This is the first installment in a four-part series previewing Arkansas’ spring football practice. In today’s installment, Hogwired.com takes a brief overview before examining the Razorbacks’ offensive line and tight ends.
FAYETTEVILLE,Ark. — A casual observer might have a hard time understanding the optimism surrounding the Razorback football program this spring. After all, the Hogs have struggled in each of the past two seasons posting back-to-back losing records and missing postseason play after reeling off a school record six bowl game appearances in a row (1998-2003).
But since the Razorbacks were officially eliminated from 2005 bowl contention last November, Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt and his team have fervently focused on the future instead of dwelling on the past. The Hogs reeled off consecutive wins against Ole Miss and Mississippi State and had No. 3 LSU on the ropes in Baton Rouge before falling short in a two-point loss.
Add to the mix that the Razorbacks return 52 of 66 lettermen from last year’s squad including 19 of 22 starters on offense and defense, the most of any SEC school, and you start to get the idea. The momentum of a late-season surge, returning starters at nearly every key position and the promise of a nationally lauded recruiting class have Razorback fans already anticipating what could be for the Hogs in 2006.
“The first thing is that I want to continue the way we finished,” Nutt said. “We want to have great intensity and a great understanding of what we are trying to get done, especially defensively. I want them to pick up right where they left off with Coach (Reggie) Herring’s scheme. Offensively, I want to continue to be physical, still be able to run the football. We have been the best at that. But we want to get better in the passing game. In the spring, we will be looking for a much better passing game.”
Arkansas will take on a new look offensively this spring. Renowned high school coach Gus Malzahn has joined the Razorback staff as the offensive coordinator and will work with new quarterbacks coach Alex Wood to give the Hogs some different offensive twists. The two newest additions to the coaching staff will attempt to elevate the passing game to the league-leading level of the Hogs’ rushing attack. That process begins this spring with a 15-practice orientation for both the coaches and players.
“I think spring practice is very important for chemistry,” Nutt said. “It is an important time for teaching and everyone working together. This is the first time this group of coaches and players has been on the field together. I know they will be getting the feel for each other with Coach (Alex) Wood and Coach (Gus) Malzahn both being brand new. I think they are going to get a real good feel for their ideas. We will incorporate them and the bottom line is we need to execute.”
OFFENSIVE LINE: Arkansas’ unmatched league success in the running game in the past four seasons has been based largely on the outstanding play of the Razorbacks’ offensive line. The Hogs’ offensive front has paved the way for rushing success while providing protection for the passing game. The offensive line helped the Razorbacks lead the SEC in rushing for the third time in four seasons in 2005 including providing running room for 1,113-yard rusher Darren McFadden. Arkansas’ quarterbacks also reaped the benefits of pass protection that yielded only 22 sacks, the fourth-lowest total in the league. The good news is that nearly all components of that offensive line return this fall.
Mathematically it would seem impossible for the Razorbacks to lose their starting center to graduation and still return five starters on the offensive line. However, Arkansas will have that luxury in 2006, thanks to the versatility of centeroffensive guard Jonathan Luigs and the return of offensive tackle Zac Tubbs to the lineup.
Tubbs, injured for a majority of the 2005 season, played in only one game before undergoing surgery on his ankle. The second-team pre-season All-SEC tackle from last season played offensive guard briefly last fall, but will enter the spring as the starter at right tackle. Tubbs has shown the potential to be one of the best tackles in the SEC if he can stay on the field. Junior Nate Garner and redshirt freshman Michael Aguirre will vie for time behind Tubbs on the Hogs’ offensive front. Garner has played in 16 games as a reserve in his Razorback career while Aguirre has yet to take the field for the Hogs.
Senior Tony Ugoh is slated to man the left tackle spot for the third-consecutive season. Ugoh has started 21 of the Razorbacks’ last 22 games at the position. He led the Hogs with 64 knockdowns in 2005. The two-sport athlete will balance spring football drills while competing with the Razorbacks’ outdoor track and field squad. Sophomore Jose Valdez will back Ugoh while redshirt freshman Andrew Davie will also work on the left side.
