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April 17, 2012
Bobby Petrino was fired for cause at Arkansas one week ago, but the on-field qualities he demanded from his coaches and players continue to show in his absence.
While offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is upset due to his family connection to the situation, professionally this is an opportunity for him to show what he can do with great players and this offense.
"I think everything in life, there's a reason for it one way or another," Paul said. "Obviously it's a very sad, sad thing for me and my family. But as far as work, it's an opportunity, so I've got to go out there and do my best and show everybody what I can do."
On the football field, Paul is able to take his mind off his brother and his unfortunate situation.
"Same old fiery offensive coordinator that came here," junior center Travis Swanson said. "The same guy I know. Nothing's really changed amongst the entire team except that we have more chemistry now and we're a lot closer."
"I'd say the most consistent thing is just stay the fight, keep fighting, keep doing what you're doing, keep working as hard as you can, and just do everything you can to help make the team better," Paul said. "It's a way to go out there and really worry about nothing but what my job is on this play, what my technique is on this play and how I'm going to get better on this play and not worry about anything else.
"I think sometimes when you have different things going on in your life and you're an athlete or a coach, the nicest thing is to go out there on that practice field, to be honest with you. Sometimes the days you don't practice are harder than the days you practice because you have to sit around and think about it. But when you get out there on the grass, get to run around and play, and that's something that you love and something we love to do as coaches, really that's the best part of every day right now when you're out at practice."
Here's your role model
One of the main things Bobby tried to develop was leadership from within, meaning the players had to take ownership of the team. Every season plenty of players have stepped up into specific leadership roles, but none in the past have at the level of quarterback Tyler Wilson...none have had such an opportunity.
"It's an opportunity not only for us but for them, as well," Wilson said. "We have a good season with these guys, they'll have a lot of opportunities and continuation here or whatever else. You don't want to look too far into the future, but it's an opportunity for everybody, and I think that's a great thing."
Paul said last Friday that he doubted any quarterback in the country is having as good of a spring as Wilson has been having. And even after that he seemed to indicate that Tuesday's practice was Wilson's best.
"It'd be hard for us to go out there and find a quarterback out there that's had a better spring ball than him. If you did, then he's Superman because he's been real sharp," Paul said.
Swanson, heading into his third season as a starter, has watched Wilson's development as a leader up close.
"Tyler, the biggest thing I've seen from last year to this spring ball is his vocal leadership," Swanson said. "He's that guy that you don't have to worry about trying to get everyone higher and together and stuff like that. He's just that guy that you can go to and get the job done."
"I'm so proud of this team," senior receiver Cobi Hamilton said. "I guess we've been through a lot of stuff before, so we came together. We've got a lot of older guys that made this thing possible. I'm just grateful to my teammates for coming every day to practice and keeping a great attitude."
First-team opportunity for backup QBs
The focus of the spring is to build competition and to develop players. With Wilson being a senior, Arkansas needs to get a quarterback ready for the future, and most likely that will be rising junior Brandon Mitchell or redshirt freshman Brandon Allen.
"I'd like to see them with the ones in the second half [of the Red-White Scrimmage Saturday]. I think in the second half it'd be good to get them both a series with the ones, at least one series if not more," Paul said. "I think they both really improved in the last week-and-a-half. Last [Friday] they maybe didn't have all the production that they should have, but a couple of that was a couple of dropped balls or guys missing their blocks. But they've both come along, they understand the offense a lot better.
"Brandon Mitchell made a couple of plays where he stepped up in the pocket, moved, made plays, did things that he does athletically. Then Brandon Allen can flat throw the ball. He can stand in there and has a quick release and can put it right on the money.
"We're very fortunate right now. We've got three quarterbacks that can really play the position and are good players. There's a lot of programs out there that wish they had any one of the three of them. I know that for a fact."
Swanson shows leadership
Back to Swanson, he is one of the many players on the 2012 version of the Razorbacks to step up his leadership. Swanson first emerged in the spring of his redshirt year and eventually unseated and incumbent starter at center full-time.
"You can go put on film from about two years ago and see how much smaller I was and things like that," Swanson said. "It just kind of puts a grin on my face. It's just a big difference, night and day."
Offensive line coach Chris Klenakis likes the way Swanson has stepped up not only vocally but also by example.
"Travis is a three-year starter," Klenakis said. "He's started 26 games for us. He's played in big games, he's played in two major bowls, and it's his time, it's his time. It's his third year being a starter, and we're asking him to be a leader. And he's accepting the role and the responsibility.
"He has really become a better student of the game. That's been his big improvement. He understands the game, the way defenses are doing things, and he's able to help the younger players by being that student of the game. The other thing Travis has really improved is his effort. He played hard - don't get me wrong - as a freshman, he played hard as a sophomore, but he's playing even harder now. He's taking it to another level in his effort."
"He's our leader up front," Paul said. "Swanson's a guy that controls everything up front. He does a lot of the calls for us, but he comes and works hard every day, and he gets those guys ready to practice. I think each position group, when you can be really good as a team, is when each position group has a leader within, and right now I think that's something that we're real fortunate on offense that we have one of those guys in each group.
"You have Tyler Wilson at quarterback, you have really three of them at running back because they're all veterans, Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and [Ronnie] Wingo [Jr.]. You've got Cobi Hamilton at receiver, you've got Chris Gragg at tight end, and you've got Travis Swanson on the offensive line. So when you have all that leadership within, if they can all come every day."
There is little doubt the players want the current staff to stay in place at least through the season, and some key members of the team have expressed that opinion to Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics Jeff Long.
