Team preview: Arkansas

The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Arkansas Razorbacks, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: July 31, 2006, 2:43 PM ET
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(All information as of July 1, 2006)

COACH AND PROGRAM

Consecutive losing seasons will inspire a lot of soul searching, especially since that circumstance opened the door for Houston Nutt's arrival in Fayetteville in the first place.

Head coach Danny Ford was ousted after the Hogs finished 4-7 in each of the 1996 and '97 seasons. His replacement, Nutt, preceded to win nine games thrice in his first six seasons and qualified for a bowl game in all six years.

But the 'Backs went 5-6 in 2004 and 4-7 last season, prompting Nutt and Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles to sit down mere days after a 19-17 loss to LSU closed out 2005 and re-evaluate the program.

Two years ago, the only staff change Nutt made was replacing Dave Wommack with Reggie Herring as defensive coordinator. In 2005, the Razorbacks' 108th-ranked passing attack (among 117 Division I-A teams) screamed for alterations.

That meant a hard look in the mirror for Nutt. In his previous eight seasons in Fayetteville, Nutt never employed an offensive coordinator, calling the plays himself after conferring with various assistants.

At the same time as Nutt was pondering the addition of an offensive coordinator, Mitch Mustain, the prince of Arkansas' 2006 recruiting class, started to waver on his commitment to the Hogs. The source of Mustain's discomfort was the imminent departure of quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke, the primary bridge between Mustain and Arkansas, who saw the writing on the wall when Nutt started looking outside the program for an offensive coordinator.

Losing Mustain, deemed the national prep player of the year by several media outlets, was not an option, so Nutt killed two birds with one hire. Mustain's coach at Springdale (Ark.) High, Gus Malzahn, was introduced as the Razorbacks' new offensive coordinator on Dec. 9.

Malzahn, who attempted to walk on at receiver for the Razorbacks in the mid-1980s, was long rumored to be joining the staff. Once he put the finishing touches on Springdale's undefeated state championship season, Malzahn packed up his no-huddle philosophy and headed 10 miles south.

"You all give me some critiques about calling plays. Now Gus will get to have the same thing. Go ahead and clap on that one," Nutt said with a laugh at the press conference announcing Malzahn's hire.

Malzahn now matches wits with new quarterbacks coach Alex Wood, whose last three coaching jobs were in various offensive capacities in the NFL. That combination locked down Mustain's signed national letter-of-intent last February. As a bonus, Springdale receiving phenom Damian Williams reneged on a commitment to Florida and signed with the new Arkansas staff, too.

The final staff alteration was the re-introduction of Louis Campbell as coach of the secondary. Campbell also led the Hogs' defensive backs from 1990-97 and served as director of football operations ever since Ford was fired. Campbell will monitor the secondary and coach the safeties, while Bobby Allen remains coach of the cornerbacks.

With the 2006 staff reformulated, the most intriguing dichotomy in play is how Malzahn's rapid-fire passing philosophy will mesh with the Razorbacks' most obvious offensive strength -- a running game that ranked 12th in the nation at just under 217 yards per game in 2005.

"We know we can run the football effectively," Malzahn said. "Any time you can do that, you've got a chance to put some pressure on the defense. Our challenge is being balanced.

"We will implement some no-huddle and we will run some in series and see how it goes. Obviously if it goes well, we'll do more of it."

There are as many new coaches in Fayetteville as potential first-time starters on the field. After playing 18 true freshmen and fielding nine healthy scholarship seniors by the end of last season, Arkansas welcomes back 19-of-22 starters and 52 letter-winners overall. Last spring was as much a tutorial for the new assistants as it was for the players.

"This is the first time this group of coaches and players has been on the field together," Nutt said on the eve of spring practice. "I know they will be getting the feel for each other with coach Wood and coach Malzahn both being brand new. I think they are going to get a real good feel for their ideas."

