When Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis decided to bypass the NFL draft and return to Arkansas for another season in January, they had no idea what they were signing up for.
The standout Razorbacks duo talked with each other about all the possibilities for this season while making their decisions: Beating Alabama and LSU, individual awards, championships. What they didn't expect was a change at head coach, a daily soap opera during spring practice and entering this season as one of the most dissected teams in college football.
Arkansas returns to the practice field for the first time since spring on Thursday to start preparing for a season with championship aspirations - not just in the brutal SEC but national as well.
The Razorbacks will look much different, most notably with new coach John L. Smith leading the way. Smith was given a 10-month contract in April following the firing of Bobby Petrino after his motorcycle accident with football staffer Jessica Dorrell and the revelation of their affair.
Smith left his former position as an assistant coach with the Razorbacks last season to become the coach at Weber State, his alma mater. The former Michigan State and Louisville coach is eager to return to the position of head coach during a game for the first time since being fired by the Spartans following the 2006 season.
''You can smell that football's in the air,'' Smith said. ''I think we're all anxious. I think every year you get anxious about this time, and that's the way our football team is, they're anxious.''
Arkansas had its first taste of the post-Petrino era in the spring, finishing the last few weeks of practice without the former coach as his affair hit the headlines.
Throughout the turmoil, the Razorbacks remained focused on improving on an 11-2 season last year, one that ended with a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State. They did so behind a core group of upperclassmen who had grown up under Petrino's rigid guidance, and it was Wilson and Davis who were at the forefront of the leadership from within.
Wilson earned first-team All-SEC honors at quarterback last season, throwing for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as the starter for Arkansas. The Greenwood, Ark., native had paid his dues while serving as the backup to former Razorbacks quarterback Ryan Mallett, and the lack of a long-term head coach during spring pushed him to find leadership qualities he didn't know he had.
The best example of that leadership came prior to the team's spring game when strength and conditioning coach Jason Veltkamp asked Wilson to lead the team in its final pregame huddle, a role normally reserved for the head coach. Wilson was excited at the chance to take charge, calling the team around him, and his steady hand and guidance through the Petrino fallout now has him in position to be remembered by Arkansas fans as one of the best the school has ever had.
''(Wilson's) evolved so much in the last 6-7 months since the end of last season,'' Veltkamp said. ''He's really taken off, to the point where he runs everything. You can hear his voice out over everyone else. It's commanding, just grabs respect from the guys.''
Wilson said the difficult spring might actually help the Razorbacks prepare for and during this season.
''I do think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,'' Wilson said. ''I just think we feel like a lot of people doubt us, and we're ready to go.''
Like Wilson, Davis enters this season full of expectations. The junior missed all of last season following an ankle injury in the preseason, but he led all SEC running backs in rushing with 1,322 yards two seasons ago.
Davis practiced in the spring following his injury but has yet to face live contact. His progress this fall will be closely watched and he's well aware the Razorbacks will face constant questioning about their ability to succeed following Petrino's firing.
''We have a lot to prove, but I'm comfortable and confident in this team,'' Davis said. ''We all know what we're doing. Everybody understands the game plans, understands what we're doing. That's when we were at our best last year, and we'll be ready this year.''
Veltkamp has worked with some of college football's best during his time at Utah, Louisville and now Arkansas. That includes former Utes quarterback Alex Smith and the Cardinals tandem of quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush.
Veltkamp said Wilson and Davis were exactly the right pair to help lead the Razorbacks through the uncharted territory in the spring, just as they are now.
''These two are both better leaders, especially playing off of each other, then any two that I've ever been around,'' Veltkamp said. ''There's something special about these two, and not just in their talent. They've got something to them, got an edge to them mentally right now that I think could turn into big things for them, both this season and in the future.''