By Acid Reign
October 11, Bobby Petrino returns to Auburn, bringing his first Arkansas team to Jordan Hare Stadium, for a tilt with the Auburn Tigers. While Auburn returns home after a date with a sub-par Vanderbilt team, Arkansas will be finishing a 4-week-long murderer's row. After opening with Western Illinois and Louisiana Monroe, the Razorbacks will play at Texas, then they'll host Alabama, and Florida, before their trip to Pat Dye Field.
Arkansas comes in with an entirely new coaching staff, this season. Head Coach Bobby Petrino tapped his younger brother, Paul Petrino, as offensive coordinator and receivers coach. The younger Petrino is noted as a high-energy-type coach, chasing his receivers all over the field in practice, demanding that they finish plays. The defense will be led by Willy Robinson, a long-time NFL veteran secondary coach. A journeyman much like his boss, Robinson has worked with 4 different NFL clubs in the past 5 seasons. He was defensive coordinator in San Francisco, in 2004. Robinson's last college coaching experience was as Fresno State's defensive coordinator, in 1993.
Arkansas is a team that was gutted by graduation and early NFL departures. Gone are prolific backs Darren MacFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis. Marcus Monk departs from the receiver corps. On defense, the entire back seven must be replaced, and the Razorback coaching staff admits that they are dangerously thin at linebacker. The situation is not helped by the suspension of returning linebacker starter Freddie Fairchild, on domestic abuse charges. Fairchild is the leading returning tackler.
The defensive line returns experience inside, with senior Ernest Mitchell and junior Malcomb Sheppard holding down the fort. Defensive end was a worry, but during this spring, answers were apparently found. Senior Antwain Robinson, redshirt freshman Jake Bequette, junior Adrian Davis, and sophomore Demario Ambrose all showed speed and talent.
At quarterback, coach Petrino was hoping to be able to use experienced Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett as his quarterback. The NCAA declined to waive the transfer rule, though, and Mallett must sit out this season. That leaves Casey Dick as the returning starter. Not known as much of a passer in the past, Dick passed for an astounding 404 yards in Arkansas' spring game, this year. Has Petrino worked an amazing transmutation, or is this the result of very green linebackers and secondary?
Nowhere has Arkansas lost more talent than at the running back position. This spring's answers at tailback are junior Michael Smith and sophomore Brandon Barnett. Smith showed big-play ability, at times, last season. Still, neither of these guys has size, by SEC standards. Smith is only 5-7, 173 pounds, and Barnett is 5-10, 206 pounds. Can those guys take the pounding, or will the offense become one-dimensional, with Casey Dick being asked to carry the load? Razorback fans are justifiably apprehensive. The Razorback offensive line is anchored by the nation's best center in 2007, Remmington Award winner Jonathan Luigs, who returns for his senior season. Lining up beside Luigs is another great senior, guard Mitch Petrus, who was All-SEC last season.
Auburn defensive line vs. Arkansas offensive line: This conflict was a violent war, last season, and it should be, again. The Arkansas line was left smarting over the failure of their running backs to crack 100 yards rushing. Auburn's stout duo of Josh Thompson and Pat Simms, in the middle, are gone. SenDerrick Marks and a host of younger players will try to duplicate those efforts inside, but it's not likely they'll do as well. The key for Auburn is to get pressure from the defensive end positions. Michael Goggins must be able to turn runners back inside, and all eyes will be on Arkansas sophomore tackle Ray Dominguez, who'll be asked to neutralize Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter on the speed rush. My guess is that Casey Dick will feel the heat, if he holds the ball too long, but this is a good offensive line, and they'll hold their own. Advantage: Even
Auburn linebackers vs. Arkansas runners: Junior Michael Smith and sophomore Brandon Barnett are electrifying, fast players, but who'll pound out a 3rd and short conversion? Auburn can counter this group with an equally fast linebacker corps. Smith and Barnett may be banged up by this point of the season. Even if they're not, it's Advantage Auburn, on depth.
