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June 25, 2009
THE SCHEME: Arkansas runs the power spread, a pro-style attack designed to feature an even balance between running and passing.
STAR POWER: D.J. Williams has established himself as one of the five best tight ends in the nation. As a first-year starter last season, Williams proved a natural fit for coach Bobby Petrino's offense. He caught 61 passes for 723 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Razorbacks in all three categories. BYU's Dennis Pitta is the only returning tight end who averaged more catches per game last season, and Pitta, Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham and Arizona's Rob Gronkowski are the only returning tight ends who averaged more receiving yards per game last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: This one's a no-brainer. Sophomore QB Ryan Mallett was ranked as the nation's No. 4 overall prospect when he enrolled at Michigan two years ago. Michigan won each of the three games he started in 2007. When new Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez brought the spread option to Ann Arbor last year, Mallett decided to move closer to home (he's from Texarkana, Texas). Arkansas fans have eagerly anticipated his Razorbacks debut. Mallett injured the ring finger on his throwing hand late last month, but the situation shouldn't affect his readiness for the 2009 season, and he should be throwing again by the end of June. He went 15-of-26 for 233 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the spring game.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Arkansas didn't have a single wide receiver finish the 2008 season with more than 490 receiving yards, but sophomore Jarius Wright could develop into a go-to receiver this fall. Wright had 19 catches for 348 yards and two touchdowns last season as a true freshman, but 281 of those yards and both scores came in the final four games of the season. Wright had five catches for 112 yards in a victory over previously unbeaten Tulsa and had a 46-yard touchdown catch to spark a come-from-behind upset of LSU. Wright carried that momentum into the offseason, as he caught seven passes for 125 yards in the spring game.
STRONGEST AREA: Arkansas' offensive backfield has plenty of questions, but it also features plenty of star power. While we're hesitant to get carried away with a quarterback who hasn't taken a snap for his current team, Mallett ought to thrive while working for Petrino, who has a reputation as a quarterback guru. Senior RB Michael Smith also is back after rushing for 1,072 yards and eight touchdowns last season, including 630 yards in a four-game stretch against Florida, Auburn, Kentucky and Ole Miss. Smith struggled with injuries in 2007, and Petrino plans to use more of a committee approach at running back this year to keep Smith from wearing down. Can Mallett live up to his potential? Will Smith stay healthy all season? If the Razorbacks answer both those questions affirmatively, they should have one of the top backfields in the SEC.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Arkansas returns three starters on the line and welcomes back 2007 starting guard Mitch Petrus, who redshirted last season. But the Razorbacks still could struggle up front without C Jonathan Luigs, the 2007 Rimington Trophy winner. Even with Luigs in the lineup last season, Arkansas allowed 46 sacks. Hawaii was the only team to allow more sacks per game last year. Smith's injury history, Mallett's inexperience and the lack of proven wide receivers also offer cause for concern.
THE SCHEME: Arkansas maintained its standard 4-3 defense even after Petrino's staff arrived last season with new coordinator Willy Robinson, who previously held the same position at Fresno State, Oregon State and with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Robinson will be looking to upgrade a defense that finished at the bottom of the SEC in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass efficiency defense.
STAR POWER: This young unit lacks proven standouts, and senior T Malcolm Sheppard is the closest thing the Razorbacks have to a star on this side of the ball. Sheppard finished second on the team last season with 68 tackles – an unusually high total for an interior lineman – and also recorded 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He averaged 1.33 tackles for loss per game to rank second in the SEC. Sheppard earned second-team All-SEC honors last season. He has focused on adding weight during the offseason.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Arkansas definitely must upgrade its secondary. The Razorbacks' search for answers could lead to early playing time for highly touted recruits Darius Winston and Rudell Crim. Winston, a five-star prospect, was the No. 3 cornerback in the 2009 recruiting class. Crim, the nation's No. 7 junior college prospect, could step in right away at safety.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: LB Wendel Davis could be headed for a breakthrough performance as a senior. Davis changed his uniform number from 47 to 10 this spring to reflect that this season represents a fresh start. Davis missed the first part of the 2008 season with a hand injury, but he started the final seven games and had 12 tackles in a loss to Florida. The defense clearly improved once he returned to the lineup. If Davis can stay healthy, he could emerge as a leader for a defense relying heavily on underclassmen.
