2009 SEC Preview: Arkansas

2009 SEC Football Previews | Gate 21

Raise your hand if you had Arkansas – in their first year after losing Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and their top six tacklers – winning five games last year.

If you aren’t an optimistic fan in a Hawg hat and your hand’s up, you’re lying.

The first five games of the Bobby Petrino era in Fayetteville were bleak. The Razorbacks needed minor miracles to beat I-AA Western Illinois (Arkansas converted a late fourth and ten and scored with 1:49 left) and UL Monroe (down 24-6 in the third quarter, Arkansas rallied and got another late fourth down conversion) before getting blasted at home by Alabama (49-14), at Texas (52-10) and at home against Florida (38-7).

Arkansas then went to Auburn and stunned the Tigers, before falling by a combined three points to Kentucky and Ole Miss. After losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State, Arkansas got the type of win that can jumpstart a program.

Down 30-14 early in the second half, much-maligned senior Casey Dick came off the bench and led the comeback, throwing this TD pass to London Crawford with under 30 seconds left for the win and a wave of offseason optimism.

But how much noise can the Razorbacks make in a top-heavy SEC West with a difficult schedule?

Schedule Breakdown

    Assumed wins:

  • Missouri State (at Little Rock)
  • Eastern Michigan
  • Troy (however, the Trojans did lead LSU 31-3 in the third quarter at LSU last year before losing…)
  • Mississippi State
  • Assumed losses:

  • at Alabama
  • at Florida
  • at Ole Miss
  • Toss-ups:

  • Georgia (they catch the Bulldogs early in the year)
  • Texas A&M (this game’s being played at the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas)
  • Auburn
  • South Carolina
  • at LSU


Backfield: By no means is this group near the caliber of the McFadden-Jones-Peyton Hillis triumvirate, but it’s a pretty good group, led by senior Michael Smith, the speedy bowling ball of a back that ran for over 1,100 yards last year.

It’s not just Smith, though. Dennis Johnson made his biggest impact last year on kick returns (averaging 22 yards per), and a preseason injury slowed down highly-touted true freshman De’Anthony Curtis.

Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams caught 61 passes last year - second in the SEC

While Smith, Johnson and Curtis are three small, speedy, scat-back types that fit Petrino’s pass-first offense very well, there could be a bigger back added to the mix. Broderick Green, another four-star back who originally committed to USC, has transferred back to Arkansas, closer to his Little Rock home. It’s unknown whether he’ll be eligible to play in 2009, but he could come in and make in impact.

TE D.J. Williams (Jr.): If you’re talking about the SEC’s best tight ends, Florida’s Aaron Hernandez probably comes to find first. But you’re forgetting D.J. Williams, who became Arkansas’ top receiver last year. Williams was second in the conference with 61 catches (behind only LSU’s Brandon LaFell) and seventh in receiving yards per game. He was the first team all-SEC tight end last year and figures to be a huge part of the Arkansas offense this season.

DE Malcolm Sheppard (Sr.): Sheppard was the second leading tackler on the team last year (from the defensive end position no less) and the team leader in sacks. On an Arkansas defense that was fairly porous last year (allowing 31 points a game), the one area Arkansas was statistically decent in was sacks. Sheppard, with fellow senior Adrian Davis on the opposite end of the line, anchor a defensive front seven which sees everybody return.


Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett takes over the Bobby Petrino passing offense

QB Ryan Mallett (So.) and the Wide receivers: When Petrino was hired, the obvious question was going to be how Arkansas was going to transform from a running team with McFadden and Jones to the type of passing offense Petrino used to take the Louisville program to an elite level. The key to that would obviously be the quarterback position. Petrino had Stefan LeFors (now in the CFL) and Brian Brohm at Louisville, but had nobody close to that level at Arkansas.

That is, until Rich Rodriguez was hired at Michigan and then true freshman Ryan Mallett transferred to Fayetteville. After sitting out a year, Mallett’s the guy this season, and he’s got the tools as a former five-star quarterback recruit who went 3-0 filling in for Chad Henne his freshman year of 2007.

He’s certainly got some targets at his disposal. We’ve already mentioned the running backs and D.J. Williams, but Arkansas has some wideouts. Seniors London Crawford and Lucas Miller and sophomores Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs all come back to help Mallett adjust to a year off from live football and the speed of the SEC.

Offensive line: The Arkansas offensive line gave up a whopping 46 sacks last year, the second most in all of college football. Obviously the aforementioned run-to-pass blocking transition had quite a bit to do with that, but that’s an area where Arkansas certainly must improve. They do lose center Jonathan Luigs and tackle Jose Valdez, but overall they are probably more experienced and in the second year of a new system.

