Arkansas coach John L. Smith has endured his share of criticism since the Razorbacks’ 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe. For good reason.
Smith’s team blew a 21-point lead in the second half last Saturday, squandered a 20-game nonconference win streak in Little Rock, and lost to a team that had never registered a win against a ranked opponent since moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) in 1994.
But Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg and safety Ross Rasner stood firmly behind their coach Monday as the Razorbacks tried to move past the disappointment.
“We still believe in John L. 100 percent,” Gragg said. “Everybody on the team does. Nothing has changed. We took a loss and we looked at it ourselves as players. We looked at the film and we’ve seen some things that we could’ve done right.
“People might talk about John L., but everyone in the Broyles Center that comes here every day and goes to work, we’re still behind John. L. 100 percent.”
Smith, who was hired by athletic director Jeff Long to replace Bobby Petrino in April, signed a unique 10-month contract with the program.
There was no written promise about sticking around past the 2012 season, but the coach has been vocal about his desire to lock up the job long-term with his performance this season. The goal must have taken a hit in his second game after leading the Hogs during one of the most disappointing losses in school history.
Losing as a heavy favorite didn’t happen under Petrino, who guided the Razorbacks to a 21-5 record the past two years. But Rasner said Smith isn’t to blame.
“We know that he has our best interest,” Rasner said. “I know he is not focused on what all the naysayers are going to have to say. We have his back 100 percent.
“We are not even focused on what our previous coach would have done. We are here in the now and the present and that is what we are focused on.”
Smith said he wasn’t concentrating on the big picture Monday.
Instead, he was working to help his disappointed team move past ULM.
“It’s difficult and we have to work through it,” Smith said. “We have to do the very best we can. I’m not a big believer in looking back. I want the team not to do that. Let’s not look back. Let’s just look forward.”
He and the Razorbacks face an immediate challenge Saturday with top-ranked Alabama coming to Razorback Stadium. Arkansas has lost five straight to Alabama and the Crimson Tide is a heavy favorite to run the streak to six games Saturday.
So Smith, whose predecessor was 0-4 against Alabama, said his only goal is to work with players and coaches to fix the flaws that resulted in last week’s loss.
“We’re all feeling bad, yes,” Smith said. “But hey, it’s not going to be the first time in life that you’re going to feel bad. You’ve going to have adversity all through your life.
“How are we going to deal with it?”
Arkansas’ offense doesn’t call for a fullback on every down. That’s good news, considering depth is an issue at the position with Kiero Small and Kody Walker expected to miss the rest of the season because of injuries.
Walker started Saturday’s game, but will be sidelined the rest of the season after suffering a broken leg on special teams in the second half.
Smith said Small, who was hurt last Wednesday, is projected to miss anywhere from eight to 12 weeks because of a foot injury that required surgery.
“What you have to count on is somewhere in the middle — 8 to 10 (weeks) — and that’s usually a season,” Smith said.
“He does have a redshirt available. So, if it’s late enough you certainly wouldn’t bring him back and say, ‘OK, let’s use your year on a game or two.’”
The injuries leave Arkansas to rely on walk-on Morgan Linton, tight end Austin Tate and even offensive lineman Grady Ollison to man the position the rest of the season.
“Ollison has to do some extra work,” Smith said. “He’s going to have to be kind of a tight end, kind of a lineman, kind of a fullback, kind of all of the above.
“He has enough ability to do that. But, again, you don’t want to put so much on his plate that he doesn’t have success with that.”
Smith didn’t meet ULM coach Todd Berry at midfield for the postgame handshake last Saturday. But Smith, who said it had been brought to his attention and wanted to explain Monday, thought Berry was in the end zone celebrating with his team.
“I start to walk towards the middle of the field, towards our locker room, and looking across, there is no one,” Smith said. “And by the time I get to the middle of the field I don’t see Todd. If he was there, I mean, and I’m sure of this, not seeing anybody there, not seeing my coach, my belief was this — he’s down with his team in the end zone celebrating, and probably patting that quarterback on the back. … And that’s where he should be. Which made sense. At least to me.”
Smith apologized if it offended anyone, but added he and Berry are good friends.
“We’re good enough friends that I would expect him to call me if there was any offense taken,” Smith said of Berry. “But, like I said, I saw nobody there, and I totally thought that hey, he’s down where he should be. He’s with his team in the end zone celebrating. So, that’s what took place.”
Running back Dennis Johnson averaged 7.1 yards on his seven carries Saturday. Smith said the senior deserves more work along with starter Knile Davis (3.9 yards a carry). “We look back and we see 20/20 just like you guys,” Smith said. “So we look back and say, yeah, we need to get it to him more.” … The SEC schedule for Sept. 22 has been set. Kickoff for the Arkansas-Rutgers game in Razorback Stadium is 6 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPNU. … ULM has been reaping the rewards of its win this week. Quarterback Kolton Browning, who tallied 481 yards (412 passing, 69 rushing) was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation national player of the week Sunday. ULM was named the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl national team of the week.