This is thefinal installment in a four-part series previewing Arkansas’ spring football practice. In today’s installment, Hogwired.com takes examines the Razorbacks’ secondary and special teams.
SECONDARY: Secondary coach Louis Campbell is headed back to the sideline. After spending the last eight years as the Hogs’ director of football operations, the veteran coach will be taking stock of his options in the defensive backfield this spring.
What Campbell will likely find is a squad populated with experienced cornerbacks, but few clear-cut choices at strong and free safety. Along with cornerbacks coach Bobby Allen, Campbell will try and arrive at some personnel decisions by the time August rolls around.
While other Razorback defenders garnered much of the attention last season, junior cornerback Chris Houston was quietly posting a solid season. Houston took over the starting job at right cornerback after Darius Vinnett was sidelined for the season with knee tendonitis. As the season progressed, opposing offensive coordinators often designed plays to go the other direction limiting Houston’s statistics. He still managed to earn 20 tackles and a team-high eight pass deflections.
Vinnett is back from his medical redshirt season, but will have to overtake Houston to regain his old starting spot. Regardless of whether he is successful in that bid, Vinnett will likely see plenty of snaps in the Razorbacks’ secondary. He was off to a torrid start in 2005 racking up 14 tackles in three games before his season came to an end. He provided one of the most memorable defensive plays of the season when he returned a fumble 44 yards for a touchdown against Missouri State in the season opener.
Senior Michael Coe and junior John Johnson have significant snaps under their belts and will provide additional cornerback support. Coe started the first eight games of the 2005 season at left cornerback before taking on a reserve role down the stretch. Johnson has been a regular on special teams and in the cornerback rotation for the past two seasons. He earned a season-best seven tackles in the Hogs’ win over Louisiana-Monroe in 2005.
The competition will likely be spirited at left cornerback as well. Junior Matterral “Red” Richardson assumed the starting role in the final three games of the 2005 season and is atop the depth chart at that position entering spring drills. Richardson tallied 44 tackles and six pass break-ups in 11 games of action last season.
Junior Michael Grant will be among Richardson’s fiercest competition for the starting nod. Grant played in all 11 games last season garnering 22 tackles, seven pass deflections and three interceptions. Sophomores Shedrick Johnson and Jamar Love have spent most of their time on special teams thus far in their Razorback careers. The duo will attempt to add more snaps at cornerback to their resume beginning this spring.
While the cornerback spots appear to be a matter of letting the cream rise to the top, the competition for the safety positions may resemble a good old-fashioned tryout this spring. The Razorbacks are not without talented options at both free and strong safety, however, clear-cut starters have yet to be established.
Senior Randy Kelly has a slight edge in the race for the starting free safety spot entering spring practice. Kelly played some at both safety positions last year and started the final six games of the 2005 season at strong safety. With last year’s starting free safety Vickiel Vaughn now pursuing a pro career, Kelly will get first shot at taking over that lineup slot in 2006.
Kelly was second to Vaughn in tackles among Razorback defensive backs last season earning 58 stops. He provided a spark in Arkansas’ second-half comeback at Ole Miss returning an interception 42 yards for a touchdown.
If Kelly is a step ahead entering the spring, chances are that sophomore Elston Forte will be on the senior’s heels from the get-go. Forte was a regular in the secondary and on special teams in 2005 playing in 10 of the squad’s 11 games. He earned the first interception of his career against Louisiana-Monroe and saw more playing time as the season progressed. Sophomore Dallas Washington will be looking to earn a spot back on the field after sitting out last season. He played in all 11 games as a freshman, but was redshirted in 2005.
Perhaps the most intriguing position saga this spring will be at strong safety. Junior college transfer John West enrolled at Arkansas in January and has been installed as the starter at that position entering spring drills. West was a junior college All-America selection last season after making 50 tackles for the North Dakota State College of Sciences. The Razorbacks are hopeful that West is truly the right direction to go to in filling their vacant strong safety position.
Junior Kevin Woods and redshirt freshman Matt Harris will also line up at strong safety this spring. Woods collected 12 tackles and a pass break-up last season. He played primarily on special teams with spot duty in the secondary. Harris, the son of former Dallas Cowboys’ great Cliff Harris, will try and make the most of his spring opportunity to earn a spot in the strong safety rotation.
SPECIALISTS: Since arriving at Arkansas in 2002, punter Jacob Skinner has periodically exhibited the talent that could make him one of the best punters in the nation. In 2005, Skinner combined that potential with consistency and accuracy to make good on that promising forecast. Skinner had the best year of his career as a junior averaging 41.8 yards per punt. He ranked fourth in the SEC and 35th nationally with that average.
Last season, Skinner proved adept at landing punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and limiting some of the nation’s most potent punt returners to less-than-average performances. Skinner killed 15 punts inside the 20, including eight punts inside the 10-yard line. He forced 21 fair catches including three by USC’s Heisman Trophy Winner Reggie Bush.
Junior Jeremy Davis will back Skinner at punter, but will focus primarily on the vacant placekicking position. Last season’s placekicker, Chris Balseiro, has played out his eligibility leaving field goals and extra points up for grabs this spring. Davis will battle sophomore Brian Vavra for placement duties.
Davis averaged 39.2 yards per punt after coming on to replace Skinner in 2004. He played in six games for the Razorbacks. He didn’t play last season and has yet to attempt a collegiate placement kick. Vavra lettered in 2005 as a kickoff specialist, but doesn’t have a field goal or extra point to his name either. The spring will be a golden opportunity for one of the kickers to take a step forward in securing the starting placekicker job.
Vavra is once again the favorite to handle kickoff duties. Senior snapper Brett Goode is one of the leaders of the team and has proven to be a steady hand on and off the field for the Razorbacks.
RETURN SPECIALISTS: Arkansas made a commitment to improve its return game last season and the Razorbacks quickly saw the fruits of their labor. The Razorbacks averaged a nation’s best 29.2 yards per kickoff return in 2005 and boasted a first-team All-American return man in the process. Felix Jones became the first true freshman to garner first-team All-America honors in Razorback history after posting a 31.9 yard average on 17 kickoff returns. Jones became the first Arkansas player since 1982 to lead the league in that category thanks in large part to a 100-yard return for a touchdown against Mississippi State. He came up just shy of the national kickoff return statistical crown finishing second in the country following postseason play.
Joining Jones again on the back line of the kickoff return team will be Darren McFadden. McFadden averaged an impressive 29.0 yards per attempt in 2005 including a season-long return of 81 yards against No. 3 LSU. The Hogs will also have the talented option of utilizing redshirt freshman Michael Smith in that role in 2006.
Jones may also be the man to beat on punt returns this spring. Jones only returned one punt last season, but may be inserted to try and bolster the Hogs’ production on punt returns. Junior Peyton Hillis returned 16 punts last year and provided the Razorbacks with the most reliable set of hands on the squad. He will be a reliable reserve if someone else doesn’t step up. Sophomore Reggie Fish was recruited with punt returning responsibilities in mind, but the quick 5-7 dynamo struggled to field punts consistently. He will get another opportunity this spring and in fall camp.