Believe it or not, the start of the 2008 Hog football season is less than two weeks away. With the first kickoff fast approaching, we decided it was time to give our readers some expert analysis of this year's team. However, we couldn't find anyone in our organization capable of such a task, so we turned to Tom Murphy, a Razorback beat reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was gracious enough to take a few minutes out of his hectic schedule to answer our questions about Bobby Petrino's first Arkansas team as well as a couple about the coach himself. Many thanks, Tom.
Lots of prognosticators say the Hogs are in for a very rough year. You've been around the team for a few weeks now: Do you agree with the predictions, or do you think the Hogs have the tools to surprise?
While I maintain Arkansas doesn't have the weapons, the depth and the immersion into the Petrino system it needs to contend for the SEC West title, I don't think it rules the Razorbacks out from being competitive and from sticking it to a favorite or two along the way. I'm predicting at least two wins, possibly three, from this group of games: at Texas, Alabama, Florida, at Auburn, at Kentucky, at South Carolina, LSU.
Obviously the Hogs lost a lot of key players after last year. Given what you've seen while being around the team, which current players are ready to step into the void and be the new locker room leaders?
This group includes obvious guys like C Jonathan Luigs and QB Casey Dick. I think RB Michael Smith is a decent leader for the running backs. You can see London Crawford taking on that mantle with the receivers, so he just needs to back it up with consistent play.
Defense is a different story. CB Jamar Love and WLB Elston Forte are two of the team captains on that side of the ball -- along with DT Malcolm Sheppard -- and they'd like to lead, but Love is being pushed hard for a starting job by Ramon Broadway, and Forte's injury has dulled his impact in the leadership department. Guys like senior safety Dallas Washington, Sheppard, NG Ernest Mitchell and redshirt freshman MLB Jerry Franklin all have to play a role.
Which new players should we be the most excited about?
I think Jarius Wright will have the most immediate impact, from being the lead punt returner to a guy who could catch 4-5 balls a game. He's catching on a little quicker than Joe Adams in the receiving corps, and the coaches love his toughness. De'Anthony Curtis was taking reps with the starters before his knee injury, so when he returns to health, I'd suspect he'll be snagging a few carries away from Michael Smith in the run game. Curtis and fellow frosh Dennis Johnson will both get snaps and will both be used in the passing game.
On defense, Elton Ford is on the verge of winning a job at free safety, and he might be the most dedicated striker on that side of the ball. His emergence is pushing Matt Harris toward better play. Also, unless Elston Forte comes back with a bang, he might lose his starting job to one of two freshmen: Khiry Battle or Jelani Smith. Also, Lavunce Askew is coming on strong on the defensive interior, Jerico Nelson is No. 2 at the "jack," and Zach Stadther has a shot at playing time up front.
There's reason to be excited about this class, which should fuel Arkansas' return to SEC contention in the coming years.
The Hogs have an absolutely brutal schedule this year. If they're going to pull an upset, against which opponent are they most likely to do so?
My guess: Florida. It's at home and the Gators are starting to look a little vulnerable on defense.
Give us a sense of how Bobby Petrino deals with the media. Do you find him cooperative or does he make your job more difficult than it needs to be? Is he quick to complain about what's in the paper? How does he compare with Houston Nutt?
I won't go into depth here. He's not as accessible at Nutt, but not near as restrictive as Nick Saban at Alabama or as some media members projected he'd be here.
Along those same lines, which SEC coach is thought by you and your fellow scribes to be the most media-friendly and which is thought to be the biggest pill?
I like Rich Brooks, Sylvester Croom, Steve Spurrier for their straightforwardness with the media. Houston was cooperative. Pill? Saban is controlling, domineering and occasionally condescending.
Finally, agree or disagree with the following statement: "In five years, Bobby Petrino will still be the head coach of the Razorbacks."
I'm not going there, but thanks for asking!