Arkansas, Petrino, Mallet Looking for Big Year in 2009
by Paul Lyboult
The debut season of former Louisville and lowly Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino came and went without much notice. Arkansas was transitioning to a new coach after Houston Nutt bolted town and had just lost Heisman finalist Darren McFadden to the NFL draft. Not much was anticipated and not much is exactly what happened. The Razorbacks were fresh of back to back bowl games and 18 wins the previous 2 seasons, but with a new coach and not another McFadden laying around the team limped to a 5-7 mark, just 2-6 in the SEC. After being pounded by Alabama early in the year 49-14 and later losing to lowly Mississippi State, Arkansas fans wrote the season off.
Enter 2009 and the team's new franchise quarterback, Ryan Mallet. The former Michigan starter, who had 7 touchdown passes and just 5 interceptions in several 2007 performances, takes over for outgoing quarterback Casey Dick. Mallet, who at one point was one of the most recruited college players in the country, looks the part of the starter especially during the spring game when he had 15 completions for 233 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Tyler Wilson had a strong spring game of his own with 300 passing yards, will also be given a chance to compete for the job most expect Mallet to hold. “The competition will go into the summer” Wilson said recently after his solid spring performance.
Whomever the starting quarterback maybe they will be accompanied by 8 returning starters from the 4th best total offense in the SEC. Second team all-SEC running back Michael Smith returns as does tight end DJ Williams, who was named first team SEC after having 61 receptions and 723 receiving yards. The Razorbacks also return 9 starters on defense but that may not bring reassurance to hog fans. The defense was dead last in the SEC in total defense last season, giving up 375 yards per game. They also allowed a league worst 31 points per game.
“We're not physical enough, we don't tackle well enough, and we don't get all 11 guys to the football on every play” explained Petrino. The former Auburn offensive coordinator explained that he believed his team's defense is gradually improving, and should with All-SEC tackle Malcolm Sheppard returning. Talented incoming freshman such as cornerback Darius Winston and tackle DeQuinta Jones should add to the mix. An improved defense is only the beginning of what Arkansas needs if they hope to put SEC power Georgia and defending national champion Florida down.
The SEC will find out just how good a player Ryan Mallet is, just ask any Big Ten team that faced him during his brief starting gig in 2007. The team also returns several key talented offensive and defensive players, and brings back some stability with Petrino returning for a second season, which may be a surprise to some. With Auburn possibly looking for a new coach at the end of the season, this year may be an auditioning gig for Petrino but none the less should be a much better campaign than his 2008 debut with an improved defense and a star quarterback. The Razorbacks should be playing in a bowl game come December.