May 24, 2007

Countdown to Kickoff: Arkansas

Countdown To Kickoff: A Preview of Alabama's 2007 Opponents

Game Three: Arkansas at Alabama
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
When: September 15, 2007
Time/TV: TBA
Series record: Alabama leads, 9-8.
Last meeting: 2006: Alabama 23, Arkansas 24 (OT)

About Arkansas
2006 Record: 10-4 (7-1 in SEC)
Head Coach: Houston Nutt has compiled a won-loss record of 67-44 in nine seasons at Arkansas. Prior to coaching the Razorbacks, Nutt was the head coach at Boise State for one season in 1997 and led the Broncos to a 4-7 mark. Nutt also coached at Murray State for four seasons (1993-96).
Returning Starters: 11 (Offense: 6, Defense: 4, Specialists: 1)
2005 by the numbers: Scoring offense: 28.9 ppg; Pass offense: 149.5 ypg; Rush offense: 228.5 ypg; Total offense: 378 ypg; Scoring defense: 18.3 ppg; Pass defense: 185.1 ypg; Rush defense: 114.6 ypg; Total defense: 299.6 ypg.

When Arkansas has the ball: Despite all the talk about a move to a more balanced offense, the Razorback attack starts and ends with what many have called the nation's top tailback duo, Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden and All-American Felix Jones. Both tailbacks ran for over 1,000 yards last season and provide a 1-2 punch of speed and power that simply can't be matched in college football today.

Joining McFadden and Jones in the backfield is versatile fullback/H-back Peyton Hillis who in addition to providing pass protection and run blocking caught 19 passes last year, making him the third leading receiver on the team.

At quarterback, junior Casey Dick was the Razorback's best option this spring and with the departure of Mitch Mustain maybe their only option. With so little depth at quarterback for the time being, Dick's health will be crucial to Arkansas' success this fall.

The biggest question mark for the Razorback offense heading into this season will be the offense line. The backbone of the Hogs' offense last year, Arkansas will need to replace three starters on the offensive front including NFL-bound left tackle Tony Ugoh. This spring the job went to junior Jose Valdez, Ugoh's backup for the last two seasons. At 6-foot-6, 308 pounds Valdez certainly has the size to fill the hole left by Ugoh.

Returning to the line will be right guard Robert Felton, a three-year starter with the versatility to play at tackle or center if needed, and All-SEC center Jonathan Luigs who was one of the nation's best offensive lineman a season ago.

The Razorbacks will also look to replace left guard Stephen Parker and right tackle Zac Tubbs on the line along with blocking tight end Wes Murphy. Former fullback Mitch Petrus started at left guard in the spring game but will need to add more weight to hold off incoming freshman star Kareem Crowell in the fall. At right tackle, senior Nate Garner brings plenty of game experience and good size while the tight end position may see a shift from being primarily an extra lineman to a more viable pass option with sophomore Andrew Davie.

The increased emphasis on the passing game means the Razorbacks will need some of their receivers who aren't named Marcus Monk to become more dependable playmakers. Monk's 50 catches for nearly 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns were impressive but they also made him a target for secondaries who began to double-team the Hogs' top passing target in the more obvious passing situations. Complicating the situation at wide out is the transfer of the Razorbacks' number two receiver Damian Williams. Arkansas tried several players at the spot in the spring including former quarterback Robert Johnson and sophomore London Crawford but will need someone to step up in the fall to give Monk some room to work.

What will Arkansas do offensively?: Replacing Gus Malzahn at offensive coordinator will be former Dallas Cowboys assistant David Lee. Lee primary focus thus far has been to improve the Razorbacks' passing attack, primarily through getting the running backs and tight ends more involved as receiving options. The Razorback attack will still be first and foremost a power running game but expect the Hogs to diversify their aerial attack this season.

Match-up to watch: Alabama linebackers Prince Hall, Darren Mustin, Ezekial Knight and Keith Saunders vs. Arkansas running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

The big question: Can the Tide's thin defensive front slow down the Razorbacks' powerful ground game?

When Alabama has the ball: With just four starters returning from the Razorbacks' superb 2006 unit, there will be plenty of rebuilding to do this fall on the defensive side of the football.

