FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt met with members of the media on Monday to preview the 2006 season. Following is a partial transcript.
“I would like to start off by giving just a little tidbit of information. This is something you probably already know, but this schedule is a tremendous challenge. I don’t know if you realize that the opponents we’re getting ready to play this year have combined to win 28 national championships in football. It tells you a little bit about why people are excited to see the helmets that will come through the stadiums this year. It’s a great schedule. It’s a tremendously, tremendously challenging schedule.
“We’re off on the right foot. We’ve had a couple of practices. The freshmen have done a good job. It’s good that they can be here in the summer. They’re still going to school right now. That’s why we’re moving some things around, plus the heat. Our seniors have led the way. I love what they’ve done. They’ve really taken ownership. This is the most seniors I’ve had, other than the ’98 and ’02 seasons, and that’s been a real plus. The main thing is they’ve had tremendous listening skill so far. I know it’s early, but they’ve had a bounce in their step and they’re coming to practice, and that’s exactly what you want in camp.
“We are much more confident this year. If you re-wound to last year, I think there’s a night-and-day difference. We’re further ahead. The defense understands Reggie’s (Herring, defensive coordinator) system much better. We’re playing very fast and at a confident level that we have to have in this league. We have to lean on our defense. Our defense is led by Sam Olajubutu. These guys, our front, have been there – Marcus Harrison, Keith Jackson, Jamaal Anderson and Anthony Brown. We need these guys to be the leaders of our team and to put out fires at different times. I think they can. We just have to stay healthy and stay on the field.”
Preparing for the schedule:
“I’m really glad (Southern Cal) is the first game. This game is going to be talked about. If we had another game before, we could look through it. We’re getting ready. We’ve had a good camp so far. We’re off to a good start. We have to make sure that we take these other 27 opportunities and not waste a minute. This game is out there. Our players know it. They know we were embarrassed last year. We have a great opportunity right here at home. We’ll have probably one of the largest crowds in Arkansas Razorback history. The atmosphere is going to be electric so let’s go play, but let’s get ready to play first.
“We have a lot of returning starters, which is good, but we were still 4-7, which is unacceptable. I don’t want those same starters back that were 4-7. I want a different group, a more experienced group, a more confident group and a smarter football team. I want us to learn from our mistakes. That’s a key thing we’ve talked about. It’s good to have a lot of returning starters, but I don’t want the same people that won four games. I want it to be different.”
“All three of them have had two good days. Casey Dick has no problems physically. Robert Johnson had a good day. He gets a little sore, a little tight at the end of practice, but at the end of practice he gets treatment and is ready to go for the next day. Hopefully we can get him through that sports hernia. He’s doing a good job. Mitch Mustain, for a freshman with the things we’re throwing at him, I think he’s handling himself very, very well. He’s throwing a nice ball. I’ve been really proud of him. I can’t remember having three quarterbacks of this caliber. We think all three could go in there and play. I think that’s a good thing.
“We’re trying to do this as quickly as possible (settle on a starter and backup), yet make it as fair as we can. We’re hoping within a week-and-a-half, we can say ‘This is the guy that we’re going with. Here’s the next guy,’ and really start zeroing in. Right now it’s good. We have a long line of receivers we’re also trying to evaluate, so I think with the three we have it’s working out fine, but it needs to happen pretty quickly.
“What it is going to come down to is, ‘Who is the guy who can step in that huddle that understands what we want to get done?’ I’m talking about a full understanding of what the other 10 are doing. Who is going to take care of the ball, distribute the ball with accuracy, keep it away from the defenders? Who is going to be the leader that has the intangibles when it’s third-and-six to consistently be able to execute to get us seven? Who is the guy that can consistently take this team and put it in the end zone? That’s what it comes down to. I know it sounds simple, but when you’re out there and there are bullets going off and the heat is one, the defense is running around very, very fast, who is the guy that can keep his cool, get us in the right play, and we’re not asking him to be Superman every play, we’re asking him to maybe get us out of a bad play, and that’s it. For the next few weeks, that’s what we’re looking for every single day.
“The only reason I think the gap between Casey and Robert is narrow is because of the spring, because Casey wasn’t full speed during the spring. We find that out afterwards and say ‘Oh, okay, I understand now.’ Robert had a very good spring. I think the one thing the quarterbacks realize is they have to come out here and perform every day. I don’t think we’re at a point where somebody can have a bad couple of days. It goes back to who is the most consistent and takes care of the ball. Who is going to lead our team each day, day in and day out? You need your leader to be the most consistent player on the field.”
