Watching Senior Night 2011 at Razorback Stadium made me reflect upon September 2008. Thirty-eight months ago, I assumed my standard, slovenly posture on my in-laws' sofa, watching in horror as Arkansas scuffled against a hapless directional school from Louisiana. The Hogs dug themselves into a nasty, 24-6 ditch, only to scrap their way back behind noted gunslinger Casey Dick for a one-point win. It was the infancy of a new coaching regime so expectations were softened accordingly, but the Razorbacks appeared wide-eyed and, frankly, intimidated at War Memorial that night.
I'll confess to feeling unsettled myself, and why not? This was a very green bunch still trying to grasp a complex offense and adjust to a defensive coordinator who espoused a more metered approach than his predecessor. The season had seen the Hogs battered by heavies and nipped by the mid-level foes, though a few late wins did foster some optimism. On Saturday, I occupied my position on that same couch, considerably more relaxed, bearing witness to just how much that green bunch has ripened. Jarius Wright broke the university's career receptions record with one of the more awe-inspiring circus grabs you'll see all season. Joe Adams set the school record for punt return touchdowns in a season with an electric jaunt up the sideline that may wind up being shown at the ESPYs. By the time it was over, De'Anthony Curtis — getting one last shot at tailback after three selfless years of position changes and cheerleading — got to bask in a poignant moment of his own, scoring his first collegiate rushing touchdown to cap off a 49-7 romp over Tennessee. You wouldn't think a 42-point pasting of the dregs of the East division would generate a lot of column-worthy grist. But it was the occasional spark from this recognition of 17 Razorback seniors that made an otherwise humdrum evening on the Hill something more substantive.
Arkansas owes its 9-1 record this year, and its feverish maturation from that inauspicious 2008 campaign, to this group. As with any class, there was attrition, and a projection or two left unmet. Curtis, for instance, arrived from Camden Fairview with four-star fanfare. An untimely fumble against Kentucky in his freshman year sent him careening out of the tailback rotation for good, and from there he was shuffled from fullback to cornerback and then, out of necessity, back to tailback again for his final campaign. He had a short receiving touchdown in the Hogs' win over Texas A&M in 2009 but never got his chance to break the plane again until Saturday.
Greg Childs had another quiet night against the Vols, failing to record a catch but doing his usual yeoman work blocking on the perimeter and being visibly engaged on the sideline. Last year's patella injury was clearly debilitating, and it's arguable whether he should have been redshirted this season, but the onetime first-round talent is playing a role on this team in spite of an ongoing battle to restore his physical skills. His professional outlook should still be favorable, and in a year where his production has tailed off, he's found ways to contribute in a manner belying yards after the catch or first-down receptions.
Jerico Nelson came here with a tailback pedigree but leaves as a team captain, a smallish linebacker who played above his stature and registered momentum-changing plays throughout his career. Jerry Franklin and Jake Bequette will depart with accolades aplenty, the former being high on the all-time tackles list and the latter on the verge of a 20-sack career. Tramain Thomas has been the defensive MVP of a bowl victory and a ballhawk at safety through four steady years.
Tennessee is in much the same pitiable shape Arkansas was in three seasons ago, but it's hard to summon any sympathy for an institution that voluntarily hired Lane Kiffin, then seemed indignant when the little rapscallion took his model-quality wife and SMU-quality ethics back West. The Dooley guy seems affable, maybe even competent, if given a fair shake. Whether he will get an opportunity to shore up his roster is of some question. No athletic program has suffered quite like Tennessee has the past couple of years, what with the Bruce Pearl debacle and Pat Summitt's illness casting a pall over Orange Country.
Arkansas can relate, and in particular, these seniors are cognizant of what leaner times can produce. It's that 2008 campaign that drives their success in 2011. Blessed with a rare opportunity to have an encore Senior Day in Little Rock against Mississippi State, they have another chance to receive warranted adulation from a partisan crowd, and they will. Arkansas 37, Mississippi State 17.