By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Bobby Petrino led his team into the 2009 season with tempered [outside] expectations. The Razorbacks were young and unproven at
many positions, and the SEC was loaded as usual.
After beating up on Missouri State in the opener, the Razorbacks suffered
back-to-back losses to open league action against Georgia and eventual
national champion Alabama. The Razorbacks got back over .500 with wins over
Texas A&M and Auburn, and the team had a tremendous opportunity to upset
Florida on October 17th. Unfortunately, that tilt resulted in a 23-20 setback,
and a 30-17 loss to Ole Miss in the following outing dropped Arkansas to 3-4
overall and 1-4 in league action. That's when the Razorbacks reached the
softest portion of their schedule and took full advantage, knocking off
Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Troy and Mississippi State in succession.
At 7-4, the team had earned bowl eligibility, and while the regular-season
finale did end in defeat at LSU in overtime, a Liberty Bowl berth was still
awarded to the Hogs. They matched up with East Carolina of Conference USA in
what proved to be one of the most competitive games of the 2009-10 bowl
season. The end result was a 20-17 triumph for Petrino and company, putting
the cap on an eight-win campaign.
OFFENSE: When discussing the Arkansas offense, it all starts with standout
quarterback Ryan Mallett.
"He's a young man that's a tremendous leader for us, has amazing talent," says
Petrino of his signal caller. "Every Saturday when you watch the video after
the game, he makes two or three throws that you say, Wow, nobody else might be
able to make that throw in America."
In his first season as the starter for Arkansas, Mallett, a transfer from
Michigan, led his team to 36.0 ppg, good for first in the SEC and ninth
nationally. The Razorbacks paced the SEC in passing (295.3 ypg), and Mallett
finished the campaign with 3,624 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
He is expected to be one of the top picks in whichever NFL Draft he enters
(2011 or 2012), but the more immediate goal is winning the SEC Championship.
Mallett, who has seemingly recovered nicely from offseason foot surgery, is
surrounded by big-time talent at the skill positions, including three
returning starters at wide receiver and the return of tight end D.J. Williams,
who is the best player at his position in the SEC. Greg Childs, one of the
returning receivers, turned 48 catches into 894 yards and seven touchdowns
last season, impressive to say the least.
Sure, tailback Michael Smith is gone, but there are a few talented runners who
are more than capable of filling the void. Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Dennis Johnson
are two obvious candidates, and it is likely that the Razorbacks will employ a
The offensive line is loaded with talent despite the loss of Mitch Petrus, an
DEFENSE: The most obvious reason that Arkansas finished two games below the
.500 mark in SEC action a year ago was its poor defensive play. The Razorbacks
ranked last in the league in passing defense and total defense, while placing
ninth in scoring defense (25.1 ppg). With those poor rankings in mind, it is
surprising that Arkansas still managed to place second in the SEC and sixth
nationally in turnover margin (+15).
Jerry Franklin posted 94 tackles last season, including 51 of the solo
variety, but there is enough significant talent at linebacker that Franklin
may not start come the season opener against Tennessee Tech. Up front, junior
defensive end Jake Bequette hopes to build on the 5.5 sacks he posted a year
ago. Willy Robinson, the defensive coordinator of the squad, was the target of
much criticism in 2009, largely because his secondary couldn't stop anyone.
Things should be better this year, as an improved pass rush and an infusion of
young talent will help. "We're excited about Isaac coming back," says Petrino
of Isaac Madison, a junior corner. "He played almost every snap two years ago
for us. In camp last year, he got injured, missed the entire season. He's done
an excellent job in his rehab."
SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior placekicker Alex Tejada nailed the game-winning kick in
the Liberty Bowl, but he has been wildly inconsistent in his career and could
lose his job if he struggles early on. The same can be said for punter Dylan
Breeding, as his 38.7-yard average just isn't good enough in the SEC, where
field position is critical. On a positive note, the special teams features a
tremendous kickoff returner in Dennis Johnson.
OUTLOOK: "Expectations are very high," says coach Petrino. "There's no
question about that. It starts with our players, which is a good thing."
Fans and scouts will be fixated on televisions whenever Mallett is on the
field, as he has the potential to be a star at the next level. Sure, the
Razorbacks will put up plenty of points, but is this defense good enough to
lead the team to the SEC title? Not yet, and if Mallett leaves after this
season, next year won't yield the crown either.