Arkansas will hold the first major scrimmage of 2011 spring drills Saturday during a 10 a.m. practice in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Odds are it will run for approximately 130 plays, given the pattern of past scrimmages. As of now, most weather services are predicting clear skies, temperatures in the low 70s and light winds. As long as weather permits and practices are outside, they are open to the public during the spring.
"We've had a couple of days of non-addition - if that makes sense - to polish up, to get better technique, to execute better in what we're doing. As a staff, we're looking for execution. There's going to be mental mistakes, but limited mental mistakes compared to what we have been in the past," UA special teams coach John L. Smith said following Friday's practice.
The weather was also nice during Friday's practice, which was largely spent in team drills, 7-on-7 and special teams.
Key Notes from Friday
True freshman wide receiver Quinta Funderburk was noticeably missing from practice Friday. Not to draw conclusions over cryptic Tweets, but his Twitter account has had tones of someone who is homesick for his home state of Virginia. Following practice, Funerburk's twitter page read "Older Tweet results for quinta funderburk are unavailable."
Safety Darrell Smith has missed the past few practices after undergoing an appendectomy. Defensvie end Jake Bequette was back after missing Wednesday.
The Hogs are working two players deep on kickoff return, something they have not done since before Smith, the special teams coach, arrived two years ago. Dennis Johnson returns after missing most of last season with an injury, and coaches are intrigued with the potential of true freshman Marquel Wade. Wade went through fall camp before being declared ineligible and having to spend a semester at New Berlin Academy.
"Now I've got to get back in the mode that it's college time now. It's time to get back on track and do the right thing," Wade said. "That's basically what I'm trying to do my first year - get in on the rotation at receiver and also the punt-return and kick-return so I can get in here and do something for my team.
"Nobody had to [re-]recruit. We didn't have to do any of that," Wade said. "My coach told me there was a lot of people recruiting me, but I wasn't really looking at everybody. I was just trying to get back here so I can do what I can do."
Senior wide receiver Greg Childs (patellar tendon) has missed all the team periods but has been doing more individual drills. He appears to be ahead of schedule but still is not expected to have any contact.
"I'm not going to any contact or things like that, but I'll come out the first of the week and run routes with my receivers and stuff like that. I'll do the drills and stuff like that," Childs said.
Defensive end Will Coleman was the team's deep snapper the final two games last season and is expected to retain that position this spring.
"We also expect there to be more competition at that spot next year," Smith said. "We expect to have some kids here who are going to give him a run for his money."
Sophomore kicker Zach Hocker, who Smith says needs to stretch more, is expected to add kickoff duties this coming season. As good as he was last year, Smith thinks there is much area for improvement with his flexibility, his 'get-off' time, his ability to get the ball up quicker and his punting technique. Smith feels one day in a couple of years Hocker could be the team's punter, so he needs to continue to work at that skill.
The Razorbacks are in the middle of a quarterback battle between junior Tyler Wilson and sophomore Brandon Mitchell. Wilson has more experienced with more polish, but Mitchell has come a long way and is also dangerous with his legs. All eyes will be on those two Saturday for their first major test.
"We installed heavily the first five days, and since then it's been a protection or two here or there, but it's been pretty basic," Wilson said.
After five practices, Wilson has the edge. But how big of a factor might Mitchell's legs be in moving the chains? It almost seems unfair not to make him live for tackling so coaches can evaluate just how dangerous he might be when he tucks and runs. How much time can he buy in the pocket? How much might that offset Wilson's edge as a pure passer?
The man one of them will replace, future NFL Draft pick Ryan Mallett, had a killer instinct in the fourth quarter. A couple of times Arkansas lost because of it, but they won at least four games because of Mallett's fourth quarter play. But why shouldn't fans feel confident in Wilson or Mitchell? After all, Petrino has churned out one great college quarterback after another…
In spite of Wilson's impressive three quarters off the bench at Auburn when he completed 25 of 34 passes (73.5 percent) for 332 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, he is still an unknown in many ways. He threw two critical interceptions in the final quarter of that Auburn game. Otherwise his fourth quarter action has been limited to mop-up duty. Wilson should be a very good quarterback, but 'should' doesn't mean 'is.'
A word of caution for fans
Last spring, fans at Florida felt pretty good about the transition from Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow to John Brantley. Why wouldn't they? Former Florida coach Urban Meyer has produced one great college QB after another, and the kid had a 194.9 passer rating in 2009 as a backup with 7 touchdowns and no interceptions. In 2010 as the starter, Brantley went on to throw for 2,061 yards, 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a bad 116.4 passer rating. National power Florida finished 8-5, the worst record of the Meyer era.
Texas fans were encouraged by freshman Garrett Gilbert when he subbed in for injured Colt McCoy in the 2009 BCS National Championship Game. Why shouldn't they have been encouraged heading into 2010? Mack Brown has churned out one great college quarterback after another. Gilbert passed for 2,744 yards, 10 interceptions and 17 touchdowns for another bad passer rating of 111.0 in 2010. Texas suffered the first losing season, 5-7, of the long Brown era.
Thin secondary for spring
Both quarterbacks have looked good in practice, but how much of that is due to so many inexperienced players in the secondary? Too few are receiving the bulk of the reps (though it's great for learning). The way Petrino runs practices, when they scrimmage it will be the first team offense vs. the first team defense. Then it's second against second and reserves against reserves.
While cornerbacks Darius Winston and Isaac Madison are talented and experienced, Arkansas' top seven healthy receivers are easily more talented and more experienced than the top seven healthy defensive backs. There are only five available on scholarship at cornerback, and one is De'Anthony Curtis, a senior journeyman who is at his third position in three years (first time on defense). To facilitate competition, Winston and Madison are playing the same position this spring and are never on the field at the same time (that will change in the fall).
There are only three healthy scholarship safeties because Daunte Carr and Smith have been out. Depending on the set and the spot, that could leave a very inexperienced sophomore corner in Jerry Mitchell and safetyEric Bennett on the same side of the field. Bennett is a talented young player, but he was playing cornerback last season as a true freshman and still has a lot to learn. It's Bennett at tight safety, Winston OR Madison at field corner, Mitchell on the boundary and All-SEC safety Tramain Thomas at open safety. That is the first team secondary for the spring. Right now, coaches can only count on half of those players playing at a consistently high level.
The same goes for the second team when it's experienced Elton Ford at tight, redshirt freshman Alan Turner at open, Winston OR Madison at field and senior reserve Greg Gatson or Curtis at the boundary. That is it for healthy scholarship players in the secondary. Turner may have talent, but with all the reps and everything being thrown at him, his head has to be spinning a bit right now. That is what the spring is for, though.
It is no wonder why there were so many 50-yard passes Thursday when the team ran 31 live tackle plays with the first and second teams. And it is no surprise why the defense played so well the first 15 or so plays until the offense started hitting deep balls. To go with being inexperienced as a complete group, they were tired. The receivers were fresh (and more experienced). And in a game, a defense is rarely on the field for that many plays in-a-row. Throw Turner in with the reserves and the other freshmen, and he is one of the best players on the field because of the experience he is gaining with the increased reps.