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Thursday's Razorback practice was the best start to fall camp John L. Smith remembers seeing in 40 years as a coach.
"It was sharp, there was energy, it was forward, so it was a good first day for us," Smith said. "I complimented the guys. Regardless of how good a day it was, we have to understand that tomorrow has to be better."
It was the first ever practice as head coach of the Razorbacks for Smith, who was hired with a 10-month contract after spring drills. Smith's goal this upcoming season is to give UA Athletic Director Jeff Long no choice but to keep him on the payroll.
"I thought it went smooth. I wasn't really focused on John L. as much, but I think practice went smooth," junior running back Knile Davis said. ""I thought it went well. I thought we had a great attitude. I thought everybody was pretty much on the same page."
"Coach Smith, he's always been with us," junior guard Alvin Bailey said. "He hasn't changed a bit. He's the same old fired up guy out there. He's the same guy. He stays on us and makes sure we get the job done."
An experienced team took the field in the afternoon practice, led onto the temporary practice site (the intramural fields) by savvy veteran quarterback Tyler Wilson. The fifth-year senior could just as easily be in training camp with an NFL team right now and probably would have been a first round draft pick.
"I thought Tyler did a great job. Tyler's a great leader. He keeps us going out there. Just like after practice, he called them all together and said 'we have to get better tomorrow,'" Smith said.
Wilson is doing everything right. He has long since accepted the role as leader, and his teammates have accepted him in that role. Major adversity hit the team in the spring with the firing of Bobby Petrino, and from that point on he has taken everything up a notch.
"There were a number of ball that hit the ground, and some ball security things we've got to take care of," Wilson said. "But overall, I thought it was a pretty good day."
Backup QB at receiver
Brandon Mitchell's a leader too, but he knows his role has been as the backup quarterback. Mitchell is too talented athletically to play just a few if any snaps as the backup quarterback, so he worked at wide receiver in the off-season, and he worked at both spots on Thursday.
"It's something we really worked on in the summer," Wilson said. "I've got confidence that he's going to compete and be there for me."
Wilson and Mitchell began seriously talking about Mitchell splitting time at quarterback and receiver in the middle of June.
"Me and Tyler joked about it right after the spring game," Mitchell said. "We used to always throw to each other during warm ups, and he used to always say I had soft hands. We joked about it."
"He's just so athletic. He's so naturally gifted," senior receiver Cobi Hamilton said. "He can go out there and throw a seam ball, and he can go out there and catch a post. That's something a lot of players can't do around the country, and it's real special to have that kind of player on our team."
Mitchell was not sticking solely with one group at a time. He would line up at quarterback, go catch a pass at wide receiver and then come back with the QBs during the team session.
RBs in the slot
He was not the only player working at a new position. Senior tailbacks Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Dennis Johnson both saw action in the slot, and each caught passes from there in the team periods.
"Ronnie especially," Wingo said. "Ronnie did a great job. We had a little slam concept into the boundary, and he caught a slant. Was good. I think he could be really special at receiver."
Better numbers on the line
Though they return three starters, the offensive line is still fairly young across the board. The numbers are much better than they were in 2011 as some talented freshmen and sophomores have had a chance to develop.
"The depth has definitely grown. We have a lot of people who can play, and everybody's getting better," Bailey said.
Highsmith and Tank
The defensive line has a great look with plenty of bodies, but the area that looked a little thin coming into camp was linebacker. Arkansas coaches moved senior Tenarius Wright from defensive end to linebacker, a position he has always preferred over end, when senior Alonzo Highsmith went out before spring practices with a torn pectoral. The middle looks a lot more stout with both those seniors at MIKE and WILL for the first time together.
Defensive back rundown
In every defensive alignment Thursday, junior Jerry Mitchell lined up at one of the starting safety spots alongside junior Eric Bennett. Senior Ross Rasner did not see action in team drills at safety, but they usually went to a 4-2-5 look, with Rasner serving as the hybrid linebacker/safety known as the STAR.
Sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchel noticeably added needed weight to his frame in the spring, and it was apparent that he had added more when he arrived the first day of fall camp. He still looked super-quick. Senior cornerback Darius Winston seemed to be around the ball a good deal during the first practice.
Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage quarterback and 2012 Arkansas commitment Tyler Cogswell, 6-4, 226, was on hand watching practice and will be at practice again on Friday with his father. Cogswell plans to return to Fayetteville for the Alabama game and will take an official visit sometime after that.
The veterans practiced at 6:30 p.m., but before they took the field the newcomers got to work with a 3 p.m. start.
"This morning, athletically, there was some good things to look at our there, but it was going back to grade school," Smiths said. "We have a lot to work on, but there's some athleticism out there.
"They have to get into their playbooks. They have to understand and recognize and make those adjustments quicker than they are. So, it's a faster-moving game. I just expected fewer mistakes."
Freshman tight end/defensive end Jeremy Sprinkle will miss the entire camp while he recovers from surgery he had on an injured wrist. He will rejoin the team, but he will almost certainly redshirt this season.
It's a good bet that when Sprinkle does return he is given first look at tight end because the four freshmen defensive ends out there Thursday were a good-looking lot. Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston all have excellent size for the position, and Taiwan Johnson is a different kind of end but is still good-sized. Physically, it's the best-looking new group.
"There are three defensive ends that look as good as any class I can ever remember being around - probably better - that all stand out," Smith said. "Wise and Lewis and Winston, those three, they look the part, and they're all athletic."
The talk about true freshman defensive tackle Darius Philon is that he was a great player who was slightly on the smaller side for defensive tackle. He was a signing day commitment out of the blue, and he was bigger than this reporter expected based on reports.
Freshman Otha Peters physically looks ready to play on the inside at MIKE or WILL linebacker, and freshman safety Defonta Lowe has a high ceiling. Freshman Will Hines is big enough to be a safety, but he would have very good size at cornerback. Ray Buchanan Jr. may be the most polished of the three freshmen corners.
"I thought Otha Peters was...I mean, he looks like a man out there running around. It's a matter of grasping the game for all of these guys because it's a lot faster, but I liked what I saw from him," Smith said.
Jeremy Ward and Cordale Boyd are the only offensive linemen. Both are big kids, but it is unlikely either will be a tackle.
Memphis transfer Taylor Reed was the only newcomer at quarterback, but he had five new receivers to throw to in the first practice. Smith said freshmen Keon Hatcher and D'Arthur Cowan and junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson stood out to him the most on Day One.
"Wilson at wideout is a JC guy, so we have to count on him. He has to play. He looked good, so we just have to keep bringing him along. I was impressed with him.
"Hatcher, wide receiver, I really liked him. Cowan, I liked a lot."
The running backs are another good group, with a pair of 6-0, 205-pound backs in freshmen Donovan Roberts and Jonathan Williams. Williams looked nifty during drills and was the most highly recruited of the three new running backs. The most lightly recruited back was freshman Nate Holmes, who is a little taller than the other new backs but is probably 30 pounds lighter. Holmes showed an expected burst to go with surprising agility.