Each week at TideNation we will speak with a writer who covers one of Alabama's 2012 opponents. Today, we spoke with Arkansas beat writer Robert Neiswanger of the Arkansas News Bureau/Stephens Media.
How have players reacted thus far to a tumultuous offseason and an unexpected coaching change? And how would you gauge their response to John L. Smith?
Robert Neiswanger: The good news for Arkansas is this team has plenty of veterans. Especially on offense. There’s no doubt the spring has been challenging for everyone, but by all accounts guys like Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis haven’t let it become a distraction. And players really do like John L. Smith. They’re happy to see him back. In fact, defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell told us the players gave Smith a standing ovation when he walked into the team meeting room after being named Arkansas’ coach.
Q: Knile Davis is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting storylines in the SEC this year. What have you seen of his recovery and do you think he'll return to his 2010 form?
R.N.: So far, so good. Davis is a remarkable worker and has been relentless behind in the scenes in rehabilitating the broken ankle. He’s bigger, faster, stronger and probably more determined than ever to prove 2010 wasn’t a fluke. Arkansas tests every spring and Davis was among the team leaders in bench press, squats and the 40-yard dash. He went through non-contact work all spring. The only thing missing? Davis hasn’t been hit and he won’t get any contact until preseason practice. Davis has said over and over again he’s ready for it.
The defense at Arkansas was wretched at times last year. Do you expect an improvement in 2012?
R.N.: Once again, it’s Arkansas’ big question mark. Arkansas has three new defensive coaches (defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, linebackers coach Taver Johnson and defensive tackles coach Kevin Peoples) and is trying to replace departed veterans (Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Tramain Thomas, Jerico Nelson). So there’s plenty of mystery about the group. Haynes made an impact right away in leading the defense in the Cotton Bowl, though. You noticed a team that tackled much better than it did the previous four seasons. They have to answer some questions at linebacker and in the secondary when they hit the field in the fall, but I think Arkansas can be more sound as a unit in 2012.
Arkansas lost a lot at wide receiver from a year ago. Who can we expect to catch the ball from Tyler Wilson?
R.N.: It’s never easy losing guys like Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs, but this team has plenty of playmakers back. Cobi Hamilton — who had that TD catch at Bama last year — has the potential to be the top receiver in the country. Arkansas has one of the top pass catching tight ends in the country, too, in Chris Gragg. Marquel Wade is in limbo right now because of an offseason arrest. But if he returns the sophomore could be a star after a big spring. Those three alone will be a handful for opponents. There’s other quality options, too, with junior receivers like Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon. Arkansas also has four or five receivers in its signing class.
Who are a few players you are looking at to be surprises in 2012?
R.N.: I mentioned one up above in Wade. It’s hard to imagine anyone being more explosive than Joe Adams, but I really think Wade’s got the potential and will show it if he is welcomed back to the team. Keep an eye on defensive tackle Robert Thomas, too. He was a JUCO transfer last season who played a lot, but never really those big-time plays. I think he’s more comfortable now as he enters his second season and could be a difference maker in the middle of the defense.
Give me your argument for Arkansas beating Alabama in Week 3
R.N.: For starters, the game is in Razorback Stadium. That always gives Arkansas an advantage. The atmosphere was electric for this game two years ago and you’ve got to believe it will be much the same in September. Second, Arkansas should be able to run the ball much better than it has in the previous two games against Alabama with Knile Davis healthy. That’s important, considering Arkansas was terribly one-dimensional last season and it nearly got Tyler Wilson decapitated. It’s no secret Arkansas has turned in some of its worst offensive performances against Alabama in the past four years. But it’s hard to imagine it happening again with Wilson, Davis, Hamilton and Gragg.
And, now, what are some obstacles that might keep that from happening?
R.N.: If Arkansas’ offensive line is overwhelmed by Alabama again it could be another long day. The Razorbacks have to find a way to open holes for Davis and give Wilson some protection so the offense does have a fighting chance. Arkansas has had some remarkable breakdowns (on defensive and special teams) against Alabama the past few seasons, too, which have turned into big play after big play. There’s no way the Razorbacks will win in September if they’re giving up 80-yard punt returns for touchdowns or missing five tackles during a 50-yard touchdown run. Those are killers.