Former Missouri State head coach Randy Ball once told me that he envisioned me – a 5-foot-11, 191-pound, strong safety, with 4.74 speed – as a guy that could come in and help his secondary right away. Suffice it to say that no one from the University of Arkansas ever told me such things.
There is what some might refer to as a slight talent discrepancy between the Bears and Razorbacks; and by "slight," I mean to say that the Hogs have outscored their neighbors to the north by a combined 170 points in four meetings. With that in mind, then, you can understand my lack of interest as it pertained to Arkansas' 2011-'12 season opener with the pride of Springfield, Mo.
Blocks away, I was far too busy overindulging in a manner that included red solo cups and ping pong balls to notice – or care – that kickoff was approaching. When I finally did make the trek up the hill, stadium ushers were funneling students toward a never-ending ramp to Section 520 – which feels a lot like watching the game from a low-flying hot air balloon.
I remember the irrational groan of 70,000-plus, concurrent with Tyler Wilson's first misfire. I remember something about Jarius Wright catching a touchdown, and I remember laughing at the Missouri State punter for kicking to Joe Adams. That's pretty much it. I would estimate that we stayed for approximately 30 minutes, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting at Mexico Viejo, eating an enchilada.
Only two things managed to stand out: 1) Every fratastic fraternity dweller in Fayetteville was wearing the same stupid Columbia fishing shirt that I bought days prior, with the sole intention of achieving uniqueness. It was devastating. I wore it the following week in Little Rock, only because I felt financially obligated to do so, and officially retired the garment to the back of my closet. 2) Everyone loved junior defensive end Tenarius Wright.
Both developments were equally surprising, but the Tank Wright love fest seemed particularly noteworthy, given his defensive co-stars: Jake Bequette, Jerico Nelson and Jerry Franklin. After failing to attend a single Arkansas home game during the previous season, I was only vaguely aware of Wright; still, I was very familiar with Bequette, Nelson and Franklin. Yet, there I was, surrounded by 120-pound sorority girls, screaming for No. 43 on seemingly every snap: "Get 'em Tenariuuuss!"
Tank lived up to the advance-billing, leading the Hogs in quarterback hurries despite missing five games. When he went down with a broken arm versus Alabama, it left the Arkansas defense incredibly vulnerable. The Crimson Tide scored on four of its next six possessions – after going punchless on its previous two – to blow the game wide-open. By season's end, Wright was arguably the most effective Razorback defender.
With the graduation of Franklin and Nelson, Arkansas was left with only Alonzo Highsmith returning at linebacker, prompting Wright – a former prep linebacker – to playfully plea for the opportunity to replace Franklin in the middle of the defense. When Highsmith went down with a torn pectoral on the eve of spring camp, the joke was over. Tank was the mike.
"I think the big thing is in your mike backer you want a thumper," new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. "You want a guy who can sit there and take on the iso. I think you also want a guy who's a great leader. He sets it for us. He calls the defense for us and everything. Those are the things you look for out of a mike backer and that was one of the reasons why the move happened, because Tank gives us that."
Apparently, however, Wright isn't the only "thumper" in cardinal and white.
Running back Knile Davis broke the collective heart of Hog Country when he succumbed to a broken ankle last August. One year later, Davis is once again receiving All-American billing, but his level of effectiveness has remained a relative unknown. Will Davis be same runner that we saw in 2010?
Tenarius Wright now knows the answer to that inquiry all too well.
During what was supposed to be a non-contact drill on Monday, Wright met Davis in the hole, only to get truck-sticked. The 6-foot-2, 252–pound, linebacker had to be carted off of the field with an apparent concussion. At Tank's expense, it appears safe to assume that the Hogs' star halfback is all of the way back.
Joining Davis in a talented backfield are seniors Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo. In Davis' absence, Johnson emerged as a viable playmaker, leading the Razorbacks with 670 rushing yards, despite starting only six games. The pair provides Arkansas with the best backfield duo in college football.
Under center, quarterback Tyler Wilson is one of the top quarterbacks in the country – and, perhaps, the most talented signal caller in school history. Last season, he became the first Arkansas quarterback to be named first-team All-SEC since the Hogs joined the league in 1992. The senior from Greenwood, Ark., will need to locate replacements for Adams, Wright and Greg Childs, but looks primed for a stellar senior campaign, none the less.
Speaking of replacements, the top incumbent pass catcher, senior Cobi Hamilton, prevents any sort of drop off at the top of the depth chart for the Razorbacks. Anything short of an All-Conference caliber season for the Texarkana, Texas–native will equal enormous disappointment. Versatile tight end Chris Gragg is as good as any other in college football. Joining Hamilton and Gragg is, well, no one is quite sure. Marquel Wade has been dismissed from the university, leaving Julian Horton and a slew of unknowns. Word on the street is that backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell may play a key role on the receiving end of his predecessor's throws in 2012.
Prediction: 10-2 (6-2)
Were it not for a certain motorcycle crash alongside a highway in Madison County, Ark., the Razorbacks would have almost certainly been the trendy pick to hoist the crystal football in January. Without Paul Petrino's older brother, Arkansas' stock has plummeted. Talent-wise, the Hogs are as good as anyone in the country – particularly on the offensive side of the football. Having said that, John L. Smith is not exactly Vince Lombardi, and we've been over this already.