With the graduation of stalwart Kyle Roper, Luigs enters spring practice as the Razorbacks’ starting center. The transition actually took place late last season. Luigs started a total of 10 games in 2005 including seven at offensive guard before being called upon to start for Roper at center against Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State. When Roper returned from a knee injury for the season finale against LSU, Luigs remained at center with Roper filling the guard spot. The Little Rock native will likely play center exclusively in 2006.
Luigs was impressive in his freshman season earning the season’s best run blocking grade by a UA lineman and finishing second on the squad with 53 knockdown blocks. For his efforts, Luigs was named to several freshman All-America squads including teams named by the Football Writers Association of America and CollegeFootballNews.com.
Former defensive tackle Jeremy Harrell made the conversion to offense midway through the 2005 campaign and contributed down the stretch at offensive guard. In 2006, Harrell will try his hand at center in addition to retaining his reserve offensive guard duties. Harrell started the 2005 season opener at defensive tackle and concluded the campaign with consecutive starts at right guard. Senior Tyler Morgan will compete with Harrell for reserve snaps at center. Morgan will likely have to wait until fall to stake his claim on playing time as he will be sidelined for a majority of spring practice while rehabilitating from a back injury.
Arkansas will also benefit from experienced hands at offensive guard. Senior Stephen Parker, a former walk-on, has started all but one game at left guard in the past two seasons. Parker missed last year’s season finale due to an ankle injury, but is healthy again for spring practice. He has been one of the Hogs’ most consistent performers up front since taking over a starting position in 2004.
Senior Chase Pressley earned limited snaps at offensive guard last season, but did make a start against Louisiana-Monroe. Redshirt freshman Colin Tucker will make his first run at playing time as a reserve at left guard.
Junior Robert Felton is a returning starter as well, albeit at a new position. With injuries to both Tubbs and Ugoh, Felton was moved to right tackle for the end of the 2004 season and the entire 2005 campaign. Felton is now back at his old position and has the inside track on the starting nod at right guard. The Houston, Texas, product earned 45 knockdown blocks last season and graded at 82 percent or better in eight of 11 contests.
Sophomore Mitch Petrus was a pleasant surprise on the offensive line last season. Petrus played in nine games for the Razorbacks as a true freshman including an extended stint against Mississippi State. Harrell will also work at offensive guard in addition to his time at center.
TIGHT ENDS: Arkansas’ tight ends will have a new position coach and quite possibly an expanded role in the Razorback offense in 2006. Former Razorback wide receivers coach James Shibest has taken over tight end coaching duties. His experience tutoring wide receivers may come in handy as the tight ends inherit more of an active role in the passing game.
In recent seasons, the Hogs have certainly utilized the tight ends successfully in the running game. However, Arkansas’ tight ends have been scarce in the passing game earning only seven combined catches all of last season. With new wrinkles planned for the offense the Hogs’ tight ends could very well see an increase in balls in the near future.
Senior Wes Murphy heads the list of returners at tight end. Murphy struggled with injuries at times in 2005, but still managed to play in eight games earning the start in five contests. He made one catch for 17 yards, but was a key blocker on the edge for the Razorbacks’ running game.
Junior Mason Templeton has been the most consistent presence at tight end during the past two seasons. Templeton was the only UA tight end to play in all 11 games last season. He hauled in three catches for 33 yards and continued to develop his blocking skills in 2005. He will compete with Murphy for the starting job and will see significant snaps in the Razorbacks’ two tight-end sets even if he doesn’t claim the starting nod.
Sophomores Marc Winston and Lance Thompson have game experience and will likely be included in the tight-end rotation again this fall. Winston played in five games in his first collegiate season in 2005 while Thompson appeared in four games.