J.R. and Henry: A Look Ahead
It’s here. Football season is upon us. The Razorbacks are fine-tuning their game plan for USC as we type. High schools all across Arkansas have been practicing for weeks and with the long hot days of summer behind us, it’s time to play football. In mid-September a year ago, Arkansas was in Los Angeles gearing up for one of the worst beatings in school history. We don’t like to dwell in the past; last season was, after all, last season. But we can’t help but wonder whether the Arkansas of last season (the same team that scraped together four wins over less than mediocre teams) will return this season.
It’s no secret that Arkansas has some challenges at quarterback. Casey Dick has been sidelined with a back injury and because of conflicting reports from Fayetteville, and the closed door practice policy, no one seems to really understand its severity. We know that he returned to practice this week, but whether he can complete an entire practice is still yet to be seen. After it became clear that Dick was not in a position to assume the starting job, Nutt quickly named returning junior Robert Johnson as the starter. Johnson’s a strong practice player, but his play last year doesn’t offer much confidence. But he’s the starter, so now there’s nothing to do but cheer and hope that Johnson, in his fourth year in the program, has suddenly become an SEC quarterback.
There’s also good news that Darren McFadden has returned to practice. It still doesn’t seem likely that he’ll play against USC and the medical reports around the time of his injury appeared to suggest that doing so could do much more harm than good. He hasn’t put on in pads in four weeks, so we hope Nutt and Malzahn are not dumb enough to force the situation, but Arkansas coaches have done dumber things. We’re excited to see Felix Jones operate as the number one tailback. While he’s not Darren McFadden, he has all the potential any SEC school could hope for. CBS Sportsline.com recently named him a second team preseason All-American. Not bad.
The rest of the offense appears to be in tact. Damian Williams continues to emerge and will likely be the hogs number two receiver behind Marcus Monk. The offensive line appears to have gelled. The only question remains on the sidelines: what kind of offense will Arkansas run? We stated our enthusiasm for Gus Malzahn and his style of play. We’ve also stated that Houston Nutt needed to give up the play-calling duties to someone with a better feel for the game. It’s no secret that play-calling cost Arkansas the South Carolina game last season, and was a factor against Georgia and LSU. But as we know all too well, with the difficulty Nutt had even hiring an offensive coordinator, not to mention the rumors from the Spring, there’s simply no telling whether we’ll see anything different.
The cause for concern on defense is more with depth than with the ability of the first team. Particularly a linebacker, where the hope that true freshman would win back up positions stalled with injuries. At defensive back, Chris Houston and Materral Richardson are solid corners. But the loss of Michael Coe to transfer and Darius Vinnett to injury leave no experienced depth at that position. Many have had faith that Reggie Herring could build a solid squad with a little time (and a little less talking), so the college football world is about to find out.
The kicking game has been the other major area of concern throughout the summer. Nutt recently named a starter at place-kicker, but it appears that the position will be re-evaluated each week. A kicking carousel has disaster written all over it. It would be nice to have confidence when you kicker trots out for a 35-yard field goal. Dare to dream.
As for the game on Saturday, we’re confident of two things: First, it will be closer than last season and second, Southern Cal will win. Sure, USC lost Leinart, Bush and White, but they replaced them with high school All-Americans who were sitting on the sideline waiting for a chance to play. And those who hang their hopes on USC’s losses in the backfield seem to gloss over the fact that Arkansas doesn’t have its starting tailback or quarterback from last year either.
Arkansas fans will probably remember Lienart’s back up last year, John David Booty, throwing a late touchdown pass last year against the Hogs. As a high school junior, he was one of the most sought after quarterbacks in the country. But once his high school coach (who was also his father) was fired, Booty opted out of his senior year and enrolled at USC. And if he doesn’t work, Mark Sanchez, another highly sought after high school quarterback, is waiting in the wings. USC will have talent all across the field (even if they’re names you’ve not yet heard of). Arkansas’ defense will keep the game manageable for a half, but the Trojans, with their offensive power and better coaching, will out pace the Hogs in the third and fourth quarter, as USC’s multiple wideout set will cause havoc with Arkansas’ nickel and dime packages all night.
JR & HENRY PREDICTION: USC 42 ARKANSAS 14.
Generally, we like to keep our football talk local, but just for the fun of it here’s our preseason national Top Ten.
10. California. Some have called them the most underrated team in America. We’ll know on Saturday if they’re a West Coast pretender when they enter Neyland Stadium and take on the Vols.
9. Miami. Larry Coker can’t much coach, but he’s got a ton of talent on the field. Kyle Wright will be much improved and the defense is flat out good.
8. Florida. And Arkansas fans think our media is tough. Chris Leak better perform or fans will be calling for Tim Tebow. We love this offense if it ever gets going.
7. LSU. We’re not buying into Les Miles just yet, but he’s got all the talent to make a run at the national title.
6. Texas. Colt McCoy is no Vince Young, yet. That said, Texas is pretty much still Texas.
5. West Virginia. They did beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and their schedule is easy, easy, easy. They have one test en route to the Big East title They’ll need help to play for it all.
4. USC. This may be a bit high for a team that lost a lot of offensive weapons, but great schools simply reload. The Trojans have done that.
3. Notre Dame. They have all the talent to play for the national title. Defense and a brutal early schedule are the major concerns.
2. Ohio State. Probably the second most balanced team in all of college football. Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr. can flat out play. Early date with Texas will tell more.
1. Auburn. This is the most balanced team in all of college football. They excel in every aspect of the game. Al Borges and Will Muschamps are coaching’s dynamic duo.
Local sports aficionados J.R. and Henry will blog their sports column on Little Rocking on Thursdays and Mondays during football season, with the exception of next week, when they'll take an extra day, Labor Day, to recuperate from the USC game and file on Tuesday.