FAYETTEVILLE — The day began with a tweet which had John L. Smith’s personality written over it.
“Exciting first day of practice! I can see some steam rising #GYPH,” Smith said via Twitter.
It ended with a candid press conference, which included the Razorbacks coach telling media members how he felt in the captain’s seat.
“I loved it,” Smith said with a grin. “I was fired up. I thought it was a great day.”
Arkansas football, with Smith as head coach, began to take shape when the Razorbacks held their first preseason workouts on the intramural fields Thursday. The newcomers were the first on the field, holding a two-hour practice in temperatures which topped 100 degrees. The veterans followed later in the evening, wrapping up a first day of what will be a busy month.
Smith, known best for his laugh-inducing comments and interesting antics, was the main curiosity for the opening day of preseason camp. How was he going to operate as the leader of a program which harbors national championship hopes was ranked No. 10 in the USA Today preseason poll released Thursday morning?
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson answered it simply: Nothing out of the ordinary.
“He did a good job,” Wilson said. “He managed things well. I think we got a lot of reps in, which is real important the first day of practice. Our tempo of practice was good and I thought he did a good job of running it.”
It wasn’t Smith’s first practice with the Razorbacks. He was on Petrino’s staff the previous three seasons. But it was his debut as head coach after being hired in the wake of last April’s scandal which rocked the program.
Smith, who is working under a 10-month contract, has said numerous times since being hired he viewed his role as that of a CEO for the football program. He was in charge and would make decisions, of course, but planned to let his coaches do their jobs on the field.
It was evident Thursday as Smith roamed from position to position during both practices.
“He’s more of a mediator,” Gragg said. “That’s what we know of coach John L. He lets the position coaches get after us, just like they love to do. And he’s the mediator like I said. “He’ll get on you when he sees you not doing something. But he’ll also encourage you.”
Smith stopped to offer some individual instruction to young receivers in the newcomers workout. He hollered at a newcomer who made a mistake in a punt team drill. He slapped hands with tight end Chris Gragg after the senior did his job in another drill Thursday night.
It was a stark contrast from Petrino, whose no-nonsense approach to practice left little time for compliments. Petrino’s voice was the one heard throughout Arkansas football practices, too, leaving no doubt where he was on the field.
The methods produced results. Arkansas went 21-5 over the past two seasons, which helped elevate the program near the top of the SEC.
But Gragg believes Smith’s approach — he slipped quietly from group to group on several occasions Thursday — will work as well for a veteran team preparing for the season.
“Just because players, I think, are comfortable right now,” Gragg said. “He’s letting his players be more vocal since he’s not being as vocal. He’s letting the position players get on us. And the position coaches want us, as older guys, to just step up and take over.”
Smith was impressed by the athleticism in Arkansas’ newcomers, but said it was “like going back to grade school” watching their mistakes.
He felt completely different about the veterans, saying it was the best first practice he had seen in his 40 years of coaching.
Smith admitted, though, there might have been another reason for feeling that way.
It was, after all, his first preseason practice as the man in charge of a program in six years.
“Maybe that’s why it was such a great day,” Smith said with a laugh. “Because I thought it was a great day. … It was fun.”