Nutt vowed that Arkansas would be back in a bowl this season. If his promise goes unfulfilled and the Razorbacks stumble to another losing season, Nutt might have to search more than his soul this coming winter.

QUARTERBACKS

The game-day population of Razorback Stadium is always encouraged to wear red shirts throughout the season. But Nutt had to ask one gentleman to take his off last November, and the repercussions have yet to fade out.

Casey Dick (6-2, 211) was all set to redshirt last season, but the struggles of then-sophomore starter Robert Johnson (6-2, 216) never abated. So Nutt pegged Dick as his first-teamer for the last four games.

Although Dick showed poise and grit, the results were mixed. The Allen, Texas native came alive in the second half of a win over Ole Miss, completing his last 12 pass attempts and tossing three touchdowns. Then he threw two picks to go with two touchdowns in a rout of Mississippi State.

Overall, Dick completed 53.5 percent of his 99 passes for 584 yards and seven scores. He never topped 200 passing yards in any game, but Arkansas' powerful running game glossed over that.

Coping with a new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in the spring, Dick didn't create any separation from Johnson. In some scrimmages, Dick looked like the master of his own fate; in others, he looked fated for the sideline. After a spirited speech in front of the Little Rock Touchdown Club last April, Nutt told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Dick "didn't have the spring we had hoped for."

"Casey's still our No. 1 guy coming out of the spring," Malzahn said, "but Robert Johnson is right there as a close second. He did some very good things in the spring."

Indeed, Johnson showed far more consistency in March and April than he did last September and October, an irritating tendency for the Razorback staff. Johnson failed to crack 100 passing yards in a game three times in his seven starts, completing 56.3 percent of his tries and tossing six interceptions (versus five touchdowns).

Adding another element of intrigue to preseason camp is the much-anticipated arrival of Mitch Mustain (6-3, 205), the Gatorade, USA Today and Parade National Player of the Year. The lad with the golden cannon spurred Springdale (Ark.) High to a 14-0 record and Class 5A state title last fall by connecting on 189-of-292 passes for a state-record 3,846 yards and 47 touchdowns. And did we mention his former high school coach is now the offensive coordinator at Arkansas?

"Our big challenge will be identifying who the starter is early enough to get some quality reps," Malzahn said of fall camp.

Publicly, the staff has said all the right things about Mustain's starting prospects -- that he must first hurdle Dick, Johnson and sophomore Alex Mortensen (6-2, 212), the son of ESPN commentator Chris Mortensen, to earn it. But Nutt's discarding of Dick's redshirt with four games left indicates how earnest the Razorbacks are about upgrading the passing game, pronto.

RUNNING BACKS

Before the Red-White game last April, Nutt ordered Darren McFadden (6-2, 210), Felix Jones (6-0, 202), Peyton Hillis (6-2, 233) and Michael Smith (5-7, 169) to wear green jerseys.

Green, as in "Don't tackle these guys, defense. Two-hand touch will suffice."

Green, as in money. Green, as in go.

Whatever dividends Razorback football reaps in 2006, the investment in the guys in green will be responsible for a significant portion of them. Last season Arkansas led the SEC in rushing -- the third time in the past four years that's happened -- and ranked 12th in the country by dashing for 216.9 yards per outing.

Three-fourths of those responsible are back, including sophomore McFadden, the 2005 SEC Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-conference pick. McFadden overtook the since-graduated De'Arrius Howard as the feature tailback three games into last season and broke off 1,113 yards on 176 carries, a tidy 6.3 yards-per-carry average.

Possessing equal measures of power and breakaway speed, McFadden popped Georgia for 190 yards and South Carolina for 187 yards on consecutive weeks. He owns Arkansas freshman records for yards, touchdowns (11), and consecutive 100-yard games (four).

If McFadden wasn't enough to cause sleepless nights for opposing linebackers, Jones is pure insomnia. A sophomore from Tulsa, Jones ripped Missouri State for 137 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown run, in his collegiate debut. Like McFadden, Jones averaged 6.3 yards per carry and wound up with 626 net rushing yards.