Michael Grant at safety:
“The biggest transition he will face is getting back in centerfield, not letting anything get over his head and taking proper angles. At corner last year, he was up in a receiver’s face. Now, he has to be a little bit more patient and make sure no one, no one gets behind him. He’s doing a great job getting hash-to-hash and getting lined up. Hopefully he can take off right where he left off in the spring. The very first practice, Coach (Louis) Campbell throws a ball up to him and the bone in his left hand comes out. Dean (Weber, trainer) puts it right back in and tapes it up, and he comes right back out to practice after 30 or 35 minutes. He’s shown a level of maturity that we have to have. We’re counting on him.”
Biggest surprise so far:
“It’s early, but if there’s a surprise player in the two practices we’ve had, it’s Jamar Love from North Little Rock. This guy has done an excellent job with covering and being physical. You never know when the light will go on. You recruit these guys and you hope for the best. Last year, things weren’t happening, but he was a freshman. This year, he seems a little bit different. Desmond Williams and Dallas Washington are stronger because of the summer workouts. They’re a little bit more confident and they’re one year older. I would have to go with those guys so far.”
Depth at tailback:
“A lot of people would love to have Peyton Hillis and Felix Jones. That is where we’ve helped ourselves. I’m really thankful that we have that caliber of quality backs, otherwise we would really be scared to death. We feel good that we have a guy like Felix who has some playing time. He’s an All-American kick returner who can make people miss and he can run. We also have a guy like Peyton Hillis, who is a different kind of back. He’s very physical and is probably in the best shape he’s ever been in in his life. I’m glad to have both of them.
“Felix is a very patient runner. He’s maybe not the home run hitter that Darren McFadden is, but I tell you, he is right there with him. This is probably the first year that he’s spent a whole year with football. He always went from football to basketball to track. His quickness is much better. He is very, very quick; very elusive. He has the ability to get sideways in a hurry. He can get away from a defender with a move he has that excites me because a would-be tackler could get an average back down, but he can make that guy miss and then he can get vertical in a hurry. That’s where his speed picks up. You can see he’s gotten stronger. I’m excited about Felix this year. We need him. Then you add Peyton Hillis to the mix. He’s a different kind of back to tackle. Those are two excellent tailbacks that we’ll need on the field. I’m excited about their seasons.
“Because of Darren McFadden’s touches, (with him out) you have to figure Felix and Peyton will carry the load. That’s not to say we will use Peyton strictly as a tailback. We can’t do that. He’s still one of our best receivers. He will still be involved in a role outside of tailback. How much depends on the flow of the game, how things are going and how Felix is doing. His role (at tailback) probably got lessened a little bit, but I still think we can be very effective using him at different positions. When you lose a back the caliber of McFadden, there’s a little more emphasis on the guy lining up seven yards deep. That’s an important position.
“Michael Smith needs to do just what he’s done the first two days (to get a look at playing time), which is stay on the field. He’s made some good runs. He’s shown some quickness. He’s very elusive and he’s done some good things, but we need him to just stay on the field. We’ve started out great, but we want to make sure he’s stretching and re-stretching before he goes out there and preparing for everything because he’s got to stay on the field. If he can stay on the field, he’s another one that can help us and allow us to do more things with Peyton. He is a key component if we can keep him healthy.”
“I’ve been really proud of Farod Jackson. He’s really stepped us for us and accepted his role. He’s come back confident. I don’t think he’s missed an assignment. For a little depth, we’ve added Mitch Petrus to the mix. We’re still working him at guard so he’s not a fulltime fullback, but there’s a big body that can move. It will be interesting to see how he does as we wind down through two-a-days, but he’s very physical. We always have Peyton there, too. That’s where he’s so valuable because you can use him at so many different positions.
“If we went out there right now, the first backfield would be Peyton Hillis and Felix Jones.”
