Leader Blues

Friday, July 24, 2009

SPORTS>>Petrino placing greater stress on special teams

Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE — You wouldn’t expect a University of Arkansas football coach to say something more significant at a contrived fan event in Fayetteville than at SEC Media Days.

Yet Bobby Petrino did just that. At last week’s kickoff to the “100 years of Razorbacks Celebration” that commemorated coach Hugo Bezdek’s change of mascot from the Arkansas Cardinals to the Arkansas Razorbacks, Petrino began by sounding like every football coach at a July gathering.

“We will be very exciting and wide open on offense and very aggressive, and very hard-nosed and aggressive on defense,” Petrino said.

Can you ever recall a coach promising a boring, stodgy offense and guaranteeing a weak-kneed, pacifist defense?

But it was Petrino’s comment about the kicking game, a topic many coaches consider too nuts-and-bolts dull for a rah-rah fan setting, that prompted interest here.

Petrino promised the Hogs would be “much more sound and experienced in the kicking game.”

The fact is, the Hogs won’t be as experienced in the punting game after Jeremy Davis graduated and left brand new junior college transfer Briton Forester as the punter in waiting, with Ryan Mallett in reserve.

On the placekicking side, Alex Tejada, the junior from Springdale, has much to prove.

Yet there’s a lot more to the kicking game than kicking.

That’s why Petrino matter-of-factly predicts a better kicking game.

From protecting the punter to covering the punts and kickoffs and returning punts and kickoffs, Petrino sees so many of the rookies he had to use last year now knowing what it takes to become special on special teams.

So any true freshman wanting to play on this season’s special teams will have to display truly special ability in the forthcoming August preseason.

The Hogs played 14 true freshmen in 2008. Most were rookie regulars on special teams.

There’s a new emphasis on special teams that wasn’t necessarily there in 2008.

Kirk Botkin, last year’s special teams coach, is a good coach and good guy with good credentials. He not only has college special teams coaching experience but was an NFL special-teamer and tight end after being the Razorbacks’ tight end from 1990-93. He was Arkansas’ first-ever first-team All-SEC selection in the UA’s 1992 maiden SEC season and repeated as All-SEC in ‘93.

But Botkin, in his second year as coach of Razorbacks defensive ends, was a D-line coach first and special teams coach second last year. Also, he had never previously worked under Petrino and didn’t know exactly what Petrino wanted.

John L. Smith, hired last spring as special teams coordinator, hadn’t worked for Petrino, either.

Petrino worked for him. Smith was the head coach when Petrino was an assistant at Utah State and Louisville.

While serving on defensive coordinator Willy Robinson’s staff, Smith is coaching just one position — outside linebacker. When Smith has additional special teams concerns, that one linebacker spot can always get additional supervision from linebackers coach Reggie Johnson, as was the case last year.

So Smith most definitely will coach special teams first and defense second.

“I think he will be a tremendous asset to us,” Petrino told media at SEC Media Days. “John L.’s the kind of a guy that raised me in this profession, taught me a lot about coaching. When I had an opportunity to hire him back as our special teams coordinator, it didn’t take long to figure out that would be the right thing to do.

“He’s brought a lot of experience to our staff. I know that he’ll help me a lot as the head football coach.”