Who knows what Jones would have accomplished if he weren't moonlighting as a first-team All-America kickoff returner, never mind running with McFadden in the same backfield.

Asked to differentiate his two thoroughbreds, Malzahn conceded, "It's really hard to. They both have breakaway speed. McFadden is a bit bigger and maybe just a little stronger, but Felix is a first-team All-American kickoff returner. It's a great one-two punch with those guys at tailback."

Hillis, a junior fullback from Conway, Ark., is hardly the maitre d' in this five-star hotel. Last season, he rushed for 327 yards and three touchdowns; more startling, Hillis topped all Arkansas receivers with 38 catches, totaling 402 yards and four more scores. The cherry on top was Hillis's dependability as a punt returner -- a respectable 10.3 yards per return, fourth in the SEC.

"He's versatile enough to play any offensive skill position," Malzahn said. "He's got good enough hands, he's a good enough athlete, he's fast enough to play any skill position, receiver included."

Adding to the embarrassment of riches is Smith, a redshirt freshman who could have tossed his hat in the ring last season if it weren't for knee and hamstring injuries. The Tallahassee, Fla., native broke a lot of tackles in the spring despite possessing a mini-build.

Malzahn wrote the book on no-huddle schemes (literally, entitled Hurry Up No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy), but he isn't fitting this gift horse for dentures. Arkansas will run and run some more; Malzahn just needs to diverse their portfolio.

"We've got to find different ways to get them the football," he said. "That's the strength of our offensive football team, so we've got to be creative and find ways to get them the ball. They're versatile enough to do whatever you need them to do."

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

As laudable as it is personally for Hillis to lead the team in receptions last season, the achievement is damning testimony against the ineffectual passing game at large.

Distributing blame is a chicken-or-egg debate; were Johnson and Dick unable to deliver more pigskins to the wide-outs because they didn't separate well, or were the wide-outs doomed by their quarterbacks' inaccuracies?

Splitting the difference and faulting everyone is the safest avenue, but Malzahn and Wood must prevent the debate from spilling into 2006.

To that end, junior Marcus Monk (6-6, 227) will be a focal point. Monk set a freshman school record with 37 catches in 2004, but his production dipped to 35 catches for 476 yards last year.

As Dick grew more comfortable as the starter, Monk became a more popular target. The skyscraping ex-basketball star accounted for 12 receptions, including three touchdowns, in the final three games of 2005.

"He's got a chance to be a real special wide receiver," Malzahn said. "He's already made a lot of plays for Arkansas in the past, and I think he's got the ability to be better. Our passing game really has to start with him."

The Razorback receiving unit masqueraded as a rehab clinic last spring, so pinpointing sidekicks to Monk is challenging. Senior Cedric Washington (6-0, 200), who limped through some sessions with a bruised heel, is an obvious choice based on experience at flanker. He started seven games and ranked third on the team with 27 catches for 365 yards.

Junior Chris Baker (6-1, 202), sophomore Reggie Fish (5-7, 154) and redshirt freshman Rod Coleman (6-2, 182) were all dogged by leg injuries in March. Baker's health has been a long-standing concern in Fayetteville; he sat out last season to rehabilitate a repaired left knee. When upright, Baker is a home-run hitter (23.7 yards per catch in 2004). Fish had one catch in 2005.

The fragility of this group spurred Nutt and his staff to bring in seven receivers among the latest recruiting class. Damian Williams (6-2, 188) and Andrew Norman (6-2, 180) stand the best chance of playing right away, and not just because they were Mustain's hook-ups at Springdale High.

Williams, who committed to Florida last August but had an 11th-hour change of heart and signed with the Hogs, reeled in 63 passes for 1,495 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior. Rivals.com ranked him as the ninth-best receiving prospect in the country; Scout.com rated him No. 8.