STRONGEST AREA: Arkansas has plenty of experience at linebacker, where Davis, Freddy Burton and Jerry Franklin combined for 206 tackles last season. Arkansas' line doesn't feature many big names beyond Sheppard, but the Razorbacks also return all four starters there.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The secondary is a major question mark. CBs Ramon Broadway and Isaac Madison combined for 17 starts last season, but they struggled for much of the year. FS Elton Ford missed the last four games of 2008 with a neck injury that prevented him from participating in contact drills this spring, and he could lose his starting job. The biggest reasons for optimism are the pending arrivals of Winston and Crim plus the return of Jerico Nelson, who is versatile enough to play both safety spots and nickelback.
K Alex Tejada returns and will attempt to regain his 2007 form after going just 4-of-9 on field-goal attempts last season. Tejada didn't make a single field goal from beyond 30 yards last season. The favorite to win the punting job is Briton Forester, a Palomar (Calif.) College transfer who began his college career at Hawaii. This area of the team could get a boost from the arrival of former Michigan State and Louisville coach John L. Smith, who has reunited with Petrino by joining the staff as the special teams coach.
It's unfair to judge Petrino based on the 2007 season, as Arkansas was expected to struggle as the Razorbacks broke in plenty of first-year starters on defense while the offense tried to replace first-round picks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. This season should represent a greater measure of this staff's strength, particularly since Mallett seems like an ideal fit for Petrino's system. The past two years haven't been kind to Petrino, but remember this is the same guy who led Louisville to an Orange Bowl title three seasons ago. Petrino has surrounded himself with a group of experienced assistants. Smith's arrival is the only major change to the staff, which includes five guys with NFL coaching experience and five assistants who have worked as coordinators.
It's hard to imagine Arkansas losing home games against Missouri State and Eastern Michigan. It's also difficult to see the Razorbacks winning on the road against Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss or LSU. That means the season will come down to how they fare in six games: Sept. 19 vs. Georgia, Oct. 3 at Texas A&M, Oct. 10 vs. Auburn, Nov. 7 vs. South Carolina, Nov. 14 vs. Troy and Nov. 21 vs. Mississippi State. If the Razorbacks win four of those, they should earn a bowl bid. The schedule isn't particularly balanced. After opening the season at home against Missouri State and Georgia, Arkansas goes on the road for four of its next five games. The Razorbacks then return home for four games in a row before closing the season at LSU.
Arkansas' upset of LSU in its 2008 regular-season finale provided cause for optimism, but Razorbacks fans shouldn't get carried away with that result. This team remains at least a year or two away from seriously contending for the SEC West title. Although the defense has improved, it still figures to rank as the worst in the SEC. Arkansas does have the potential for a top-20 offense if everything works out. Mallett has the pure physical skills to develop into one of the best passing quarterbacks in recent Arkansas history. Smith could run for up to 1,500 yards if he manages to stay healthy. The running game should be better overall if the Razorbacks find an adequate replacement for Luigs. But will all those things happen? We're not quite sure. But there is plenty of reason for hope. Getting to Atlanta isn't a realistic goal, but reaching a bowl is attainable. If the Razorbacks could finish 5-7 in a nightmare season last year, they ought to be able to improve that record by a win or two now that Mallett has arrived and the roster has been able to adjust to Petrino's system. If Mallett is as good as advertised, Smith stays healthy and the defense improves, Arkansas ought to go at least 7-5. Even if the Razorbacks accomplish just one or two of those goals, they should manage to finish 6-6.
– STEVE MEGARGEE
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.