weeks.

This unit’s gap control also has been much stronger in recent games, and

it looks like the Razorbacks are steadily becoming a decent run-stopping team.

LINEBACKERS

Wendel Davis is playing with the speed and strength of a confident

veteran in a familiar system. Davis has a team-high 40 tackles at middle

linebacker and has been involved in three takeaways. Jerry Franklin made a

costly mistake in being ejected against Georgia, but the sophomore has responded

with several big outings. Franklin (34 tackles) has a pair of fumble recoveries,

one for an 85-yard score, and he joined the sack parade on Tim Tebow last week.

Jerico Nelson (32 tackles) had a massive performance against Auburn,

including a sack and forced fumble, but he wasn’t much of a factor last week.

Freddy Burton has lost some reps against Spread teams in recent games, but he

has 21 tackles and he’s been a steady force on special teams.

SECONDARY

A few weeks after back-to-back disappointing showings against Georgia and

Alabama, this unit has battled back.

Coverage by cornerbacks Rudell Crim, Andru Stewart, Ramon Broadway and

David Gordon has been much better, even with a few questionable pass

interference calls thrown in. Stewart’s emergence has been critical, much like

Elton Ford’s return to the safety rotation. Ford’s tackling is the best of the

bunch.

Tramain Thomas loves to hit, and he has a nose (and a foot) for

turnovers, but he must run through his tackles better. Matt Harris has been

playing smart as usual, and he’s improved his play against the running game

while the coaches try to get Anthony Leon more game ready.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The highlight has been Dennis Johnson’s rise in becoming one of the

country’s best kick returners.

Johnson was critical in the victory over Auburn, and he outperformed

Florida’s more-hyped Brandon James last week. His average of 31.4 yards per

return is eighth in the NCAA.

Arkansas’ coverage teams have been solid virtually all season. The same

could not be said of the punt return unit, which ranks 113th with a minuscule

3.2-yard average. Punting is below average, with true freshman Dylan Breeding at

75th nationally with an average of 39.2 yards. The team’s net punting (33.8) is

91st.

It looked like the coaches did everything possible to help Alex Tejada’s

confidence, with only midrange and short field goals through five games. But

when he was really needed last week, Tejada reverted to his punching style and

misfired from 40 and 38 yards.

COACHING

Make no mistake, this is an intense group that exerts so much mental

pressure and physical conditioning demands on its players that game day feels

like a reward.

Arkansas is clearly becoming a stronger team, literally and emotionally,

and the Razorbacks appear ready to challenge and contend with any comers. This

attitude is a direct outgrowth of the coaching style of Petrino and his staff.

The offensive staff seemed overly enamored with the pass the first month,

but they have balanced things nicely the past three weeks.

The defensive plans – even against Alabama – have looked sound, making

the Georgia debacle seem more like an aberration and a product of losing

linebacker Jerry Franklin than the norm. The defensive personnel looks to be

playing fast and physical and forcing turnovers, all good signs.