Norman matched Williams with 63 receptions as a senior and was tabbed the fifth-best prospect in Arkansas by Rivals.com.

"I know they're going to give us some depth," Malzahn said. "Of course I know some of them personally, so it'll be interesting once we get them into fall camp and see where they're at."

Arkansas's tight ends caught a paltry seven passes last season, an offshoot of the prolific running game. Tight ends coach James Shibest may try to expand the role of senior Wes Murphy (6-3, 265) or junior Mason Templeton (6-7, 270), both of whom played extensively last season. Blocking for McFadden and company should remain priority No. 1, however.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The unsung catalyst to Arkansas's rushing preeminence within the SEC, the Razorback offensive line returns virtually intact for 2006. And the pieces needing realignment should only strengthen the whole.

Center Kyle Roper was the only '05 starter lost to graduation, but that indirectly makes room for the resurrection of senior Zac Tubbs (6-6, 335).

Tubbs, a preseason second-team All-SEC tackle last season, went under the knife for a troublesome ankle after just one game and received a medical redshirt for the lost campaign. He also missed half of 2004 after suffering a leg fracture in practice, so he's essentially missed almost two seasons.

Tubbs shook off the rust in the spring and should reclaim the right tackle spot -- provided the wheels stay inflated.

"Zac is slowly trying to put all the pieces back together again," offensive line coach Mike Markuson told the Democrat-Gazette last April. "It's been a while since he's played, and you can certainly see that in some instances during practice. But we're trying to correct everything and impress upon him what we need out of him."

The dominoes start falling with Tubbs; with his return, junior Robert Felton (6-4, 319) slides back to right guard from right tackle, the spot Felton owned for all 11 games in '05.

From guard to center goes sophomore Jonathan Luigs (6-4, 305), who groomed for that relocation when Roper was hurt for two of the last three games in 2005. Luigs graded out as the best blocker on the line in his freshman season and ranked second on the team with 53 knockdown blocks.

The left side of Arkansas's line is hermetically sealed by senior guard Stephen Parker (6-4, 310) and senior tackle Tony Ugoh (6-5, 304). Parker, a former walk-on, has started 21 of the last 22 games. Ugoh, a throws specialist for the nationally renowned Razorback track team, is also slated for the first string for the third straight year.

There is enviable experience in the second string. Senior Jeremy Harrell (6-2, 300) converted from defense to offense midway through last season and should back up center or guard. Sophomore Mitch Petrus (6-5, 272) and senior Chase Pressley (6-4, 308) took snaps inside last season as well. Sophomore Jose Valdez (6-6, 311) and junior Nate Garner (6-6, 317) shore up the tackles.

Outside of injured senior Tyler Morgan (6-6, 296), the entire three-deep along the o-line plowed through spring drills, sparking plenty of well-deserved optimism for the unit this season.

"Coach Markuson feels like we've got more depth up front than he's ever had at Arkansas, so that's a great thing to have," Malzahn said. "We threw a lot at them in the spring, and they responded well."

KICKERS

Reliable placekicker Chris Balseiro is gone, and spring practice accomplished little in choosing his heir.

redshirt sophomore Jeremy Davis (5-9, 195) at the least has punted in game situations, but sophomore Stephen Arnold (6-0, 186) has a big leg.

Another sophomore, Brian Vavra (5-11, 175), may not win out on field goals, but he always has a home on kickoffs. Vavra knocked 13-of-58 kicks for touchbacks in 2005.

DEFENSIVE LINE

So, Arkansas' top two defensive tackles were once ends. No big deal. Happens all the time.

But how many college teams in the known universe convert wide receivers into starting defensive ends?

Welcome to the dimension of sight and sound known only as the Twilight Zone -- junior Jamaal Anderson (6-6, 268) and senior Anthony Brown (6-6, 235) are splitting wide for the defensive front, not the offense.

