LITTLE ROCK — Two converts, a repentant thief, a five-star who has been a disappointment, and a newbie make up a list of players who must do well if this Arkansas football team is to come close to expectations.
Tenarius Wright, Brandon Mitchell, Jason Peacock, Darius Winston, and Rohan Gaines are the flip side of Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, Cobi Hamilton, Chris Gragg, and Alvin Bailey. Production from Wilson, Davis, Hamilton, Gragg, and Bailey is built into any prediction of Razorback success. But, football is truly a team game and well-schooled opponents will find and exploit every weakness, which puts middle linebacker Wright, receiver Mitchell, offensive tackle Peacock, cornerback Winston, and safety Gaines on the spot.
An experiment early in the spring, Wright’s move from defensive end to middle linebacker is in stone, but his participation in practice has been sporadic. On Monday, he participated more than in previous days, but watched during 11-on-11 drills. On Tuesday, he was more involved.
He must deliver because Arkansas needs Alonzo Highsmith at outside linebacker. Highsmith, too, has been held out of practices. It is asking a lot of Wright, who made his reputation charging forward, to move laterally and and to drop into pass coverage without repetitions. Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes mentioned “mental reps” this week, but that’s not the same.
Fullback Kiero Small’s extensive work at linebacker is disconcerting. Reading between the lines, that says the Razorbacks have nobody else. If Arkansas is as thin as it appears at linebacker, Wright and Highsmith must be on the field 90 percent of the time. A conservative approach with the linebackers in August is understandable and part of the thinking might be that they can get in the needed practice against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe.
The other counted-on convert is Mitchell, who originally figured to help at tight end. However, his background as a quarterback and basketball player has enabled him to progress as a wide receiver. He understands the soft spots in a defense and how to use his big body for position when a ball is in the air.
At 6-foo-4, 230-plus Mitchell would be a wide receiver capable of helping Gragg deal with a defensive end. Many of Davis’ best gains in 2010 occurred when he maneuvered off the block of tight end D.J. Williams.
Peacock, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge but did what was needed to get back in the coaches’ good graces, is one of the tackles who must protect Wilson from onrushing defensive ends. David Hurd and Brey Cook share that responsibility.
A highly touted offensive tackle in high school, Cook worked mostly at guard last year as a freshman. He’s back at tackle and should do fine. Hurd, a junior who has not played enough to letter, is working with the first unit. That may be because Peacock will be punished early in the season for his off-field shenanigans.
Arkansas is also being cautious with safety Eric Bennett and Gaines, a redshirt freshman, has taken advantage of the opportunity to make rapid progress. At this point, Haynes is out there with Gaines and the other safeties, teaching on the go. What happens when he’s on the sideline and Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood, who had a breakout game in the BCS title contest, does something unexpected?
When Bennett is back and healthy, confidence in Gaines would facilitate the use of Ross Rasner at linebacker in the nickel defense that might be employed regularly by the Razorbacks.
Gaines and the other safeties benefit from receipt of Haynes’ undivided attention. Bobby Petrino asked Willy Robinson to coach all defensive backs and coordinate the defense. Bobby Allen is coaching the cornerbacks, including Winston, one of the few five-star athletes to sign with Arkansas in recent years. A senior, Winston has started 12 games.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.