Arkansas Razorbacks (2000: 6-6)
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Coach and programHouston Nutt's relentlessly positive outlook was tested more than once last year. The Hogs couldn't stay healthy. They lost their two best running backs and their starting quarterback to season-ending injuries. They lost fullback Adam Daily to a career-ending injury. The injuries started in preseason and continued through December's bowl preparation.
"We had five shoulder injuries, three broken ribs -- on and on," Nutt said. "Dean Webber has been a trainer for almost 30 years and he said he'd never seen anything like it."
Injuries figured prominently in Arkansas' 6-6 season, its worse under Nutt, who coached the Razorbacks to an 8-0 start in his first year and 17 victories in his first two years. Last year's record, capped by a 31-14 loss to UNLV in the Las Vegas Bowl, was a step down.
But you don't keep Nutt down for long. His goals haven't changed a bit since he returned to the program he followed as a child in Little Rock. He returned to Arkansas intent not just on winning a conference title, but winning a national championship as well.
Arkansas' most obvious improvement this season will be the expanded and renovated Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. Not only will the stadium be expanded from 51,000 to 72,000, it will include new suites, club seating on the east side and chair-back seats and club seating on the south side.
A bigger stadium isn't the only change. Nutt's staff has undergone a makeover, with the departure of Fitz Hill, Joe Ferguson and Bill Johnson, and the addition of Dave Wommack, George Pugh and John Lee.
OffenseArkansas' offense also will have a different twist. The Razorbacks worked on the option in spring practice and plan to use it as a change of pace this fall. Lee, an assistant at Arkansas from 1984 through 1988, was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the last seven years at Rice for former Arkansas head coach Ken Hatfield. Sophomore Zak Clark (6-2, 195) made significant gains in the spring while returning starter Robby Hampton was sidelined after shoulder surgery.
Clark, who started two games last year after Hampton was injured, completed 28-of-68 passes for 321 yards for one touchdown and was intercepted six times as a freshman. His accuracy was markedly better in the spring.
In the final spring scrimmage, Clark completed 7-of-9 passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
Although Clark improved significantly in the spring, Nutt still considers Hampton his starter.
If Fred Talley makes a full recovery from a knee injury, Arkansas will have more depth at tailback than any other team in the SEC. Talley, Cedric Cobbs and Brandon Holmes all rushed for more than 100 yards in at least one game last year.
Cobbs, a 6-foot-1 228-pound sophomore, was being promoted as a Heisman Trophy candidate before last season after a dazzling freshman season. Said Nutt: "I've been around some great ones. I was at Oklahoma State when Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas were there. You can mention Cedric Cobbs in the same sentence with those guys at this stage of his career. He should be a legitimate Heisman candidate. We plan to give him plenty of opportunities with the ball in his hands."
A potentially outstanding stable of running backs is only one of the reasons Arkansas should be encouraged about its rushing attack. It not only has the runners. It has the blockers.
The Hogs will return four of five starters from last season. Their only loss was starting tackle Gary Hobbs, who was dismissed from the team last January.
The Razorbacks lost a 6-4, go-to wide receiver in Boo Williams, but have a couple of other big targets returning in juniors Sparky Hamilton (6-4, 210) and Sam Breeden (6-4, 226).
Defense and special teams
Wommack, who was the defensive coordinator at Southern Mississippi, will be reunited with Hogs coordinator John Thompson. They first worked together as graduate assistants at Arkansas and years later as assistants at USM. You could characterize their defense with two words -- "multiple" and "unconventional" -- but Womack has two words of his own: "organized confusion."
"When we talk about it, I get excited about our package," Thompson said. "That's not to say we've got the greatest [scheme] out there. We just believe in it and where it can go."
With sophomore free safety Ken Hamlin (6-2, 193) leading the way, the secondary should be the strength of the defense. Hamlin made freshman All-American in a sensational first season. He led the team with 104 tackles, intercepted two passes and broke up seven others.
"He's the leader of our team," Thompson said. "He can do a lot of different things.''
Senior defensive end Carlos Hall (6-4, 261) and senior nose guard Curt Davis (6-3, 282) are the two returning starters on the front four. The Razorbacks also expect big things from junior defensive end Raymond House (6-3, 266), and tackles Jermaine Brooks (6-3, 295) and Jason Peters (6-5, 311).
Linebacker is the mystery position for Arkansas, which lost Quinton Caver, J.J. Jones and Jim Ed Reed.
Sophomore Brennan O'Donohoe (6-0, 220) made 4-of-6 field-goal tries and 20-of-21 extra-point kicks last year but had a couple of big misses-one in a two-point loss to Auburn and another in the bowl game when it was still close. Arkansas needs a solid season from him because there is no other proven place-kicker.
Bottom lineArkansas has been to three consecutive bowls under Nutt and this year should make No. 4. But if it's going to challenge LSU and Mississippi State for the SEC West title, it needs a big September.
In the first month of the season, the Razorbacks will play three teams -- Georgia, Tennessee and UNLV -- that beat them by an average of 30.3 points last season.