Granted, the duo's salad days at receiver were brief; within days of walking on as a freshman at Arkansas, Anderson was moved. Brown, a junior college transfer, spent most of 2004 on the scout team offense before being converted in the spring of 2005.

Last fall, Anderson trailed Brown on the depth chart until Brown went down with a knee injury before the Georgia game. Hitting nothing like a wide-out, Anderson proceeded to ring up 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in the last five games.

"For half a season, he played as well as anybody on the defense," defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said.

The two ex-receivers may not have to joust for one spot this season. Desmond Sims (6-3, 226) has moved back to linebacker, opening the left end spot for Anderson. Brown, who posted seven tackles for loss and 24 tackles before being injured, is slotted at right end.

"He gives us great speed off the edge," Herring said of Brown, "and his 6-6 presence is pretty effective pass-rush wise."

Now we return to your regularly scheduled program -- junior Marcus Harrison (6-3, 315) and senior Keith Jackson Jr. (6-0, 300) reprise their tag team at tackle. Harrison was credited with 37 tackles and an incredible 15 quarterback hurries last year, and is positioned for stardom in 2006.

"He's big, explosive and quick," Herring said of Harrison. "He has the potential to be an All-SEC defensive tackle. He's probably the primo guy inside."

That's saying a lot, because Jackson, the son of the Oklahoma All-American and Philadelphia Eagles tight end of the same name, was a second-team All-SEC pick after registering 74 tackles and 6.5 tackles in 2005. Only Mississippi State's Willie Evans, since graduated, posted more tackles per game from an SEC defensive front than Jackson.

Junior Fred Bledsoe (6-3, 302) and sophomore Marcus Shavers (6-3, 270) will battle this autumn for the right to back up Jackson at right tackle, while sophomore Ernest Mitchell (6-2, 281) should serve as Harrison's understudy. All three backups were bit players last season; Mitchell and Bledsoe each had six stops.

The debates at both ends are less settled, even though Zach Snider's transfer to Tulsa reduced the pool of candidates. Sophomore Antwain Robinson (6-3, 250) jumped into the fray late last year as a freshman. A bit undersized but profoundly athletic, Robinson could steal Brown's spot at right end before the season opener against USC.

Another factor at end, junior Chris Wade (6-6, 255), rumbles in from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. A second-team NJCAA All-American who notched six sacks in nine games before suffering a knee injury, Wade will be in the rotation.

"He's a guy that has the capability to play a lot," Herring said.

LINEBACKERS

The Razorbacks' first-string linebackers will be fleet, hard-hitting and plump with experience.

The Razorbacks' second-string linebackers will be anybody's guess.

By rotating senior Desmond Sims (6-3, 226) back from defensive end to join classmate Sam Olajabutu (5-9, 229) and sophomore Freddie Fairchild (6-2, 225), the Arkansas defensive staff has pieced together a potentially dominant unit.

"Those three guys & give us a very fast, quick, athletic set of linebackers that will hopefully develop to be as good as any three in the SEC," Herring said.

God forbid any of them get hurt, however. Outside of junior Weston Dacus (6-2, 223), the Hogs have almost nothing in reserve, meaning several freshmen will be filling in the blanks this fall.

"That's probably the biggest eyesore on defense is the depth at linebacker," Herring stated bluntly.

Before burying Arkansas' lack of depth, let's praise what's coming back. At 5-9, Olajabutu is a very good thing in a small package. A Lott Trophy and Lombardi Award watch-list member, Olajabutu racked up 118 tackles, third-best in the SEC, and 14.5 tackles for loss. The first-team All-SEC honoree at the Will, Olajabutu had 13 tackles in one half against Auburn and 16 tackles versus Alabama.

"He's small in stature but he plays bigger than that," Herring noted. "He's explosive, just an exceptional football player."

Sims is treading over familiar territory; as a reserve outside linebacker, Sims tallied 37 tackles. At defensive end in 2005, Sims started all 11 games and registered 63 stops and 5.5 sacks.

