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Preseason Questions: Running on Empty or Running on Plenty?

Michael Smith by Wesley Hitt/Arkansas

This post is the third part in our series examining the preseason questions surrounding the 2009 Razorback football team. (Click here for our post on Ryan Mallett and here for the one about John L. Smith.)

It shows how insanely good the Hogs' 2007 backfield was that a running back who was basically an afterthought during that season would emerge as a star one year later. In 2008, Michael Smith had 207 carries for 1,072 yards and eight touchdowns, stats that compelled the league's coaches and The Associated Press to name him second-team All-SEC.

According to the Razorbacks' media guide, Smith's average of 107.2 rushing yards per game ranked second in the SEC and 22nd nationally.

Once again, as has seemingly been the case since seconds after the Big Bang, the Hogs had a star player in the backfield. However, for one of the rare times since the universe was set in motion, Arkansas wasn't a particularly good running team.

In 2008, the Razorbacks rushed for 113.5 yards per game, good bad enough for a No. 10 ranking in the 12-team SEC. After Smith, the Hogs had no one to turn to in the backfield. And as wildly talented as he is, Smith - 5'9" and 180 pounds - doesn't have the body type to handle being a team's one and only source of rushing yards. Predictably, he buckled under the load the Hogs asked him to carry, injuring his hamstring and losing effectiveness before missing the season finale.

So, with the 2009 season mere weeks away, let's ask the question: Will the Hogs' running game be significantly improved this year? 

Short answer: Probably. But even though there are plenty of legitimate reasons for excitement, Hog fans probably need to take a breath and dial back the high expectations that have enveloped the backfield.

Let's review the situation:   

Smith returns for his senior season, and the talent surrounding him in the backfield appears to have improved dramatically with the arrival of such highly touted newcomers as freshmen Knile Davis (6'0", 215 pounds) and Ronnie Wingo, Jr. (6'3", 220 pounds), and sophomore Broderick Green (6'2", 248 pounds), a transfer from Southern Cal. 

During his brief time in Faytteville, Davis has drawn some strong praise from the not-terribly-effusive Petrino, and Green has shown signs of being the bruising back that the Hogs so desperately needed in red-zone and short-yardage situations last year.

Sophomores De'Anthony Curtis (5'9", 215 pounds), who was ranked the No. 6 high school running back in the nation by, and Dennis Johnson (5'9", 205 pounds), who rushed for 127 yards on 18 carries in the season-ending win over LSU, will also vie for playing time.

Thow in an improved passing attack, which should further ease the burden on Smith and also make the running game more effective, and things look pretty good, don't they? They sure do, and the potential for a top-notch ground attack is one of the many reasons we're anxious for Sept. 5 to get here.

But we're trying to be realistic too. Davis and Wingo are freshmen, after all, and Curtis' fumble-prone first year on The Hill should remind us that even the highly touted ones can fail to perform. Furthermore, Davis is not only dealing with his first year of college and all of the emotional adjustments that come with it, but also with the recent death of his father. Doing all of that while trying to learn a Bobby Petrino offense can't be easy.

Another cautionary note is the offensive line, which struggled for much of last year and allowed plenty of sacks in Saturday's scrimmage.

Final Answer: Due to the apparent talent level and the preseason being the time for good old-fashioned optimism (not to mention Petrino's reputation as a diabolical offensive genius), we'll say the Hogs will have a high-octane running game this year. But given the experience level of many of those being counted on to contribute, we might not bet the mortgage on it.