Defensive improvement: In addition to the offensive line issues, Arkansas gave up 31 points per game last year, the worst defense in the conference. They do return 10 starters, including the entire front seven, so you have to think they will be better this year.

DE Malcolm Sheppard was the sacks leader for an Arkansas defense that gave up 31 ppg in 2008

What’s New, but Maybe Not Improved

G Mitch Petrus (Sr.): Petrus was a second team all-SEC player back in 2007, but was ineligible last season. He returns and will likely start on the offensive line. His re-addition certainly helps the offensive line situation in terms of running the ball and protection.

The second year factor: Urban Meyer won a national championship in his second season. Nick Saban led Alabama to a 12-0 start in his second season. Though I don’t think Petrino is due for similar success given the current state of the division and the schedule Arkansas faces, certainly the next step would be a bowl game for a program that seems to be building.

John L. Smith: One of Phil Steele’s numerous complicated sets of numbers ranks every special teams unit, taking placekicking, punting and the return game into account. Arkansas was #94 on this list. To improve that area, Petrino brought in former Louisville and Michigan State head coach John L. Smith to coach outside linebackers and oversee the Razorbacks’ special teams. Obviously, Petrino never saw this sequence…

HSH’s Bold Prediction

Many pundits and experts and media-types see Arkansas as a darkhorse team that could really make some noise this season. Though they will likely be better and should certainly make a bowl game – an important step for Arkansas under Petrino – I see their schedule being a serious obstacle to challenging the SEC West favorites. Four really tough road trips – Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU – and important home games against Georgia, Auburn and South Carolina will test this young team. Best-case scenario I see is probably 9 wins, but I think reaching the 7- or 8-win mark is more likely.

About Home Sweet Home... … to me.

Images Courtesy of: Andy Shupe / Northwest Arkansas Times • Mary Ann Chastain / AP

About the Author: I'm from Memphis but I'm now entering my third year at the University of Tennessee here in Knoxville. I am majoring in Journalism/Electronic Media and hope to go into sports broadcasting/writing/something like that. I'm a huge Vol fan and have been going to games for as long as I can remember. I started my on blog called "The View From The Hill" but moved here to Gate 21 for bigger and better things. In addition to my passion for Tennessee football and basketball, I enjoy watching the NFL and the NBA as well. Basically, sports are a big part of my life. >> Read more from this author

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6 Responses to “2009 SEC Preview: Arkansas”

  • hooperNo Gravatar says:

    The John L. Smith hire makes more sense when you remember that Petrino coached under him three times (QB coach / OC at Idaho; OC at Utah State; OC at Louisville). The familiarity had a lot to do with it, I’m sure.

    I’m a little more bearish on Arky’s chances against LSU. For one, LSU will be much better defensively with stability in the coaching ranks. Also, LSU has a resolved QB situation, which should stabilize the offense. By the end of the year, LSU might be rolling.

    But the interest point to me is that this is Petrino’s 2nd year; will that mystical leap forward happen? If not, the Arky faithful may be as quick to crucify him as they were Nutt.

    • Home Sweet HomeNo Gravatar says:

      I don’t think there’s any question the familiarity was the key in the Smith hiring, it’s just that’s kinda my last memory of him, since I believe he was fired after MSU tanked that year (I could be wrong).

      As for the LSU game, they’ve been the clear underdog the last two years and beaten the Tigers. But I do agree with your assessing their chances of being really stout at that point in time (their preview is coming Wednesday). Overall, I think as long as Arkansas stays above .500 and reaches a bowl they’ll be fine and hopefully their fans have some patience because the potential is there.

  • Sms lånNo Gravatar says:

    All i can say is that i definitely agree. Arkansas will make some noise this season.

  • lawvolNo Gravatar says:

    I’m just surprised that Petrino managed to stay around this long without taking another job…

    Arkansas is one of those hard to quantify teams — they might be great, they might be awful. Of course the same could be said of the Vols.

    The LSU call is a tough one. I simply don’t know what to expect from the Tigers defensively. In my mind that will decide the day, but at this point I think I’d have to give LSU the advantage. Still, I could definitely see a motivated Razorbacks squad pulling the upset — especially if the Tigers play soft in the secondary.

    • hooperNo Gravatar says:

      The one thing I would expect is that, no matter how LSU’s defense is as a whole, they’ll be stable by the time that Arkansas game rolls around. The players will know the system well, and they’ll understand Chavis’s playcalling.

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