story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
By all accounts, the Arkansas football program is off to a great start to 2012 with an eventful January that was highlighted by the announcement of new coaches, players returning for their senior seasons and a much-needed 11th win acquired on Jan. 7.
With the 29-16 triumph over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, the Razorbacks put the finishing touches on a successful 11-2 campaign and acquired some momentum heading into the crucial stages of recruiting in the process. The layoff from the LSU game was apparent with some phases of the UA attack showing rust but, when the game needed to be put away, there was little doubt in the final outcome – a sign of a team that knows how to win.
When Bobby Petrino arrived in Fayetteville back in December 2007, it was a hire heralded throughout the country based on what Petrino had accomplished at the collegiate level at Louisville. While he has yet to guide the Hogs to Atlanta and the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, based on the improvements in victory totals every year the past four seasons, it’s obvious that those praises were warranted.
The 2012 season was shaping up to be one of transition as the wide receiver corps will have to be retooled, but the offense got a big boost by the announcements of Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis that they would both be back in 2012 despite flirting with the National Football League’s draft eligibility process.
Under Petrino’s tutelage, Wilson became one of the top (if not the best) signal callers in the rugged SEC in 2011, and there is no reason to doubt that his production will maintain this level if not improve as a senior. Davis will take some time to get over a preseason surgery on his left ankle and get back into the swing of things on the gridiron. However, he was one of the SEC’s top rushers in 2010 and there’s no reason to doubt a full recovery for his final season in Fayetteville.
More importantly than the stats and playing experience this duo brings back into the fold is the leadership the two provide. No one will question their actions or their words as they give encouragement and direction on and off the field. I’d call both guys’ decisions to return Petrino’s best recruiting haul since taking over the UA program.
On the coaching staff, Petrino went with a familiar face to replace departed offensive coordinator Garrick McGee with his brother, Paul Petrino. Paul Petrino had spent the past two years directing the Illinois offense and has pledged to remain on the Arkansas staff for at least the next four years upon his return. No one knows Bobby Petrino’s offensive philosophy better than Paul Petrino, and the quick hire showed how much that familiarity meant to Bobby Petrino.
On defense, Paul Haynes took over for the departed Willy Robinson prior to the Cotton Bowl, and his resume is extremely impressive based largely on the success of the defensive backs and overall defensive production at Ohio State under his tutelage. Haynes has a Thrope Award winner to his credit in Malcolm Jenkins (2008). It’s a common belief that Arkansas has not lost games the past two seasons due to offense but defensive miscues under Robinson’s guidance.
Haynes is an improvement in that regard, and his game plan for the Cotton Bowl in a short timeframe to get familiar with the roster and implement any schemes was evidence to support the improvement angle.
Also departing from Columbus, Ohio, after the hire of Urban Meyer to Fayetteville is new Arkansas assistant head coach/linebackers Taver Johnson. Johnson teamed up with Haynes as co-coordinators at tOSU, and the linebackers were a major reason the Buckeyes were able to finish second nationally in total defense in 2010, allowing only 250.6 yards per game and a third-best nationally 13.3 points per game allowance.
Johnson allows Haynes to have someone familiar with his terminology and schemes coaching another position, and there is nothing on the resume to make you think he won’t be a wildly successful hire short- and long-term for the Hogs and Bobby Petrino. I’d expect to see major improvements as the personnel improves and gets more familiar with Haynes and Johnson through spring practice and recruiting.
Jason Shumaker also joined the support staff as the new director of High School Relations. While these type positions have little-to-no bearing on the on-field coaching, it’s important to have Bobby Petrino surrounded by guys he feels comfortable to take care of the other aspects of a program that deter his attention from the on-field product. Shumaker’s previous experience is similar to Bobby Petrino’s as he rose through the coaching ladder to his current position as head coach of the Razorbacks.
Momentum is on Arkansas’ side heading into February and National Signing Day. Some big-time prospects such as Dorial Green-Beckham – Rivals No. 1 overall rated prospect and the nation’s consensus top-rated wide receiver in the class of 2012 — have the Hogs at the top of their destination lists due to the direction the program is headed under Bobby Petrino’s regime. January was a great start to what appears to be another grade-A year.