Because the Hogs have plenty back at defensive end, Sims will slide to the Mike spot vacated by the graduated Pierre Brown.

"He's further along than what I anticipated," Herring said of Sims. "He gives us a big middle linebacker that's athletic and can run, which we didn't have last year at the Mike."

Fairchild wasted little time showing his mettle as a freshman at the Sam. ESPN.com and CollegeFootballNews.com dubbed Fairchild a first-team Freshman All-American after he ranked sixth on the squad with 59 tackles in nine starts. The Little Rock native and SEC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year (according to The Sporting News) added 10 pounds over the spring and improved tremendously.

Dacus, who played a backup role in all 11 games last season, can be inserted anywhere among the three linebacker spots. Sophomore Brandon Sturdivant (5-11, 222) posted six tackles in the Red-White game.

But they are only two men, so count on Texas freshmen Wendel Davis (6-1, 210), Adrian Davis (6-4, 200) and/or Chip Gregory (6-4, 215) supplementing the depth chart by September.

Wendel Davis was ranked the 43rd-best linebacker in the nation by Rivals.com. He is projected to trail Olajabutu at the Will.

Adrian Davis was a safety at Terry High in Rosenberg, Texas, leading the team in tackles with 132 and interceptions with seven. Either he or Gregory, a 4.4 track star who also played extensively in the secondary at tiny American Heritage Academy in Allen, Texas, projects as a reserve Sam behind Fairchild.

Van Stumon (6-3, 238), a fullback and defensive end at North Little Rock High, may be converted to linebacker as well. Stumon was the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Defensive Player of the Year and the No. 4 prospect in the state by Rivals.com.

The Razorbacks certainly weren't shy about playing freshmen last season, but that's not a winning trend in the SEC. If the front three in this unit stay on their feet, Arkansas's defense will be a force in the West.

"I feel like we'll be improved at linebacker," said Herring, a biased observation because he is also the linebackers coach. "I think we'll be better than we were last year."

DEFENSIVE BACKS

If depth at linebacker is the Hogs' biggest defensive concern, a similarly shallow pool at safety is not far behind.

Vickiel Vaughn, a seventh-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL draft, no longer patrols the last line of defense. Senior Randy Kelly (6-0, 194), Vaughn's running mate at strong safety for the last six games of 2005, should reprise that role again in 2006. Kelly was second to Vaughn in tackles (58) among Razorback defensive backs and returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown against Ole Miss.

Michael Grant (5-11, 185) moved -- very swiftly -- from cornerback to free safety in the spring. Grant is an All-American sprinter with Arkansas' powerhouse track team. He ran the first leg for the NCAA champion 400-meter relay quartet in 2005.

"He gives us actually a better athlete, more speed and range, than what Vickiel was," Herring said of Grant. "Hopefully that's going to work out."

On the '05 football team, Grant tallied 22 tackles and three interceptions as a reserve corner. No one questions Grant's speed; the issue is whether he'll be physical enough to lay the wood on opposing receivers.

For reserves at safety, Herring said it simply: "Nobody has really established or distinguished themselves."

Junior Kevin Woods (5-10, 195) might be a free safety candidate, but his experience is limited to 12 tackles a season ago.

Junior college transfers Matt Hewitt (6-3, 208) and John West (6-2, 205) are more likely to see significant time at safety. Hewitt was an honorable mention NJCAA All-American after collecting 87 tackles in eight games as a second-year player at Alfred (N.Y.) State. His brother, Chris, played four seasons at defensive back with the New Orleans Saints.

West enrolled at Arkansas in time for spring drills but did not eclipse Grant at free safety. West earned NJCAA All-America status after making 50 stops last season at North Dakota State College of Sciences.

