Arkansas' hopes remain high despite wild offseason

Arkansas' hopes remain high despite wild offseason

Published Aug. 15, 2012 11:15 p.m. ET

As offseasons go, chalk Arkansas' up as one of a kind.

The Razorbacks had anything but a normal go of it in the wake of coach Bobby Petrino's firing in April for lying to his boss about his affair with a 25-year-old football staffer after crashing his Harley-Davidson with her aboard.

Yet the expectations haven't changed for a team whose only losses last season came to national champion Alabama and runner-up LSU - especially one that returns Heisman Trophy hopefuls at quarterback (Tyler Wilson) and running back (Knile Davis). It's Southeastern Conference championship or bust for Arkansas this season.

Whatever happens after that is just fine for Petrino's successor, former Michigan State and Louisville coach John L. Smith.


The ever-entertaining Smith was hired under a 10-month contract in April. He uses the words ''national championship'' without hesitation, a goal he sees as realistic for a program that's 21-5 over the last two seasons. Smith also sees a veteran team that bonded throughout the Petrino saga last spring, one whose ultimate fate will likely be determined with how it reacts to his gentle touch after Petrino's iron fist.

''I think we have an opportunity, without a doubt, to make something special happen and to be something special this year,'' Smith said. ''Those opportunities don't come around all the time in life, but I think our football team ... We're trying to express that, `Hey, we have an opportunity to do something special this year. Let's go do it.'''

Smith's return to Arkansas after a four-month absence was lauded by the Razorbacks. He had left his position as the Razorbacks' special teams' coordinator to become the head coach at his alma matter, Weber State, but athletic director Jeff Long saw Smith and his close relationship with the players as the perfect move after Petrino's ouster.

Smith sees himself as the long-term solution for Arkansas - not just a 10-month option. He and the players also know they both have to earn their keep this season, all the while with the uncertainty of Long's coaching search hanging over their heads.

''Right now, that's not a concern at all,'' Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker said. ''For the big guys, that's all their concern. For us as players, we just have to play under (Smith). If we win, we want him to stay here. Absolutely, we don't want anybody else. But the season determines that.''

The season itself has been viewed as almost a relief of sorts for the Razorbacks, following the chaotic spring. They are determined to not let the mistakes of their former coach affect what they hope is a dream season.

''I think everyone knows that Bobby set in place what we're about to do this year, but it's really the players that got us here,'' safety Ross Rasner said. ''Coaches will come and go, but it's the players that build the foundation of a program and I think we're still playing off that.''

That foundation is about as solid as they come, led by Wilson. The first-team All-SEC quarterback threw for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns last year as a junior, and he bypassed the NFL draft in order to return for one final chance at winning Arkansas' first SEC championship since entering the league in 1992.

Wilson evolved from first-year starter last year to the unquestioned leader from within following Petrino's firing. Along with Davis, who led all SEC running backs in rushing yardage two years ago before missing last season with an ankle injury, the Razorbacks have an offensive duo equal to any in the country.

Arkansas must find reliable replacements for a trio of receivers (Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright) drafted into the NFL after last season. It must also improve dramatically on defense under first-year coordinator Paul Hayes, following last season's 9th-best showing in the conference, if it hopes to close the gap with SEC West foes Alabama and LSU.

The positive for the Razorbacks is they face both the Crimson Tide and Tigers at home this season, though they must find a way to overcome last season's losses to the pair by a combined 79-31. Wilson, a native of Greenwood, Ark., who grew up cheering for Arkansas, believes it's possible - taking his cue from Smith's stated goal of a ''national championship.''

''We haven't hesitated in five years to say that word,'' Wilson said. ''It's what our (Petrino) said the first meeting he ever had with the guys, and that's why I came to school here. I've witnessed a number of years being a spectator, being a fan of the University of Arkansas, when I didn't feel like we had a chance to compete nationally. Now we do.''