New wide receivers:
“At wide receiver and linebacker, we knew we signed some good players, and it’s even more evident when you see them physically. These guys are very, very mature. When you watch them in line, they don’t act like high school seniors anymore. They look like college players and I mean second-year players. If you look at London Crawford physically, it excites you because he looks like a sophomore in college. Damien Williams is very talented. Carlton Salters, Andrew Norman and Marques Wade are as well. Marques Wade is limping around right now. He has a turf toe that he hurt the last week of summer workouts, but he is talented. These guys have raised the level. I think the older guys have taken notice and you see those guys picking it up a little bit, and that’s what you need. That’s what competition does. As you know, that’s the area where we needed a little help. We’re looking for one or two of those guys to really help us. We’re giving them a lot of information right now. Everything is fast-forward. They’ve responded very, very well. They are realizing the pace of practice is different and the intensity is different. They’re realizing they’re going to have to go against a Chris Houston, who can bench press 400 pounds and runs 4.4. There’s no free-lancing. By that I mean there’s not a guy that’s off of you eight or nine yards. They are in your face. That’s the biggest adjustment for them, but I love their intensity and their toughness. Now let’s see if they can carry that on through the grind and heat of two-a-days.”
Returning receivers Chris Baker, Rod Coleman and Cedric Logan:
“Baker, Coleman and Logan are getting a serious, serious look right now. You can tell their intensity is at an all-time high because they see the lines are long. We talk about the word ‘next,’ and that’s what we have right now. They will get a good look. This week needs to be their week. They need to come on. They’ve given us great effort so far.”
The kicking game:
“I feel good about our punting game with Brett Goode at deep snapper. Jacob (Skinner) is back. He had a very good year last year. Our coverage was very good. Our punt return game, I think, is going to be even better. I don’t know who that will be. If we played tonight, it would be Peyton Hillis because he’s a year older and we trust him. He’s going to have some competition there. Our kickoff return team was No. 1 with Felix Jones leading the way. The only thing you don’t go to sleep feeling good about is who is the kicker? Who is the guy that can put the ball between the uprights consistently when we pass the 30-yard line? Everything is being documented every single day. We’re keeping up with these guys. We’re going to be very, very detailed with this guy and hopefully one of them steps up and makes this thing happen for us because that’s just been a thorn in our side. Even on the kickoff team, you want a kicker who is very consistent. If he can’t kick it out of the end zone, give us some hang time so we can get down there. We’ve got enough speed to cover it, but we’ve got to do a better job on the kickoff team. Other than that, I feel good about our kicking game. Who is the kicker that can put points on the board and take pressure off the offense?”
Young offensive linemen and offensive line overall:
“They are young, but we’ve probably never had as many freshmen that are as athletic as we have with (Ray) Dominguez, DeMarcus Love and (Michael) Aguirre. These guys are very, very athletic. I would love to redshirt them. Hopefully if we keep everybody healthy, we can get that done, but the thing you see immediately, even without pads, is they aren’t shy. They have great footwork, a great first step. They are going to be big, strong guys. Those kinds of offensive linemen you have to sign each year. They will be very, very good.
“I feel like we have a good, good first group. Stephen Parker, (Jonathan) Luigs, (Robert) Felton, (Tony) Ugoh and (Zac) Tubbs, hopefully we get him back. We’ve never had the lines that we have with Chase Pressley and Nate Garner is doing a very, very good job. Nate Garner is now a 400-pound bencher. We’re excited about him. Jeremy Harrell is a fighter. Then you add the rest of those guys – Colin Tucker, Andrew Davie and Jose Valdez. They’re all fighters and good, tough guys. We have not had that. We’re nice and three-deep right now. I’m not saying they’re all All-Americans, but we have numbers that allow us to practice at a good tempo and you’re stacking that group. The freshmen we signed just add to it. I’m excited about where we are and the way we’re recruiting for the offensive line.
“We’re working really hard at protection (offensive line overall). This is the toughest league in America – very, very athletic and very fast. Your kick steps and foot work have to be perfect and at the proper angle. We’re working hard. These guys have gotten a little more confident. We’ve spent time on team pass, third-and-eight, third-and-seven and third-and-six, but you don’t want to lose your toughness and the thing that has been so good for us is that run-blocking ability. You want to have balance. That’s what we’re striving for. You have to be good at both.”
“We have Wes Murphy, Mason Templeton, Marc Winston, Lance Thompson and Ben Cleveland. There’s another position that hasn’t been talked about as much because of the attention at receiver and linebacker. We’re asking a lot. We need those guys to step up. We know they can run block – Wes can do that and Mason has played in this league. We need a guy that can move, a route runner that can make some catches consistently.”