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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two-A-Days: Arkansas Razorbacks

Over the past few weeks, I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a big-picture look at the SEC and a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

To read the previous entries in the series, click HERE.

The 12th entry in the series is the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Head coach: Bobby Petrino (2nd season)
2008 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Total Offense: 373.03 (4th SEC, 49th overall)
Total Defense: 375.17 ypg (12th SEC, 72nd overall)
On the docket: The Razorbacks open against Missouri State on Sept. 5, then have a bye week before hosting Georgia on Sept. 19.

Plenty of buzz -- and controversy -- surrounded the hiring of Bobby Petrino at Arkansas last year, and his debut for the Hogs didn't exactly bowl anyone over. While his predecessor, Houston Nutt, turned around Ole Miss quickly, Petrino struggled to find consistency on offense or any semblance of a defense. There will be plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball in 2009, however, so could Petrino's second effort provide much better results than his first? I went to Alex Abrams of the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas to find out.

David Hale: The big question of the spring seems to surround the quarterbacks at Arkansas. Ryan Mallett gets his first chance to play after transferring from Michigan, so how has he looked so far? Is he capable of making a significant impact immediately?

Alex Abrams:
Mallett has shown throughout the spring that he has a cannon for an arm, something that has been lacking over the past few years. He's the type of quarterback that will allow Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino to spread out the field and run the type of pass-happy offense that he's known for. The biggest question surrounding Mallett -- and the possibility of him being the quarterback of the future -- is whether he can stay out of trouble. Petrino was disappointed when Mallett was arrested in the offseason for public intoxication.

DH: Michael Smith went down with a pretty nasty hamstring injury. Has he been able to participate at all in spring practice, and have any of the other tailbacks stepped up in his absence this spring?

Smith has been able to take part in the final week of spring practice, and he appears to be getting over the hamstring injury that sidelined him at the end of last season. The bigger concern for Petrino might be the way the backfield has been depleted lately by injuries. At the start of spring, the Razorbacks had a crowded backfield, but since then, senior Brandon Barnett has suffered a broken tibia, freshman Knile Davis broke his ankle and sophomore Dennis Johnson has been sidelined with a swollen foot. Needless to say, Smith's expected return in the fall will definitely be welcomed.

DH: Arkansas' defense returns all seven of its starters up front. Given that the Hogs finished dead last in the SEC in rush defense and scoring defense, that may not necessarily be a good thing. How has the defense looked this spring, and do you see any reasons to expect a major improvement in 2009?

Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson is well aware of how bad things went for his unit last season. The coaches tried to address some of the problems in the offseason workout program. Each starting defensive lineman gained at least 10 pounds, so that might prevent opposing teams from pushing around the defensive front as much in 2009. Spring practice has helped as well. Defensive ends Adrian Davis and Jake Bequette have dominated some of the scrimmages, and middle linebacker Wendel Davis has shown that he could be a force next season. There are still questions in the secondary, but I'd be surprised if the defense isn't improved next season.

DH: While the front seven returns all its starters, three of the four starters in the secondary will be new. How has that group looked this spring, and are there any potential difference makers there?

It's hard to judge Arkansas' secondary because several players who will likely compete for starting jobs in the fall aren't on campus yet. Coaches will give a long look at five-star recruit Darius Winston in the fall for one of the cornerback positions. That said, junior Ramon Broadway has continued to make plays and show that he deserves to keep his starting cornerback job. Sophomore Tramain Thomas is pushing senior Matt Harris for the starting free safety position. But the secondary has continued to give up some big plays, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by Robinson.

DH: After seeing the team this spring, what jumped out at you in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions Arkansas still needs to answer before the season begins?

It became apparent early on that wide receivers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright could be on the verge of having breakout years. Both players showed flashes as freshmen, but with one year under their belts and the likelihood of Mallett throwing to them, both sophomores could turn out to be big playmakers for Arkansas. Meanwhile, quarterback Tyler Wilson has pushed Mallett for the starting job with his good arm and ability to throw on the run. Heading into the fall, Petrino must find some consistency with his offensive line, figure out who will play in the secondary and try to correct the special-team mistakes that cost them last season.

* Alex Abrams has been the Arkansas football beat writer for The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas since 2006. Over the past three years, he has covered two Heisman Trophy ceremonies, one coaching change and more Houston Nutt drama than anyone outside of Arkansas would want to read. His articles can be found HERE and his Hog Blog can be found HERE.

NEXT UP: The LSU Tigers with New Orleans Times-Picayune beat writer James Varney.

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