We'd be willing to bet than no one in the country knows more about college football than Phil Steele. Each summer, fans eagerly await the publication of the stat-laden Phil Steele's College Football Preview. Mr. Steele was gracious enough to talk with us recently about the 2010 Razorbacks. In this first installment of a three-part Q&A, Steele discusses the Hogs' offense. He is - how should we say this? - slightly bullish on Arkansas' offensive attack. And after you've read part 1, be sure to head over to PhilSteele.com, an invaluable resource for football fans that is updated daily.
Expats: The Arkansas offense has received a lot of accolades in the preseason. In what offensive areas do you think the Hogs still need to improve in order to move up in the SEC?
Steele: I think all the areas are fine. Naturally, the best units on the offense, the ones that just jump out at you [are] quarterback and receiver.
If you go back to the offensive line, they still opened holes for 4.3 yards per carry last year. They trimmed the sack total from 46 to 23. This year, they've got four starters back on the offensive line. So, quite honestly, I'm not too concerned with the offensive line. In fact, I rate it the number 22 offensive line in the country.
So, I guess of the four units, my lowest rated unit is the running back spot, but that's still number 33 in the country. Broderick Green, Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo - it's a very deep unit. If you took all these guys and combined their stats, you'd have one heck of a running back. But I like what Petrino's doing by giving them each multiple carries, keeping them all fresh during the game. I think that's what gives them that production level.
Really, I do not have an offensive question mark on Arkansas. In fact, I rate ‘em either number one or number two in the country offensively this year. I think they'll be among the most explosive offenses - them and Houston probably will come up the best statistically this year.
Expats: The running back-by-committee approach had some good moments last year, and it felt like it kind of faltered at times. We were wondering if you see any particular running back emerging as the top guy, or will there continue to be that three- or four-headed monster?
Steele: I think you're going to see the carries still be split. I projected Ronnie Wingo as the starter heading into the season. 227 pounds, good size, good speed. Wingo last year averaged 6.5 yards per carry, which was the best mark among the running backs. The five times he caught the ball out of the backfield, he averaged 19.8 yards per catch. He's got the explosion factor. He's got the size. I projected Wingo as the starter coming out of the spring.
Expats: As you mentioned, the Hogs are particularly strong at receiver. Individually, maybe they don't get as many accolades as some of the other receivers around the country because they're all taking each other's stats a little bit. Is there anyone in particular who's poised to really break out? Do you see anybody kind of emerging from that group?
Steele: Greg Childs - I think he's got a chance of being the top guy. They've got so much speed at the receiver position - Joe Adams, Jarius Wright. If we're talking about wide receivers, I can't give you a breakout guy.
If we're talking about the overall receiving corp, the guy who I think is really going to emerge this year is D.J. Williams. I think D.J. Williams, the tight end, is a guy that was underutilized last year.
There were times where Mallett would have him open on a play and wanted to get the ball deeper to the receivers. I think if he checks down a little bit, gets the ball in the hands of D.J. Williams - Williams is going to do a lot with the football. Take a shorter pass, but turn it into a bigger play because of the size, speed package [Williams] brings onto the field. So I think the most improved receiver statistically this year is going to be their tight end, D.J. Williams.
Probably their top threat - I'd have to go with Greg Childs. He did lead the team in receiving last year and is the biggest of the receivers.
Expats: How do you think he compares with some of the other top receivers around the SEC like A.J. Green or Julio Jones?
Steele: He's definitely up there. If you talk to NFL scouts, they'll tell you the best wide receiver in the country is A.J. Green. There's not a lot of question there. A.J. is the top guy.
Now, Julio Jones was banged up half of last year, so his stats weren't that good, but he really came on in the second half of the year. I think he's dangerous. You look at a Darvin Adams of Auburn. He's one of the top guys out there. Even Joe Adams on Arkansas - he's a guy that's going to be up there.
I would put [Childs] up there. I wouldn't put him quite on the level of A.J. Green, but if it's A.J. Green and then there's a next level, I would definitely put him in that one.
Expats: Moving on to the quarterback position: After making such a strong first impression last year, how do you think Ryan Mallett is going to do this year?
Steele: I think he's going to do a lot better. The key number that we're going to see improvement in is how he does on the road. Now, last year, it was a tough road schedule. I mean, you're taking on Alabama, one of the toughest defenses; Florida, one of the toughest defenses; LSU; Mississippi. He had a pretty tough road schedule last year, and of course he wasn't the same quarterback on the road that he was at home.
Even though the schedule is still difficult on the road, he's not taking on two of the top five defenses in the country on the road. I think you're going to see his road stats improve to match his outstanding home stats. And you'll see him be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.
Part of the reason is, is the receiving corp he's throwing to. He's got receivers with great speed. He's got an outstanding tight end. He's got running backs that can catch the football. He's got a solid offensive line in front of him that kept getting better as far as the sacks allowed goes. I think Ryan Mallett's got a great supporting cast. He's got a cannon for an arm. He's got the size you want in a QB, and I just think he's going to have a phenomenal year.
In fact, if the Heisman Trophy winner goes to the quarterback that has the best passing stats this year, then it would have to go to either Ryan Mallett or Case Keenum but that's not necessarily what the Heisman's all about.
Expats: What do you think it would take for him to be considered a serious candidate for the Heisman?
Steele: Well, to win the Heisman Trophy, you have to have that team success. Now third week of the season, if Arkansas comes out and beats Georgia on the road, which is possible - Georgia's got a first-time starting quarterback - and the very next week, they upset Alabama, all of a sudden you're going to see Ryan Mallett right at the top of all the Heisman charts.
If Mallett's the guy that deals Alabama the big loss, and that team is 4-0 coming out of September, it could be a big, big year for Mallett.
Let's look at the Alabama game: Is upsetting Alabama at home a possibility? I look at the fact that last year Alabama had seven of their top eight defensive backs returning. This year, they lose seven of their top eight defensive backs.
You look at Alabama's first three opponents this year: a very weak San Jose State team, a first-time starting quarterback at Penn State and a first-time starting quarterback at Duke. You take on three pass attacks that are still in the young, growing stage and then all of a sudden, you take on basically the best pass offense in the country - that's a big step up on the road.
So that would probably be the key game for me. I am a Heisman voter. I know I'll be watching that game. But probably the key for Mallett's Heisman success will be: can he can be the guy that guides the upset and throws for, let's say, 400 yards while they end Alabama's unbeaten streak?
Expats: Do you have any concerns about his offseason foot surgery?
Steele: Yeah, I do. I would have liked to have seen it be a 100 percent right now. I thought it would be close to a 100 percent right now. I understand it's not, that he's still probably not going be a 100 percent at the start of August. But I think by the time the season rolls around, he should be fine. Right now, it's in the back of mind, going "there's a little bit of a problem here, a little bit of a problem." But it could very well all be cleared by the middle of August. We'll have to see how that goes.
(Be sure to check out Part 2, in which Phil reveals his surprisingly optimistic analysis of the Hogs' defense and Part 3, in which he discusses how the Razorbacks are likely to fare in the SEC West.)