Arkansas Razorback Football: Hogs Spring Practice Starts on Wednesday


College football fans despair no more, spring football practices are starting across the country over the next couple of weeks as teams prepare for the 2012 campaign. Arkansas Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino will begin molding his players for the 2012 season starting on Wednesday.

After Petrino led No. 5 Arkansas to an improbable 11-2 season in 2011 capped by beating then BCS No. 8 Kansas State 29-16 in the Cotton Bowl, he now faces higher expectations entering 2012. With uncertainty at key positions who will earn important starting positions during spring practice is the focus of the Arkansas coaching staff as well as the Razorback fans?

The known production of the Tyler Wilson, the Hogs’ defensive line, and core returning offensive linemen has the makings of another 11 plus win forArkansas. Filling in the gaps left by graduation could prove to be harder than most Razorback fans expect.

New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes had a crash course with his defensive unit the weeks leading up to the Cotton Bowl after the dismissal of former DC Willy Robinson. If Haynes sticks to the type of schemes ran against KSU the Hogs will spend the spring working on blitzing from the linebacker position and stunts by the defensive line; defensive production that was missing under Robinson.

Haynes will have to replace All-SEC middle linebacker Jerry Franklin and outside linebacker Jerrico Nelson. The only sure bet at starter in 2012 is Alonzo Highsmith Jr. starting at outside linebacker unless moved to the middle by the coaching staff to help stop the run.

Early talk has mid-term junior college transfer defensive end Austin Flynn (6’4”, 250 pounds) getting reps at middle linebacker. The Hogs are deep at defensive end with the return of Tank Wright, Chris Smith, and Trey Flowers.

Returning linebackers Braylon Mitchell and Jarrett Lake will get plenty of opportunities to win a starting job this spring.

The Hogs have three highly recruited linebackers coming to school in the fall to help fill any possible depth issues discovered during the spring- A.J. Turner, Otha Peters, and Vin Ascolese. The difference between immediate playing time in the linebacker rotation, action on special teams and redshirting will depend on the readiness of each newcomer come August.

Both safety spots will be scrutinized after the loss of Tramain Thomas and Elton Ford to graduation.

Canadian export Brett Weir was recruited as a safety in 2011. Will his size put him at safety, linebacker, or on the offensive side of the ball?

Where will Ross Rasner play in 2012? He lined up at outside linebacker last season but has the ability to play safety. Filling the greatest need come August will ultimately determine Rasner’s final position.

Petrino added two safeties to his 2012 recruiting class that could see playing time this year- Will Hines and Defonta Lowe.

On the checklist for a successful spring for the Razorbacks will include finding quality receivers to replace the 2,009 receiving yards totaled by Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, and Greg Childs. Added to the pressure of losing that trio is finding a punt returner to fillAdams’ All-American shoes.

Cobi Hamilton will be counted on as the lead receiver for the Hogs. All he will have to do is replicate what Jarius Wright did when Wright led the SEC in receiving yards (1,117) and receiving touchdowns (12).

Hamiltonhas been known more for his big play ability and yards after the catch than his strict route running and sure-fire hands. The big question that will not be answered until the regular season begins is can Hamilton adjust to life in the SEC as a No. 1 receiver?

He has the size, speed, and ability to do it. Within Petrino’s offense Hamilton could be poised for an All-SEC season next fall.

AfterHamilton, Petrino has so many wide receiver prospects to choose from it is hard to know where to start. Javontee Herndon had the most in-game experience when he added eight catches for 137 yards last year. His 17.1 yards per catch average was tops on the team. Julian Horton and Marquel Wade both earned game time in 2011 as well.

Wade’s speed and field vision could help Hog fans recover from the loss ofAdamson special teams. Wide receiver Keante Minor is another speedster that will get a chance to return punts for Petrino.

Quinta Funderburk, Davyon McKinney, Kane Whitehurst, and Maurdecus Humphrey are all capable of earning playing time with their efforts in the spring. New comers Keon Hatcher, Eric Hawkins, Mekale McKay, D’Arthur Cowan, and junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson will add more competition to an already talented squad in August.

McKay 6’6” and Wilson 6’3” have the size and speed to become the next Greg Childs kind of receiver. Childs and former Razorback quarterback Ryan Mallett played jump ball in the corner of the end zone before Childs’ injury in 2010. McKay and Wilson could add that red zone threat missing last year.

The warm feeling of knowing Tyler Wilson is back under center has to allow Petrino a full night’s rest. Also knowing he has three starters returning in the backfield between Ronnie Wingo, Jr., Dennis Johnson, and All-SEC running back Knile Davis should bring a smile to his face while he sleeps.

The only thing that could possibly derail Petrino’s running attack is the growth of true sophomore linemen Mitch Smoothers and Brey Cook. Both players will have to replace graduating seniors Grant Cook and Grant Freeman.

Cook and Smoothers both saw extensive playing time early in the 2011 season. Losing a redshirt on both players may cost the Hogs in the long run but what the team gains from their game experience should pay dividends early in the 2012 season. That experience and a quick start to the Hogs running game could be the difference between a SEC Championship game berth or just another great season for the Razorback football team.

The Hogs will take the field for 14 practices before playing their Red-White game on April 21.