Only three days to go until the season opener against Missouri State. In other words, the perfect time to chat with Brandon Marcello, who provides outstanding Razorbacks coverage every day as the online editor of WholeHogSports.com and the primary contributor to the site's Slophouse blog. Brandon was able to see the Hogs throughout their fall camp, and we know you'll enjoy his first-hand perspective on this year's Piggies. The only question he left unanswered is, Will he be able to handle the sudden leap in fame that is sure to come his way after appearing on this site?
Many thanks for your time, Brandon! Now, on with the show ...
Expats: You got a chance to see Ryan Mallet in fall camp. What's your take on the Hogs' new starting quarterback? Is he going to live up to the hype?
Marcello: A lot of people are already putting him up there as the best quarterback since Joe Ferguson, and, frankly, I don't know how you can argue that without, well, getting into an argument. Mallett hasn't even taken a snap but his tools and stature provide plenty of promise for the Razorbacks' passing game. If Bobby Petrino can turn a quarterback like Casey Dick into a 2,500-yard-plus passer, he can do wonders with a guy whose arm, accuracy, touch and instincts are unmatched in the SEC-era of Arkansas football.
I believe he'll reach that hype and, yes, perhaps, pass it. The man has everything going for him to get there, and I believe he won't be a victim of a "circus" like atmosphere that surrounded a similar hometown QB who, understandably, decided to leave the Hills for the California shores.
Mallett seems to embrace the attention, his hometown roots and what it would mean to an entire state if he guides the Razorbacks to a championship. And while I won't go as far as to say Mallett will be the delivery man for an SEC Championship trophy during his time here, I will venture a guess and say he'll be atop many categories in the record books before he leaves.
As for this season, he'll break the season record for touchdown throws (26) and will throw for more than 3,000 yards, giving him the best season by a Razorback quarterback in school history.
The question is, can the defense back him up and make him look even better?
Expats: After Michael Smith, the Hogs have sophomore Dennis Johnson and a host of intriguing newcomers in the backfield. Who do you see emerging as the primary complement to Smith?
Marcello: I'd say Dennis Johnson, but I'm becoming more and more of a believer that Ronnie Wingo will be the player who jumps out at us by the middle of the season. If Wingo gets a few swing passes out of the backfield, lines up at slot receiver or, just somehow, gets to be isolated on the outside -- watch out!
I will say that I believe people are looking at the depth chart a little too hard right now. Listen, the running back rotation is just that - a rotation. Every player has something to bring to the table, so if Michael Smith has 25 carries one game or if Broderick Green has 20 the next, it's probably because the opponent's defense was slow to the line or, in Green's case, stacking the box or always finding themselves with their backs near the goal line.
Still, I'm a big believer that Wingo and wide receiver Joe Adams are going to prove something special this season. Both are home run hitters.
I just think people need to sit back, relax and enjoy the talents of the deep backfield they're about to watch on game days. Nearly every one of them will have a highlight by the end of the season.
Expats: The Hogs' special teams play has been pretty ugly for the last few years. How much of an impact is John L. Smith having, and do you expect the unit to be significantly improved this year?
Marcello: As good a coach as John L. Smith is, he can't control Alex Tejada's mind on the football field. That is totally up to Mr. Tejada of Springdale. Kickers are fickle and, in speaking with Tejada this pre-season, he absolutely understands that the Razorbacks' kicking game has been an unneeded struggle the last several years.
Brennan O'Donohoe, anyone?
But knowing that and BLOCKING THAT out of your mind when you're on the football field in a pressure situation are two different things. Tejada didn't do that last season, obviously. The problem this season is that, if he melts down with a delay of game, kick out-of-bounds, misses an extra point and a field goal, who is going to replace him?
... Anyone? Bueller?
I think the biggest change you're going to see in special teams is the yards-per-return average on punt returns. The Hogs averaged 5.3 yards per return last season, which was absolutely dreadful. Joe Adams is going to give the Hogs some speed and a home-run threat there this season.
On punt and kick blocks, it'll be interesting to see if the Anthony Leon's 6-foot-4 frame has a blocked field goal or extra point in the middle of the field.
Expats: Speaking of the weaknesses of last year's team, what kind of performance do you expect out of the offensive line and the defense?
Marcello:That will be very interesting because both lines are considered a strength right now. But we all know the Hogs gave up a 46 sacks last season for an average of nearly four a game, which was second-to-last in the FBS. Go figure. That number has to improve. Maybe you'll see that change. Maybe Casey Dick was holding onto the ball too long last season? Who knows.
Same with the defensive line. They didn't get much pressure on the quarterback last season, finishing tied for 50th in the nation. So, what you have here are two lines with some obvious talent. Guys like OT DeMarcus Love, DT Malcolm Sheppard and DE Jake Bequette are obvious anchors. But, really, where are the faults?
Well, on the defense, it's the edges. Not a lot of pass rush off the edge last season. Can Bequette and Damario Ambrose change that?
And what about the offensive line? Have they learned their various pass blocking schemes to a comfortable point? Judging from what we've seen in the pre-season, the offensive line is going to have some struggles and there will be a few sacks here and there. Maybe not as many as last year, but there is some worry with pressure. The Hogs weren't counting sacks as much as they should in the pre-season. If they had, the Hogs would have given up about 10 during one of the marathon scrimmages, which probably would have equalled four or five sacks in an actual game.
Expats: If the Hogs are going to upset anybody, which team will it be? On the flip side, is there any game that Hog fans are chalking up as an easy victory that concerns you?
Marcello: If there is one team the Hogs will upset early in the season, I'd say Georgia or Alabama. Georgia, obviously, is the easy pick right now for many fans but a lot is going to be told about the Bulldogs after this weekend's trip to Oklahoma State.
It will be interesting to see how the fans react if the Hogs drop both of those games to enter the Texas A&M tilt in Arlington, Texas with a 1-2 record.
The game the Hogs are most primed for an upset is that Ole Miss game, though. That one, if the Hogs get up early, could get ugly.
As for a game fans may be chalking up as an easy win, but probably shouldn't? Auburn and Troy. Never count out Gus Malzahn and I believe quarterback Chris Todd is going to have the Tigers on the upswing by the time the Hogs hook up with them Oct. 10.
And Troy has a lot of firepower. The Trojans really showed some weaknesses in the LSU Tigers the week before the Hogs upset them, 31-30, in the season finale in the Rock. Troy was up 31-3 on LSU in the Bayou in the third quarter before the Tigers fought back for a 40-31 win.
Don't for a second think Larry Blakeney's apparent words of predicting an upset of the Hogs this season is anything to sneeze at. That game, if the Hogs' defense doesn't show marked improvement by Nov. 14, could be a shoot out.
We all know Arkansas' schedule is very difficult this season, so saying 6-6 should be looked at as a failure is an absolutely ridiculous statement.
There are a lot teams with big-time fire power on the schedule and there are also a few hidden mines in Arkansas' pig pen this season.