Auburn corners vs. Arkansas receivers: Prior to spring ball, Arkansas looked to have possibly the worst receiver corps in the league. However, it now appears that Paul Petrino has whipped this bunch into shape. Sophomores Marques Wade, and Carlton Saulter are decent-sized outside guys who can run. In the slot, junior London Crawford and senior Reggie Fish bring experience and speed. Jerraud Powers will be able to take one of these guys away, but the other matchups bear watching. Arkansas will need these guys to produce, to move the ball on Auburn's defense. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Arkansas secondary receivers and quarterback: The past two seasons, every time Arkansas was behind late, and needed to complete some passes, Casey Dick promptly disappeared. Will it be different this year? Dick looked good in the spring game, but it was against a green secondary. Along with dangerous slot receiver Reggie Fish, Dick has two very capable tight ends to throw to, sophomore D. J. Williams, and junior Andrew Davie. These are both big guys with great hands, who can run. Auburn's safeties Michael McNeil and Josh Etheridge can match up, but they'll need help from the linebacker corps, to handle all of the options a Petrino offense will throw at them. Based on Casey Dick's past history, it's a nervous Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn will have very solid punting from any of a trio of legs, and a coverage unit that only gave up 6.5 yards per return. Arkansas looks to use Jerell Norton and Reggie Fish on returns, Norton averaged 7.9 yards per return last season, Fish only 3.4. Senior Jeremy Davis is a solid punter, averaging 40 yards a punt. Arkansas gave up 9.0 yards per return, Auburn's Robert Dunn averaged 9.4. Advantage: Auburn
Kickoffs: Arkansas loses kick-off specialist Brian Vavra, who averaged kicking the ball to the opponent 7 yard line. Presumably sophomore placekicker Alex Tejada will take over for the Razorbacks. Auburn could not average kicking to the ten yard line, with several kickers. Hopefully, with a healthy Wes Byrum this season, those numbers will improve. Arkansas averaged 22.1 yards per kick return, which is a surprising number, considering that Felix Jones took two of them to the house last season. Auburn allowed 21.2 yards per return. Auburn averaged only 19.2 yards per return, but with the return of Tristan Davis, those numbers look to improve. Arkansas coverage allowed 23.0 yards per return. With the return of Davis for Auburn, and Arkansas' loss of Felix Jones, it's Advantage: Auburn.
Placekicking: Auburn sophomore Wes Byrum was very reliable last season, hitting 17 of 23 field goal attempts. Arkansas started a freshman placekicker (Alex Tejada) as well, and likewise, he hit 17-23. Tejada had two extra point misses, to Wes Byrum's one, but Tejada attempted nearly twice as many extra points as Byrum did. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. Arkansas defensive line: The Razorbacks had issues with their ends coming into spring, but by all accounts, found a handful of good pass-rushers. Last season, the Arkansas ends were handled by Auburn true freshmen Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh. As sophomores, they'll be even stronger. Look for Auburn to win the matchup outside. Inside, Arkansas returns some good ones, senior nose guard Ernest Mitchell and junior tackle Malcomb Sheppard. Sheppard is a lighter, rangy type of tackle, who slides side to side very well. Auburn's trio of Jason Bosley, Tyrone Green, and Chaz Ramsey should be able to hold their own, but it is incumbent on the Tigers to keep Arkansas from disrupting things in the middle. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Arkansas linebackers: This is not a good matchup for Arkansas. Auburn returns several veteran, dangerous backs, and Arkansas is very green, and very thin at linebacker. Coming out of spring, Arkansas will start senior Elston Forte, redshirt freshman Jerry Franklin, and sophomore Ryan Powers. Forte has been a 3-letter role player for the team (51 tackles last season), while Ryan Powers was a less-used reserve. (19 tackles in 12 games). In addition to having to stop Lester, Tate and Davis, these guys will have to cover backs and slot receivers from time to time, including Tommy Trott, Mario Fannin, Robert Dunn, etc. Ouch. Big Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Arkansas corners: Arkansas has to replace the entire starting secondary, and they'll face an improved Auburn receiver corps. Penciled in as starters are senior Jamar Love and sophomore Issac Madison. They'll be dealing with Auburn veteran senior Rod Smith, and emerging talents like James Swinton and Montez Billings. Worst indictment of the new Razorback starters? They allowed Casey Dick to pass for 404 yards in the spring game! Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Arkansas safeties: While Auburn will be young at quarterback with either Kodi Burns or Chris Todd, Arkansas will be equally inexperienced at safety. The Razorbacks list essentially three co-starters, senior Dallas Washington, and juniors Matt Harris and Rashad Johnson. Johnson played the most last season, racking up 51 tackles and 2 interceptions. Auburn's inside receivers will be tough for any secondary to deal with, much less a green one. Robert Dunn, Tommy Trott, Chris Slaughter and others should find some open seams. Advantage: Auburn.
It's imperative for Auburn to limit big running plays on the perimeter, and pressure Casey Dick. If Arkansas can move the chains and eat up clock, this game will be close. What likely will happen is that Arkansas backs will find it difficult to run on Auburn, and the game will fall on Casey Dick's arm, which should be to Auburn's benefit. Auburn's offense should be able to exploit defensive holes among the Razorback newcomers. The key for the offense is to limit turnovers and dropped balls. It should be noted that Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson hasn't worked in college football in 15 years, and never on a stage like the SEC. Bobby Petrino's powerhouse Louisville teams weren't exactly noted for their defenses, either. I think they'll face a learning curve, trying to stop SEC offenses with green defenders.
Prediction: Bobby Petrino brings a tired team to Jordan Hare, and Auburn exploits it: 38-16.
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