Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

SPORTS >> Optimism blooms for Hogs in spring

By NATE ALLEN

FAYETTEVILLE – For four spring football practices, all on the Razorback offense realized they played with a Razorback defense capable of getting them the ball next fall.

Now after the fifth, last Saturday’s situational scrimmage, all on the Razorback defense realize they play with an offense capable of scoring the ball next fall.

Coach Houston Nutt couldn’t start this second week of the three-weeks spring drills with a better script for how the Razorbacks feel about themselves and each other.

Simultaneously, first-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and second-year defensive coordinator Reggie Herring and their staffs can coach their units based on confidence and glaring needs to improve.

For a coach in spring drills, it doesn’t get any better than that. A carrot in one hand – a stick in the other.
After four days of getting its dauber dented in the dirt, the offense can point with pride that after the scrimmage Herring asserted, “Hats off to the offense. They got better. They whipped our fanny!”

Deep down, too, those on offense know at some point this week they’ll likely get their fannies flagged. Consider how Herring’s defense responded last year with late-season improvement after the ultimate fanny-flagging, the 70-17 loss to Southern California and successive Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.

“We were a little tired defensively,” Nutt said in review of the scrimmage, “but I don’t worry about them. I know how hard they are going to come back and how hard they are going to play.”

At least, to quote an expression of former Arkansas coach Lou Holtz, the offense now can look in the tunnel and see the light is not an oncoming train.

Instead it was their own streaks of light from breakaway plays by running backs Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis.

“The thing about Hillis, Mc-Fadden and Felix Jones,” Nutt said, “is any time you take one bad angle, one bad step, these guys are breakaway guys. Peyton is a little quicker than last year. And Felix Jones and McFadden are home run hitters. That’s why I wasn’t concerned the first two days when you are barely making an inch.”

Wide receivers are vital to Malzahn’s offense, and Marcus Monk showed again he is a great one playing through an injury (hip not groin as initially reported, Monk said) to make 5 catches for 82 yards.

But what McFadden, Jones and Hillis can do not only as running backs but receivers, could drive defensive coordinators to a week of Maalox moments.

On any given play, any of the three are apt to line up as a wideout or in the slot.

“Those backs are very talented,” Malzahn said, “and we are trying to different ways to be creative and get them the ball in space. You give them a crease, they’ve got a chance to take it to the house.”
But they can’t take it anywhere without a line.

The Hogs barely mustered an offensive line last spring when injuries so depleted them.

Between only losing one senior lineman from 2005 and stockpiling some redshirts, they’ve got three lines this time.
And that first bunch of veterans coached by veteran line coach Mike Markuson scrimmaged awfully well.

“The offensive line did a great job today,” Malzahn said, “with the protection and the run game both and really opened up some good holes.”

Optimism is supposed to bloom like flowers in the spring. At least for this week’s start, it blooms at Arkansas.
“We have improved bunches from the first day,” Malzahn, the overseer of the new offense, said, “and that’s the name of the game. If we continue to improve the next two weeks, I’ll feel good about the spring.”

Nate Allen, a former sportswriter for the Arkansas Gazette, has covered the Hogs for 30 years.