FAYETTEVILLE — Two weeks of preseason camp are in the books.
The first week of practice with classes in session at Arkansas have ended, too.
So it means one thing for the Razorbacks: Game week has arrived.
No. 10 Arkansas has worked its way through most of the preseason grind and now enters the final stretch of preparation for Saturday’s opener against Jacksonville State in Razorback Stadium. The Razorbacks began some work for the Gamecocks last week, but will focus in even more when practice resumes Tuesday.
It has been a long time coming for the Razorbacks, who are ready to start the season.
“We’re real anxious,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said last week. “I’m looking forward to it. We’ve been in camp, beating on each other all day, so I’m anxious to get out there and hit somebody else.”
But what did the Razorbacks accomplish the past three weeks? We posed 10 questions for Arkansas as it entered preseason camp. So, now that game week has arrived, let’s review how much the Razorbacks did learn in that time.
1. How does RB Knile Davis handle contact?
Davis ran hard all preseason, showing no lingering affects from last year’s fractured ankle. He hit holes hard. He got outside and turned on his speed. But there was one thing missing: Davis’ performance in live tackling work during scrimmages.
Arkansas took care of that behind closed doors last Friday, when Davis confirmed via Twitter he got his first “live carry” during the mock game. Running backs coach Tim Horton added there were “no injuries” on Twitter, too, leaving no doubt Davis was still in one piece after his unfortunate injury history in Arkansas scrimmages.
It’s great news for the Razorbacks as they move toward the opener. The contact question is now in the past for Davis, who should have a big year if he stays healthy.
2. Who is going to replace Joe Adams?
Arkansas has turned to a familiar face — running back Dennis Johnson — to handle punt return duties for the opener. Defensive ends coach/special teams coordinator Steve Caldwell favored Johnson early in camp and the senior didn’t disappoint.
While Arkansas hasn’t done much live work on special teams (John L. Smith said the Hogs had planned for it during the mock game) Johnson does have plenty of special teams experience. He admitted returning punts was different because of the height of the ball and the amount of traffic he’ll be in when fielding it, but is ready to go.
“I’ve got to at least take, what, five back to fill the shoes of Joe?” Johnson said. “So if I take five back (on punt returns) and two back on kick return I’m good.”
3. Will Arkansas wrap up on defense?
Arkansas proved to be an improved tackling team throughout most of preseason camp. But it wasn’t good enough for the coaches. Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and linebackers coach Taver Johnson were especially vocal about their disappointment in the Fan Day scrimmage, when missed tackles by players led to big plays. The most notable came on Cobi Hamilton’s 65-yard touchdown catch, when the receiver broke three tackles on the way to the end zone.
“It wasn’t very good at all,” Johnson said. “I think anybody that was at the scrimmage … My son was there and he’s 8 years old and he can tell.”
It led Arkansas to emphasize their fundamentals for tackling – like “step to contact” – much more last week. Arkansas will find out if it pays off on the field Saturday.
4. Who is ready to start at offensive tackle?
Arkansas spent a good chunk of camp testing different combinations along the offensive front, but it appears the Razorbacks will award Brey Cook and David Hurd with starting duties for the season opener. The duo worked with the first-team group throughout much of camp and, barring any changes behind closed doors last week, the two should join Travis Swanson, Alvin Bailey and Tyler Deacon as Arkansas’ starting five when they play Jacksonville State on Saturday night.
Hurd, a former walk-on, is the most surprising choice after being awarded a scholarship early this summer. But with Jason Peacock, a 2011 starter, spent most of the preseason working with the second-team offense after his offseason arrest, Hurd will get a chance to show he belongs when the Razorbacks open the season.
5. Will dual-role players really help?
Quarterback Brandon Mitchell is now a receiver. Fullback Kiero Small seems to have successfully added linebacker to his resume. The two intriguing personnel decisions heading into preseason camp look like they’ll benefit the Razorbacks this season.
Mitchell had a bad Fan Day scrimmage, but was Arkansas’ second-best wide receiver early in camp. He has potential for a solid season if he continues to improve.
