Tuesday, July 26, 2011

SPORTS>>Defensive line makes difference

Special to The Leader

Variously, pundits prefaced “offensive genius” before Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino, South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier, Auburn Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn and Florida Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis.

Weis is new to the SEC, but perhaps humbled by his head coaching failure at Notre Dame after being the genius coordinating Tom Brady and Co. to Super Bowl victories with the New England Patriots, may have seen enough film to concur with what Petrino, and likely fellow SEC veterans Malzahn and Spurrier, too, espouse.

However confident you are in your offensive scheme and the players operating it, do not underestimate the defensive speed they are up against in the SEC. Particularly, don’t underestimate it up front, Petrino told Wednesday’s edition of SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

The difference, Petrino said in his coaching Louisville annually to big success to the 5-7, 8-5, 10-3 progression at Arkansas, was the different leagues.

“Well, I’ve always believed,” Petrino said, “since I was in the conference as an assistant (Auburn offensive coordinator in 2002), then coached in another conference (Conference USA) as a head coach, that the thing that separated the SEC from everybody else in America was the defensive front. The speed, athleticism on the edges, athleticism inside. I found that out when I came back as a head coach in the league that that was true.”

It besets offensive linemen with problems not covered in the playbook.

“That is one of the big differences in the SEC,” Petrino said. “Those defensive front guys, how talented they are, and how hard it is to be an offensive lineman. To be an offensive lineman you have to back up and have some of the best athletes in the world coming at you going forward full speed. There’s no question it separates our conference from a lot of others.”

And makes it more Arkansas disconcerting offensively that troubled tackle Anthony Oden has been dismissed from the program on the heels of 2010 senior starting offensive tackles DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez completing their eligibility.

Petrino nonetheless ex-pressed confidence in the three offensive tackles left from spring drills’ top quartet, January-enrolled true-freshman Brey Cook of Springdale Har-Ber, January-enrolled junior-college transfer Jason Peacock and fifth-year senior Grant Freeman of Paris.

“I’m real happy with Brey Cook,” Petrino said. “He’s big, physical, was very, very well-coached in high school, utilized the same techniques and fundamentals that we teach which really helped him make that transition.”

He continued to talk about Peacock and Freeman.

“Jason Peacock was a junior college transfer that came in this spring,” Petrino said. “Everything was new to him. He didn’t really understand the offense, but he showed tremendous ability to kick, slide, run block, utilize his hands. Grant Freeman has been with us for all four years that I’ve been there. He came in as a tight end, continued to get bigger and stronger. Hopefully he will be one of those guys who has a great fifth-year senior year.”

They and new JC transfer Chris Stringer must tackle a mighty task offensively.

Arkansas’ defense seems up to speed to inflict SEC pressure on SEC foes.

“I’m excited for our defense this year,” Petrino said, “because I really feel like it’s the first time when we’re physically where we need to be on the defensive front. Our inside guys will be big and physical and athletic. We’ve got speed on the edges which matches what we see every week in the conference.”

The core of freshmen taking their defensive lumps during that 5-7 2008 has stayed the course. So has defensive coordinator Willy Robinson with annually improving results since that rough 2008.

Defensive-tackles coach Bobby Allen, previously an Arkansas assistant from 1998-2007 under Houston Nutt, and linebackers coach Reggie Johnson also were on the 2008 staff. Special-teams coordinator/outside linebackers coach John L. Smith arrived in 2009 followed by defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell in 2010.

“I think the second thing that really contributed,” Petrino said, “was the strong beliefs and the courage and confidence our defensive staff showed in, ‘Hey, we know what we’re doing. we’re real young, let’s just keep improving, keep getting better, keep putting in the work, the effort in teaching these young men, and the results will show off.’ Our staff did a real nice job of doing that.”