Camp Opens: March 14
Spring Game: April 21
Simply put, the 2011 season was the one that Bobby Petrino had been building for since he arrived in Fayetteville. His team returned most of its defense, and a handful of explosive offensive playmakers to compliment new quarterback Tyler Wilson. But before the season could even begin, the Hogs best player- running back Knile Davis- suffered an ankle injury and was lost for the year.
Bad news, right?
Not exactly, because rather than losing all hope, the Hogs instead put together one of the best seasons in program history. Despite Davis missing the entire 2011 season, Arkansas finished 11-2, with their sole losses coming at Alabama and at LSU, two teams that combined to lose zero games to anyone but each other last fall. For all intents and purposes, Arkansas was basically the third best team in college football last year.
Now, the tough part. With Davis and Wilson back, these are supposed to be high times in Fayetteville, especially as Arkansas gets set to host both LSU and Alabama, a favorable scheduling quirk if ever there was one.
At the same time, with most of the receiving corps gone, and a reloaded defense, is another 10-win season still possible?
Stability Factor (1 = chaos; 5 = rock solid): 4.5
If I’d told you five years ago that any program headed by Bobby Petrino would end up as one of the most stable in college football, not only would you have laughed at me, you would’ve asked for a psychological evaluation.
Only that’s exactly what the Hogs are. Petrino enters year five in Fayetteville with a program that has his fingerprints all over it. The Hogs pass the ball, and do it insanely well, but Petrino has also been smart enough to add an SEC flair to his coaching style. Along with the deep bombs, the Hogs run between the tackles and play fantastic defense.
Few programs are in better position now, and going forward, than Arkansas is.
Under The Microscope: Wide Receivers
Given that Arkansas lost three of the most productive receivers in program history (Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright), how could anyone but the receivers be under the microscope?
And while Petrino is known for his development of offensive playmakers, even he has a task ahead of him this spring. Cobi Hamilton returns after catching 34 balls this past year, but otherwise this unit is thin. Look for sophomore Marquel Wade to step into a primary spot, and also for Petrino to rely on steady Chris Gragg at tight end.
Locked And Loaded: Quarterback Tyler Wilson
It doesn’t get more locked or more loaded, then the most talented quarterback in the SEC, Tyler Wilson. The fifth-year senior (and one of Petrino’s first recruits at Arkansas) elected to return to school for his final year of eligibility, and because of it, the Hogs are firmly in the National Title picture because of it.
Despite playing behind a young offensive line that- too often- left him out to dry (and some would say, left him for dead), Wilson still finished the 2011 season with over 3,600 yards passing and 24 touchdowns.
Wilson should spend most of the 2012 season comfortably in the Heisman discussion.
Jockeying For Position: The Entire Defense
Ok, so maybe saying that the “entire defense” is jockeying for position is a little bit of a cop-out. Veterans like Tenarius Wright (defensive end), linebacker Alonzo Highsmith (linebacker) and cornerback Darius Winston are firmly entrenched at their spots (even as Highsmith misses spring ball with a pectoral injury). But otherwise? No one else has their spot locked down.
And really, beyond just finding starters, building depth will be a key into the spring and summer. The truth is that you can never fully replace guys like Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin and Tremain Thomas, but in the SEC West, you at least have to find guys who can plug holes and hold their own.
Junior college transfer Austin Flynn is a name to keep an eye on at defensive end.
Name To Know: Knile Davis
Yes, you already know Davis’ name, but his ability to fully recover from a devastating ankle injury last fall will be the difference between Arkansas being a “good” team and a potential National Title contender.
Two years ago he ripped through the SEC West with 1,322 yards on the ground, including five straight 100-yard games to close the year. If he can be anything close to that in 2012, this team can beat anyone on their schedule.
Spring Will Be A Success If: Everyone Stays Healthy
What Bobby Petrino has done so far in Fayetteville is simply one of the most underrated coaching jobs in the country. To go to a school that plays in the toughest division, in the toughest conference in college football, and turn a program with no natural recruiting base and not a ton of recent success into a national power year-in and year-out is simply mind-boggling.
As good as Petrino has things going though, one thing he doesn’t have the luxury of is depth, and keeping everyone healthy this spring will be key.
If he can though, watch out. The Hogs could be primed for a title run next fall.
For all his opinion, insight and articles on college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.
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