Arkansas coach Petrino enters important offseason
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas fought through some early growing pains and came within a few plays of reaching a bowl in Bobby Petrino's first season as coach.
Now comes the hard part: building a Southeastern Conference title contender.
"I was proud the way our football team continued to improve. We continued to work hard, come to practice with a good attitude, and we got better in practice. Our players got better individually in their technique and fundamentals," Petrino said at his season-ending news conference Wednesday.
"I think there's a couple games I was real disappointed in that we didn't win, particularly the Kentucky game when we were in complete control for three-and-a-half quarters and then kind of gave it away. That's why we're sitting at home right now."
Arkansas finished 5-7, and that Kentucky loss in October is the one that still haunts. The Razorbacks led 20-7 and had the ball with under five minutes remaining, then allowed two straight touchdowns.
Still, after being blown out by Alabama, Texas and Florida by a combined 108 points early in the season, the Hogs began moving in the right direction.
They finished with a dramatic 31-30 victory over LSU on Friday night.
Petrino, criticized when he left the Atlanta Falcons after less than a season to take over at Arkansas last December, has said all the right things about his commitment to long-term success with the Razorbacks. He said he doesn't expect any changes, even among his assistants.
"I anticipate no movement in our staff. Sometimes there's always a coach that walks in and has an opportunity somewhere else," he said. "I certainly feel like our staff worked extremely hard and did a good job in the transition."
Arkansas loses senior quarterback Casey Dick, but will have Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett eligible next season. Dick's younger brother Nathan started the last two games of 2008 at that spot, and Tyler Wilson attempted 22 passes this season as a freshman.
"It's pretty wide open," Petrino said. "Certainly what Nathan did the last two games will carry over. We've got a lot of work to do in the offseason, a lot of work to do before spring ball starts. It will be interesting to see how they handle that. I know that they are all looking forward to the competitiveness of it."
There's less uncertainty at running back after Michael Smith replaced the departed Darren McFadden and ran for 1,072 yards. The only question surrounding the 5-foot-7 Smith is his health -- he had surgery recently after tearing a hamstring.
"It will be a situation where he probably won't get a lot of work in spring ball, but he'll be 100 percent by the fall," Petrino said.
No other Razorback rushed for 200 yards this season.
There's plenty of room for improvement on defense. This season's inexperienced group allowed 31 points per game. Defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard had 6.5 sacks, and Petrino would like him to bulk up a bit. He is listed at 277 pounds.
"He obviously has aspirations to play at the next level," Petrino said. "The idea is if he can get to 290-295, he could be a very good, very active pass rusher inside. If he can't carry that weight, playing defensive end is a possibility."
Petrino will now enjoy some more seniority among SEC coaches. Mississippi State will be hiring a new one, and Tennessee brought in former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.
Petrino worked with Kiffin when they were both assistants with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"He's a good guy. I really like Lane," Petrino said. "I think he'll do a good job. ... He knows a lot about football, he knows a lot about how it all works, how it all works with the coaching staff and what you need to do. You know, he's been through hell and fought his way through that at Oakland, so I think he'll do a heck of a job."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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