The corner 'Back situation looks far more promising, especially with junior Chris Houston (5-11, 178) back on the left side. Houston replaced Darius Vinnett (5-9, 168) at right cornerback two games into 2005 after the senior was sidelined with tendonitis in his knee. Quickly, opposing quarterbacks learned to throw away from Houston's side of the field; he tied for the team lead with eight pass break-ups and Herring considers him the best cover corner on the team.

Vinnett received a medical redshirt for 2005 but returns to hassle Houston for starting re-consideration. Vinnett returned a fumble 44 yards for six points against Missouri State in the '05 season opener.

At right cornerback lurks junior Matterral "Red" Richardson (6-0, 193), who started the first five games of 2005 at free safety before swinging to corner in the final three games. Richardson posted 44 tackles and six pass deflections last season.

Richardson's main foil is senior Michael Coe (6-1, 180), the author of three interceptions and eight passes broken up in 11 games last year. Coe was supplanted by Richardson at left corner and aims to retrieve the starting nod in the fall.

Further down the bench are sophomore Shedrick Johnson (5-10, 182) and junior John Johnson (5-10, 200), both of whom saw the field extensively in 2005.

Of his top four corners, Herring said, "They all at some point in time have started and played in the SEC. So I feel like our depth at corner is real solid."

Last year's pass defense surrendered 20 touchdown passes -- only Kentucky (24) allowed more among SEC teams. But Arkansas also picked off 12 passes, tied with Mississippi State and South Carolina for second most in the league. For the Hogs to reduce the famine and induce more feast, their safety situation needs to stabilize.

PUNTERS

Three years ago, Jacob Skinner (6-3, 212) waltzed into fall camp and won the starting job as a freshman. Midway through the 2004 season, while floundering with a 36.6-yard average, Skinner lost his footing to Jeremy Davis and didn't punt for the last five games.

Last year, Skinner lapped Davis in fall camp and enjoyed his best season, averaging 41.8 yards per boot and dropping 15 kicks inside the 20. Davis is still around, but the junior is now competing for the kicking position. Barring a senior slump, Skinner is the Hog of the moment at punter.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Improving their return game was one of the Razorbacks' priorities heading into 2005, but this is ridiculous.

Thanks to first-team All-American Felix Jones and McFadden, Arkansas led the nation in kickoff return average (29.2 yards). Jones set hearts aflutter by racing 100 yards against Mississippi State and fell just short of the nation's best return net (31.9 yards on 17 returns).

McFadden couldn't quite go the distance against LSU, sprinting 81 yards with a kickoff, but his 29-yard average was nothing to sneeze at, either.

Depending on their workload in the offensive backfield, Jones and McFadden will resume kickoff duties. If Jones improves his ball handling, he'll return punts as well. Hillis handled some punt returns last season, but only because he had reliable hands.

Elsewhere, the Razorbacks welcome senior Brett Goode (6-1, 228) back as long snapper. Skinner will continue to hold on field goals.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Lost in the detritus of last season's 4-7 finish was the fact Arkansas lost four games by a total of 13 points. Imagine the happy face that could have been slapped on the bottom line if Nutt had unwrapped Dick sooner, or if any of three fourth-quarter, game-defining drives (Georgia, South Carolina, LSU) had produced scores.

Ifs and buts could be candy and nuts this season. Southern California brings a vastly different set of Trojans to the season opener in Fayetteville than the track team that was clocked doing 70 on Arkansas's hide last year.

The rest of the nonconference schedule -- Utah State, Southeast Missouri State, Louisiana-Monroe -- is disposable, and the Hogs play host to Alabama, Tennessee and LSU. Road trips to Auburn and South Carolina are huge swing games.

At all positions but quarterback and placekicker, Arkansas seems to have ready answers. Unfortunately, those two spots are generally responsible for the most points. The competition between Dick, Johnson and Mustain will be under the microscope all autumn, but the kicking contest has serious consequences of its own.

The Razorbacks will run and slow the run, which by themselves wins many games. But evolving into a true contender in the SEC West requires balance. Will the Hogs develop it in time?

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).


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