by Gary Olshan Chief Analyst

Even though offensive guru Bobby Petrino is no longer employed in Faytteville after taking a fateful Sunday evening spin aboard his Harley Davidson on April 1, the confident Razorbacks firmly believe they can compete for a national title after losing to only LSU and Alabama (both on road) in 2011. This year, the Hogs host their highly-anticipated payback games vs. the Tigers and the Crimson Tide. And the players are reportedly thrilled to play for John L. Smith, the 63-year-old former Petrino assistant who left the staff in December to take the head coaching job at his alma mater,Weber State. Smith, who is also a former head man at Michigan State (‘03-‘06), Louisville (‘98-‘02), Utah State (‘95-‘97) and Idaho (‘89-‘94), landed a 10-month contract to lead the Hogs. Yes, understandably the administration has given him one season to prove he deserves to stick around for another one or longer.

Without question, offensive wiz Bobby Petrino was one of the nation’s most cunning playcallers, with his tremendous split-second recall of defensive schemes and tendencies. But with his younger brother Paul Petrino serving as the o.c., the highly-explosive, well-balanced Hog attack (36.8 ppg. 438 ypg) figures to remain one of the most prolific attacks around, with a bevy of key returning talent. Strong-armed, accurate 6-3, 220-pound sr. QB Tyler Wilson (right; 63.2%, 3638 YP, 24 TDs, 6 ints.), who decided to forego the NFL draft, was phenomenal in the spring game (played in front of a school-record 45,250 fans!), displaying improved footwork and sharper snap-decision skills. Wilson, who wants to be the best triggerman in the nation, is projected to be the top pick in the 2013 NFL draft. The infantry attack could be something quite special with the healthy return of fast/ powerful All-SEC RB Kile Davis (1485 YR in 2010; missed all of last season with an ankle injury), who’ll share the workload with the top returning rushers Dennis Johnson (702 YR, 6.3 ypc) and Ronnie Wingo, Jr. (458 YR, 4.4 ypc). Talk about your three-headed monster!

Sure, the Hogs lost a record-breaking trio of WRs (Jarius Wright, Joe Adams & Greg Childs were all NFL draftees), but the coaches are fully confident that the capable holdovers and newcomers can do the job. Dazzling sr. WR Cobi Hamilton (34 grabs for 542 yds. & 4 TDs) is a proven commodity, while soph Marquel Wade (had a monster spring) and jr. Javentee Herndon itching for their opportunity to shine under the bright lights. In addition, Wilson has a terrific security blanket in Mackey Award candidate TE Chriss Gragg (50 career catches), who leads a talented group at that position. Three starters back on the OL, including jr. stalwart C Travis Swanson and second-team All-SEC jr. LG Alvin Bailey.

Six starters are back on a defense (22.2 ppg) that will undergo schematic and philosophical changes under new d.c. Paul Haynes (Ohio State assistant previous seven seasons), who replaced dismissed Willy Robinson. No question, the “D” lost several key playmakers on the front seven, but the coaches believe soph DE Trey Flowers is ready to blossom (no pun intended) as a strong pass rusher coming off the edge. And with jr. DE Chris Smith and juco DE Austin Flynn showing well in the spring, there is a solid 4-man rotation on the perimeter, which allowed DE Tank Wright to move back to LB in the spring to team up with omnipresent Alonzo Highsmith (80 tackles, 4.5 sacks). Good depth also exists at DT, and soph CB Tevin Mitchell (All-SEC Frosh team LY) is a star in the making in the secondary.

The kicker-punter combo of Zach Hocker (21 of 27 FGs) and Dylan Breeding (45.3 avg.) could be one of the top duos in the nation. Returner/WR Marquel Wade, who described himself as a Joe Adams “Mini-Me” should be an asset on special teams.

Summary...The Razorbacks benefit from a couple of early home tuneups prior to major showdown before the defending national champs Alabama visit Fayetteville on September 15. And you can be sure Saban will test whether the previously-inconsistent run defense (4.3 ypc LY) has toughened up under the new, hard-nosed coaching staff. If so, Arkansas has a real shot to knock off the Tide and become a bonafide national title contender. There are some land mines on the road (Texas A&M, Auburn and South Carolina). But with the talent-rich, speedy attack continuing to thrive behind consummate field general Wilson, the high-stepping Hogs (Top Ten finishes the last two years) have a chance at the brass ring in 2012. Remember, Arkansas has knocked off LSU two straight times at home in 2008 and 2010.


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