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Houston Nutt had this sort of unofficial agreement with the college football gods in his first six seasons: He would stir his teams to play above their heads, and those unseen spiritual forces would guide Arkansas to a bowl game.
Then came last season, when the gods turned up their noses at what statistically was the second-worst defense in school history, and the Hogs stayed home. "No bowl was like not having Christmas," tailback De'Arrius Howard said.
Two major changes should determine whether Arkansas returns to the postseason. Matt Jones, the freakishly athletic quarterback who's now a receiver in the NFL, has to be replaced, and the defense has to find life under a new coordinator.
Nutt has reworked the offense to fit the next line of quarterbacks led by Robert Johnson. It's a more conventional approach featuring two backs and play-action passing instead of the sprint-out and shotgun attack. "We don't need him to be Superman," Nutt said of Johnson.
Reggie Herring already has dibs on that role anyway as defensive coordinator.
Nutt hired Herring from NC State, where he oversaw the nation's No. 1-ranked defense in 2004. Herring immediately instituted a shock and awe campaign by verbal, psychological and physical means designed to push players to top intensity.
"If you looked up 'coach' in the dictionary it would say 'Reggie Herring,'" Nutt said. "If I was a defensive player, I would run to play for him because he refuses to allow you to take one lazy step. He gets you to play at your best."
Herring also blew up the complicated 4-2-5 scheme and installed a 4-3. The result should be a more disciplined defense that makes fewer mistakes and more tackles.
The most frequently asked question is whether there's life after Jones. The answer is yes, and the quality of life might not drop off as much conventional wisdom would dictate when a team loses the most productive quarterback in school history.
Coach Nutt has reworked the offense to fit the next line of quarterbacks. Johnson, a third-year sophomore, has a lively arm and fast wheels but almost no game experience. Lucky for him everybody other than Jones returns.
Pounding running backs Howard and Peyton Hillis will carry part of the load behind a line that appears to be Arkansas' most talented and most physical in at least seven years. Hillis is 240 pounds of rock in motion who's especially dangerous when he gets up a head of steam and rumbles outside the tackles. The hope is that freshman Darren McFadden can add a home run threat with his 4.3 speed.
Receiver is the team's most talented area but this group might not be able to show it while Johnson cuts his teeth. Marcus Monk and Anthony Brown, both 6'6", are the tallest receivers in the program's history. Cedric Washington, Cedric Logan and Chris Baker are speedy deep-ball threats.
Tight ends Jared Hicks, Mason Templeton and Marc Winston will see an increased role in the passing game.
A fresh start was needed after the defense bottomed out, so Nutt hired Herring from North Carolina State, where he oversaw the nation's No. 1-ranked defense. Herring immediately instituted a shock and awe campaign by verbal, psychological and physical means designed to push players to top intensity.
Herring also blew up the complicated 4-2-5 scheme and installed a 4-3. The result should be a more disciplined defense that makes fewer mistakes and more tackles. And the Hogs are going need to play as flawlessly as possible. There are no apparent stars but some emerging talent is evident.
The defensive line finally has size, led by Marcus Harrison, and improved speed on the edges from Jamaal Anderson and Desmond Sims. Linebackers, a disaster last year, should be better in the new system, which allows them to attack instead being attacked. Pass defense is bound to improve with everybody returning and the cornerbacks getting safety help more often.
Kicker Chris Balseiro is a third-year starter who has been steady from 40 yards and in. The punting could be contested into the season between Jeremy Davis and Jacob Skinner, who each held the job at different times last season but averaged less than 40 yards.
Blocking kicks should be a strength again. Arkansas has blocked at least four kicks in each of the past three seasons.
The offense shouldn't dip drastically, even with a new quarterback. Johnson has plenty of returning starters and talent around him. Keeping the offense humming won't matter if opponents can still outscore Arkansas in shootouts, so the defense has to make a significant jump.
A trip to USC aside, the schedule is manageable and could yield a six-win season.