2010 SEC Preview: Arkansas

Ryan Mallett (AP/Danny Johnston)

Competition and depth were the two most common words used during Arkansas spring football drills. And the most frequent question: How is Ryan Mallett's foot?

The junior quarterback missed spring drills after breaking the little toe on his left foot early in offseason workouts. He spent most of the spring in a protective boot, but did shine in some passing drills despite never donning a helmet or pads.

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, coming off an 8-5 record in year two in the Ozarks, pronounced Mallett close to 100 percent at the close of spring drills and admitted that the Hogs might have taken the conservative route in his rehab. For example, during the middle of drills when the team left campus for spring break, Petrino ordered a full cast (instead of the boot) put on Mallett's left foot "just to make sure nothing happened when we weren't around."

The excitement for Arkansas football is as high as it's been in the state since perhaps the mid-1960s when the Hogs won 22 straight games, including the 1964 national title. Most preseason polls are listing the Hogs in the top 20. Petrino is not throwing cold water on any of those expectations.

"Our expectations are higher from fans to coaches to players," Petrino said. "We feel like we can go out and compete for a championship. That's what we want this program to have as far as those high expectations. Now we have to go out there and play and win those big games, and we'll all be happy."

The depth and competition in the spring was so high that for the first time as a head coach Petrino split the squad evenly for the end of camp game.

The depth is best at running back where Dennis Johnson took some strides as the leader and perhaps most rounded back. But he's going to be pushed by Ronnie Wingo, Broderick Green and Knile Davis. Petrino said all four have strengths and situations that fit them well in his offense.

There are really no holes on the offense. The competition was red-hot in the offensive line where youngsters Anthony Oden and Alvin Bailey might be close to winning starting spots ahead of returnees. Bailey took advantage of Wade Grayson's knee injury to get all the first team snaps at strong guard. Oden turned heads at strong tackle in a battle with Ray Dominguez, trying to start for the third season.

The question marks about Petrino's team are about defense, not offense. There are plenty of returning players there, but none have distinguished themselves the last two years. There is finally some hope that things are settling out there, first in the secondary where Rudell Crim's move to safety late in spring seemed to provide comfort.

Crim was a safety in junior college, but had to play field corner for the Hogs last year when Isaac Madison went down to ACL surgery. Madison returned in the spring in limited action, but the real find was 5-star recruit Darius Winston. A solid first three weeks by Winston and Madison gave Petrino confidence to try Crim at strong safety the last week of camp.

There is now hope that the big problem for the defense the last two years – too many big plays – might be reduced. The defensive front is much improved. The Hogs might be three deep at defensive end where new assistant Steve Caldwell has motivated talented Jake Bequette.

Chris Klenakis, another new assistant, has energized the offensive line and brought a new focus to the running game, including some added wrinkles with The Pistol formation, something Petrino experimented with last year. Klenakis came from Nevada-Reno where he was offensive coordinator and involved in the invention of that formation with head coach Chris Ault.

Petrino said the intense attention to the running game might have stunted the execution in the passing game during the spring, but he knows that sharpness will return in the fall after Mallett gets a summer with this group of wide receivers led by Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs and Cobi Hamilton. The tight end group may be the school's best with D. J. Williams, Chris Gragg, Ben Cleveland and Austin Tate.

The emphasis on the running game also helped the defense in the spring. Coordinator Willy Robinson thought his unit became more physical and learned to play hard every play.

"That's where we improved," Robinson said. "I think we really improved during the course of the spring. We have guys who have been in our system and we are getting better."

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