Small has helped the Razorbacks at one of their positions of need. Fullback remains his top priority, but don’t be surprised if he plays some linebacker in the opener.
“I think the kid is a big-time player,” Haynes said of Small last week. “He’s just a football player. So whatever we ask him to do, I mean, he does.”
6. Are the new wide receivers ready?
Senior Cobi Hamilton has proven he’s ready for the go-to role. But the preseason showed he should have some help from a group of newcomers.
Freshmen Mekale McKay and Keon Hatcher were the most prepared in camp, challenging older players for starting spots. McKay was especially impressive, using his 6-foot-6 frame and athleticism to turn in a number of big plays in scrimmage sessions. Hatcher, meanwhile, has been quietly consistent while junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson enjoyed a big Fan Day scrimmage after a slow start.
The trio will join Hamilton, Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Keante Minor in the gameday group of wideouts. There’s a chance the other two freshmen – De’Arthur Cowan and Eric Hawkins – will redshirt this season.
7. Will Arkansas develop depth at linebacker?
Arkansas had little choice with injuries to Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright. Senior Terrell Williams and freshman Otha Peters spent much of the preseason working with the first-team defense, getting valuable reps. The Hogs also got extended looks at others like Small, freshman AJ Turner, junior Jarrett Lake and sophomore Braylon Mitchell. So Arkansas feels better about its depth at the spot.
While Wright and Highsmith will likely hold starting spots for the opener, expect plenty of work for newcomers like Peters and Turner. The Razorbacks feel better about what they have at the position. But the linebackers must prove it in games.
“We’re all getting better,” Johnson said of his group of linebackers. “We’re pushing them towards Sept. 1. That’s the biggest thing right now.”
8. Can the Hogs steer clear of injuries?
The best news for the Razorbacks, who have seen players like Knile Davis and Chris Gragg go down with serious injuries in past preseasons: No significant contributor suffered anything serious and no season-ending injuries during preseason practices.
Highsmith, Wright and safety Eric Bennett missed a lot of time with minor injuries, but their return was slowed for precautionary reasons. Receiver Keante Minor had a shoulder problem, but should be back to full speed soon. But that’s it.
Arkansas didn’t make it through by simply babying players with light workouts this summer. There was enough physical contact. But they’ve managed to make sure their key players stayed out of harms way and will be on the field Saturday.
9. Will Mitchel, Winston ease concerns at CB?
The two returning starters have solidified their place with the first-team defense this preseason, but how they’ll perform on the field remains to be seen.
Both showed signs of progress this preseason. Winston has done a better job of playing the ball in the air and more willingness to tackle. Mitchel has continued to grow in all areas, learning in his many one-on-one battles with Cobi Hamilton.
Arkansas also believes it has some depth it can rely on at the position with the steady growth of senior Kaelon Kelleybrew this summer. Youngsters Will Hines and Davyon McKinney have shown some promise, too, and will play this season.
10. How does Smith work as the head coach?
There was a much different tone to Arkansas’ preseason camp under John L. Smith this preseason. The Razorbacks still demanded plenty, but there was a loose feel to practices with Smith replacing Bobby Petrino this summer. Players appreciated it.
There was plenty of give-and-take on both sides of the ball, too. Arkansas safety Ross Rasner said the defense didn’t fear making plays in practice. Quarterback Tyler Wilson said it was evident in scrimmages that produced pretty good battles.
“During camp, I think, a lot of times coach Petrino when he was here, the defensive scheme was designed to kind of prep the offense,” Wilson said. “And it was competitive each and every day out here this year because the defense was scheming to beat the offense. And so, in that regard, it made it a lot more competitive and you saw it in scrimmages and you saw it during practice.”
What does it mean when the season begins, though?
Everyone knows Petrino’s methods worked, leading the Razorbacks to a 21-5 mark the past two seasons. Will Smith’s approach result in a step back for Arkansas on the field or will the Hogs climb to new heights under their new leader?
That question — perhaps the biggest of all for the Razorbacks as they enter the 2012 season — can’t be answered until November.
“All I know is they’re practicing hard and the energy is great,” Smith said. “I love being around them. They’re great kids to coach. We just need to go play a game.”