"Team-wise, Knile and I and a few of the other guys have gotten the opinion of the rest of the team and went up there and voiced it," Wilson sasid. "We've definitely told them we'd like to keep this staff intact. We're comfortable with it. It's the reason I'm the player I am, because I'm familiar with the offense and familiar with the system, and change is tough. I think, especially for this year, I'd like to keep everybody intact. And whatever happens I'm going to respect the administration."
The coaches cannot feel safe right now, especially the assistants with their single-year contracts, but they do not let it show.
"They've just been being their normal selves," Hamilton said. "They've been great coaches, great leaders. They're just doing everything they've been doing since this stuff all happened. We have a great coaching staff, and I stand behind them. I'm real comfortable around them."
Taver Johnson came to Arkansas just months ago from Ohio State to take over coaching the Razorback linebackers and to assume the role of assistant head coach. With Bobby out of the picture, Johnson is now in charge of administrative duties. However, Long is expected to make a choice on an interim coach between a few candidates on the staff after the spring...that is unless he makes a new hire.
"Your coordinators make your decisions when it comes to schematics on the field, and administratively right now, Taver's got that authority," Klenakis said. "We're a very experienced staff here. We've got a lot of guys that have got a lot of years under their belts, and each man is taking care of his job and doing their role within the program, and that's what makes a program, everybody knowing their role."
"When all this kind of came down on us, you could tell the entire team, not only the coaches, came together, and we will not let this affect us," Swanson said. "We still have the same goals and everything, all the coaches. We had a big meeting saying none of our goals have changed. We're going to do the same thing, we're going to go throughout the season whatever happens, and we're going to go for the national championship."
Paul has to wear a lot of hats these days.
"I've been scripting more," he said. "Obviously my role has increased on offense because we lost an offensive coach that wasn't your typical head coach. He did a lot of work during the day in the offensive staff room. Did a lot of the scripting, did a lot of different things. I've kind of taken on all that besides what I was doing all before. But, it's been fun, it's been great. We've been going out there and keeping it consistent for the players, and they players really doing the same things they've done every day has helped us. That's why we've been successful. That's why we've had a real good spring."
One has to ask, with all the added responsibilities that comes with being an interim coach, would there be enough hours in the day for him to coach quarterbacks, coordinate the offense, run practices, be the face of the program and take over administrative head coaching responsibilities?
"When I went up [to Illinois] I had to teach the offense, I had to teach how we practice, I had to teach everything. These guys already know how to do it, we've just got to keep doing it, so it's a lot easier here," Paul said. "I was up there, and I ran everything offensively. Coach [Ron] Zook was a defensive coach and a special teams guy and kind of left me alone, and I did whatever I wanted to do in the offensive room. So I handled running the room. I think sometimes with time away you grow up, you mature more, and there's no question I'm more prepared now."
Whoever is named interim coach may also be subject to having to stay back in the recruiting periods, as well. By NCAA rules, the head coach cannot hit the road during the spring evaluation period and can only visit prospects one time during late November, December and January, and Paul's long reach as a national recruiter could be affected if he's named in the interim.
The past couple springs Arkansas has made the Red-White Scrimmage s game-like as possible, splitting up the teams and the coaching staff and putting together good matchups. This year, expect Arkansas to pit the first team offense against the second team defense and the second team defense against the first team offense. In every other scrimmage this spring, however, the first teams have gone against each other.
"We've talked about it, and right now we're leaning to where it's going to be ones against twos so we can keep everything consistent and easy, so guys can play with guys they've been playing with all spring," Petrino said. "We're looking to go out there and get better. We've had a good spring, we've had a great spring.
"We want to go out there Saturday and execute. That's kind of what it's all about is everybody doing their job one play at a time, everyone playing as hard as they can and execute. That's really what we want to see on Saturday is great execution. I think it'd be awesome to see a bunch of fans come out, support the players, support the program and just get ready for a great season for next year."
"I hope it's going to be packed," Gragg said. "I want all the fans to come out there. This is our first time as the 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks to put on a show for our fans, and that's what we want to do."
Peacock working way back
Senior tackle Jason Peacock is working his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff following an arrest at the beginning of the spring. He has been back a couple of weeks, now.
"He's working hard to get back where he needs to be. Everybody is," Klenakis said. "This is spring football, and that's competition. I'm a big believer in competition. I do not go into spring ball saying 'this guy is my starter.' I'm going to try a lot of different combinations, and I'm going to get things ready for the future."
Hamilton said he came out of last Friday's scrimmage early because he took a shot to the head. Defensive end Tenarius Wright has an exterior injury on his knee and came out early but is fine. Junior tight end Austin Tate has been active this spring but also came out early Friday.
"He was out there today not practicing, walking around," Paul said. "Again, I'm not supposed to talk about those types of things. That's for the doctors and the trainers, but he was out there and looked fine walking around today."
Paul indicated that it is unlikely Tate will play Saturday.
As for Tuesday's practice, Paul was encouraged.
"I thought we went out there today and had a real good practice," he said. "We definitely had some periods where one period we just ran the ball, we taught them to get tough running the ball. I thought it went well, both sides of the ball flew around and got after each other.
"We had a period where it was all blitz. I thought we did a lot of good things there. Had another period where it was just four-man rush, what we call P.U.P., pass under pressure. Got a bunch of reps in there and then kind of finished up with a run/play-action period. So, we went out there today and had some definite things, some situations we wanted to get better at, and it was a real good practice, and I think everyone got better out there today."
The Razorbacks will get back to work Wednesday at approximately 3:45 p.m. and will wrap up at approximately 6 p.m. The team is off Thursday, and Friday's practice is closed without media availability afterwards. Saturday's Red-White Scrimmage is open to the public, with kickoff set for 2 p.m.