The rebuilding starts on the Hogs' front line where they spent the spring shorthanded at defensive tackle with starter Marcus Harrison going out with an ACL tear early in the spring. Harrison's recovery time could stretch into the 2007 season. Though junior Ernest Mitchell brings plenty of experience to the interior for the Hogs, it will be tough to replace the energy and production of Keith Jackson who has moved on to the NFL.

At defensive end, the early departure of Jamaal Anderson puts speedy sophomore Malcolm Sheppard in the starting spot opposite junior Antwain Robinson, who missed some of the spring with a hip flexor injury. Sheppard was one of the top performers of the spring being named defensive MVP by the coaching staff and if Robinson can stay out of trouble off the field, the Razorbacks could have a dangerous pair of rush ends in 2007.

The linebacker corps suffered similar struggles to the defensive line this spring as it attempted to replace two departed starters while dealing with several key injuries. At the weakside linebacker spot, the Razorbacks must fill the hole left by Sam Olajubutu, one of their most prolific tacklers in years. Stepping in this spring was sophomore Ryan Powers who showed potential but must develop the instincts and toughness the position requires.

At the strongside spot, junior Freddie Fairchild was expected to star but missed the spring as he recovered from an ACL injury. Middle linebacker Weston Dacus, who racked up 73 tackles last season, missed the spring game with an injury but is expected to be ready for the fall.

Another early departure for the NFL left an opening in the secondary this spring as corner Chris Houston saw his stock soar after a huge year in 2006. Sophomore Jerrell Norton will have a hard time duplicating Houston's productivity but has the ball skills to become a big play corner. On the other side, junior Matterral Richardson steps in with plenty of experience after chalking up 12 pass breakups a year ago.

Former linebacker Matt Hewitt moves back to strong safety, his original position, to replace graduated senior Randy Kelly and has the strength and size to handle the position as well as anyone in the SEC. Returning at the free safety spot is Michael Grant who returned in top form this spring after suffering an ACL tear last fall.

What will Arkansas do defensively?: Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring fielded one of his strongest defenses yet last season employing a blitz-heavy 4-3 scheme. The Razorbacks do plenty of blitzing from the safety spots as well and aren't afraid to go to man coverage in the secondary to keep the pressure on up front.

Match-up to watch: Alabama offensive tackles Andre Smith and Mike Johnson vs. Arkansas defensive ends Antwain Robinson and Malcom Sheppard.

The big question: Will the Tide offensive line do a better job of staving off the Razorback pass rush?

Arkansas special teams: At punter, Arkansas must replace one of the league's top specialists in graduated Jacob Skinner. Last season's starting placekicker Jeremy Davis will handle the punting duties while true freshman Alex Tejada is expected to contend with Davis for the starting job at placekicker. Jones and McFadden won't just serve as the tailback duo but also as the starting return specialists.

2006 Results
9/2/06 Southern California (L, 14-50)
9/9/06 Utah State (W, 20-0)
9/16/06 @ Vanderbilt (W, 21-19)
9/23/06 Alabama (W, 24-23, OT)
10/7/06 @ Auburn (W, 27-10)
10/14/06 Southeast Missouri (W, 63-7)
10/21/06 Ole Miss (W, 38-3)
10/28/06 Louisiana-Monroe (W, 44-10)
11/4/06 @ South Carolina (W, 26-20)
11/11/06 Tennessee (W, 31-14)
11/18/06 @ Mississippi State (W, 28-14)
11/24/06 LSU (L, 26-31)
12/2/06 SEC Championship vs. Florida (L, 28-38)
1/1/07 Capital One Bowl vs. Wisconsin (L, 14-17)

2007 Schedule
9/1/07 Troy
9/15/07 @ Alabama
9/22/07 Kentucky
9/29/07 North Texas
10/6/07 Chattanooga (Little Rock)
10/13/07 Auburn
10/20/07 @ Ole Miss
10/27/07 Florida International
11/3/07 South Carolina
11/10/07 @ Tennessee
11/17/07 Mississippi State (Little Rock)
11/23/07 @ LSU

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