FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton is about to get in the submarine.
It’s a phrase he and the rest of the Arkansas football staff use to describe this time of year. The offseason is over. Family vacations have ended. So it’s time to descend to the lower level of the Broyles Center and dive into preparation for the 2012 season.
“We’ll go down into the office and won’t come up until about February,” Horton said.
The grind for coaches and players officially begins Wednesday, when players report for preseason camp. Arkansas will hold its first practices Thursday, kicking off nearly a month of workouts leading into the season opener against Jacksonville State on Sept. 1.
Arkansas believes it has the pieces in place to make a legitimate run at the Southeastern Conference championship despite a turmoil-filled offseason. New coach John L. Smith, who replaced Bobby Petrino, said the Razorbacks are ready to prove it as practice begins.
“You can smell that football is in the air,” Smith said. “We’re anxious. We’re all anxious. I think every year you get anxious about this time. That’s the way our football team is.”
But Arkansas has plenty to accomplish, too, when practices do begin Thursday. Here’s a look at 10 pressing questions for the Hogs:
1. How does RB Knile Davis handle contact?
The long wait is nearly over for Davis, who will go through contact drills at some point this preseason for the first time since breaking his ankle last August. Smith said it’s important for Davis to get over the contact hurdle — both physically and mentally — so the Hogs will draw up a detailed practice plan for the Heisman Trophy hopeful this month. Davis said numerous times he is eager to get the first lick out of the way. So the last step in his return from injury will be the early focal point of preseason practices.
2. Who is going to replace Joe Adams?
This question, above all else, seemed to be on Smith’s mind while he made the media rounds. And for good reason. Joe Adams had a record-setting year returning punts with four touchdowns in 2011 and Marquel Wade — who was expected to take over — is gone after an offseason arrest. Sophomore Keante Minor and Newcomers Nate Holmes and Demetrius Wilson will get a chance to win the job. Smith said Arkansas will even consider running back/kick returner Dennis Johnson when practice begins.
3. Will Arkansas wrap up on defense?
Tackling was a sore subject for Arkansas the past few seasons, but is an area of emphasis under new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes. There were signs of improvement in the Cotton Bowl, which Arkansas intends to carry into the 2012 season. It begins in preseason practice, where the Razorbacks’ new-look defense will get plenty of opportunities to work on tackling techniques in contact drills and then in Arkansas’ three preseason scrimmages.
4. Who is ready to start at offensive tackle?
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said Travis Swanson is entrenched at center, but the other four spots up front are open this month. The most important battles will come at the tackle spots, where five players are vying for two positions. Sophomore Brey Cook and returning starter Jason Peacock (who was suspended last spring after an offseason arrest) are favorites to win jobs. But keep an eye on David Hurd, Corey Stringer and Grady Ollison. All will push for positions.
5. Will dual-role players really help?
QB Brandon Mitchell will play some WR. FB Keiro Small will play some LB. RB Ronnie Wingo could spend some time at WR. Are these simply veteran players getting some early preseason looks in new places? Or can they truly strengthen Arkansas at positions of need? The coaching staff sounded confident the moves will pay off last week. Small could be the biggest help at linebacker if he can readjust to a position he played in junior college.
6. Are the new wide receivers ready?
Without Adams, Wade, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, Arkansas is counting on an incoming crop of receivers to help Cobi Hamilton, Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon. Petrino believes the talented class (which includes Wilson, a junior college transfer) is similar to the 2008 group of record-setting wide receivers. But Wilson, D’Arthur Cowen, Keon Hatcher and company must prove it this month as Arkansas retools a passing attack which leaned heavily on Wright and Adams in 2011.
7. Will Arkansas develop depth at linebacker?
Arkansas feels good about converted defensive end Tenarius Wright and returning starter Alonzo Highsmith, who is returning from a torn pectoral muscle injury. But the rest is in flux. It’s no secret the Razorbacks won’t survive the season relying on two linebackers and must get help, whether it comes from under-achieving veterans like Terrell Williams, returning youngsters like Braylon Mitchell, or freshmen like Otha Peters.
8. Can Arkansas steer clear of injuries?
Davis’ injury last August was a big blow to the offense. It took a few weeks for Arkansas to adapt to his departure and the run game suffered early in the year. It’s impossible to stay completely injury free during an entire month of practice, but Arkansas will cross its fingers at positions like linebacker, cornerback and along the offensive line. Losing key performers at any of those positions during preseason practices could put Arkansas in a bind when the season begins.
9. Will Mitchel, Winston ease concerns at CB?
Mitchel was pressed into a starting role as a freshman and performed admirably under the circumstances. Now the sophomore is the returning starter at the position along with senior Darius Winston. The two will be counted on to lead a group lacking experience (no one else has played a down for Arkansas in a game). So the Hogs will lean heavily on both as they rush to develop young players in preseason practice. Coaches will breathe easier if the two perform like seasoned vets.
10. How does Smith work as the head coach?
We know Smith has done well as Arkansas’ spokesman the past few months, helping the Hogs generate plenty of publicity since his return. But what happens on the practice field as he runs the Razorbacks for the first time as head coach? Much of Arkansas’ success the past four seasons was built on Petrino’s no-nonsense approach during intense practice sessions, which helped the Hogs operate as a well-oiled machine. The Razorbacks don’t want anything to change and Smith is in charge of making sure it is carried out this preseason.