Arkansas held the final two-a-day practice of fall camp Wednesday afternoon in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but the grind and extra work will make the team stronger during the brutal Southeastern Conference slate.
For many of the seniors, a decade of annual two-a-day practices through junior high, high school and college has come to an end. At the next level, it's called mini camp.
"A happy emotion. It's not bittersweet at all yet, it's a happy thing to have that last two-a-day behind me because I know I've had quite a few of them," senior defensive end Jake Bequette said following the afternoon workout. "I'm sure it'll be bittersweet in a few months or something."
The Hogs will hold a closed scrimmage Thursday night from 7-9 p.m. Part of the practice will be spent focusing on new players in live-tackle situations, many of whom are still working at multiple positions. The film coaches get from tomorrow will go a long way in determining redshirts, positions and more.
"There's still a lot that we're throwing at them," Razorback head coach Bobby Petrino said. "They go into the meeting room, they learn something new every day. Right now, for a lot of them, every day is a new day. There's not a lot of carryover. I think once we settle down and get into next week and we start all over again and re-teach everything, we'll see them start to play faster and reacting. But I'll tell you what, I'm really happy with that class. It's a good class."
The Razorbacks spent a lot of the early part of practice focusing on special teams. Colton Miles-Nash blocked back-to-back John Henson kicks from 32 yards out. Miles-Nash also blocked the final Ohio State punt last season in the Sugar Bowl that put the Hogs in position for a chance to win the game, so he appears to have a knack for it.
This has not been the toughest fall camp that Bequette has ever been a part of, mainly because the team is more talented and everyone is on the same page. He was here in 2008 in Petrino's first year.
"Obviously the first one was the toughest one for us three years ago because we didn't know what to expect. Coach P. came in and really pushed us. He's pushing us again this year. I think, one thing, we're more talented. And the second thing is we know what to expect, and the coaches know what to expect from us," the All-SEC end said.
Before the newcomers got a chance to get extra work at the end of practice in team on Thursday, the veterans did some non-tackle work. Junior quarterback Tyler Wilson was of 6 of 9 passing for 72 yards. Sophomore Brandon Mitchell was 9 of 10 for 74 yards and 1 interception, which came on a tipped ball to safety Eric Bennett. Wilson had his first bad start in the morning practice, going 0-for-5, but he recovered nicely and hit 16 of his next 19 passes.
"We're slower than I want to [be]," Petrino said. "I want to go quicker, I want to do a better job in blitz pickup, I want to do a better job in our accuracy. But I can say one thing - they work hard, they're very coachable, and it's important to them. They'll get there, but we need to do it quicker."
Young backs improving
A week ago, Arkansas lost star tailback Knile Davis for the season with a severe ankle injury.
"We see Knile every day, and he's still down," Petrino said. "How could you not be? He worked extremely hard to get his body in position to have a great year, and it's hard on him. But he does have a smile on his face most days. He was in the weight room lifting yesterday. He's going to continue to train his upper body and get ready to make a great comeback."
On Tuesday, junior backs Dennis Johnson (lightly tweaked hamstring) and Ronnie Wingo (illness) weren't able to go, so freshmen Kody Walker and Kelvin Fisher Jr. saw action in live tackle for a 32-play drill. Walker had 13 carries for 99 yards, and Fishr had 9 for 42. Johnson and Wingo both had full participation on Wednesday.
"You're either the hammer or the nail. There were a number of times they were the hammer, there were a number of times they were the nail," Petrino said. "They ran hard. I thought they got an awakening a little bit as to how the secondary tackles and how you hit. They learned that they need to get their pads down and explode."
Smothers still first team, Stringer at guard
It is easy to see Petrino likes what he has seen from the 2011 recruiting class. True freshman Mitch Smothers, from just up the road in Springdale (Ark.), has now gone a full week working as the starting weakside tackle.
"He's just a great technician. He really kick-slides well, he's patient, he shoots his hands, he's strong and very quick," Petrino said. "He's made some assignment errors, he's went the wrong way a couple of times. They called plays a little bit different than we do, so he's went the wrong way, but I like him a lot."
Another newcomer, junior college transfer Chris Stringer, is listed at 6-foot-7, as are others on the roster, but he is likely the tallest person on the team. He worked at guard on Wednesday instead of his usual work at tackle.
"We're kind of waiting and seeing. We've been rotating those guys around, trying to find out what's the best position, guard or tackle. They sure look nice next to each other when they come out of the huddle, all those great big bodies," Petrino said.
Highsmith a quick study
Another junior college transfer, weakside lineabcker Alonzo Highsmith, is also making a name for himself. Highsmith has been rolling with the first team defense since the first day of camp. Terrell Williams and JUCO transfer Robert Atiga are backing up Jerry Franklin in the middle, and pBret Harris and Jarrett Lake are backing up Highsmith. Thanks to some junior college players potentially panning out, there could be good depth at linebacker.
"Highsmith is doing a real nice job," Petrino said. "He can run, he's smart, you can tell that he grew up in a football family because he's picked things up so quick. He understands the language. When you talk about different terms, he knows that. For him, the learning curve has been very, very fast."
Franklin has also been impressed with Highsmith's ability to take the meeting room with him to the field.
"He's a quick learner, ever since he first got on campus. I was in the meeting room once, I showed something a couple of times, and he was able to pick up with it. When we come out and do position work in the summertime, he's a quick learner. That's one thing I like about him, he learns fast," Franklin said.
Veterans in secondary
True freshman field cornerback Tevin Mitchel has impressed during camp and should help the Hogs this fall. His play likely made it possible to move Jerry Mitchell to safety, which is a better fit for him.
"He has a lot of talent. Coming in, I worked with him a lot in the summertime. He has great burst. He's got some wheels, so I like it. He's going to be a real attribute to the secondary this year," Madison said of Mitchel.
Ultimately, it's going to be up to the veterans who have been competing for years to make sure this is a solid secondary.
"I'm excited about our secondary. We've gotten great leadership back there from Tramain [Thomas] and Isaac [Madison]. Elton [Ford]'s having probably his best preseason that he's had. He really understands what's going on. And a lot of competition at that other corner spot."
Defensive line shows great potential
The quarterbacks have put up some pretty impressive numbers against the defense the past few weeks, but it is important to consider the quarterbacks know they're not getting hit, the receivers know they're not getting drilled over the middle, they play out every play whether it would have been a sack or not, and the receivers are sometimes asked to stay in coverage for more than five seconds, which is pretty much impossible. The secondary is ready to see the front seven hit some other team's players.
"The secondary's best friend is a defensive lineman, just as the offensive lineman are the running back's. They get that pressure, that makes our job a whole lot easier," Madison said.
Something else that should help is the defenses work against the no-huddle offense. It's first team versus first team in practices, so it benefits both, but last season teams tried to speed up on Arkansas to prevent them from getting set, and it worked and was effective at slowing down Arkansas' pass rush.
"We have a good plan, I think. We're not executing it right all the time, but we have a good plan. We've worked hard on it all off-season," Petrino said. "Getting the call in, getting lined up and executing. Fatigue plays a factor, there's no question, particularly out here when it's 100 degrees. When we change to no-huddle, we go 12 plays in-a-row and try to go fast, so it's been great conditioning for us."
No new players were missing from practice other than receiver Greg Childs, who is always scheduled to miss the second practice during two-a-days as his knee continues to get acclimated to practice.