Petrino really likes the competition on this team at a number of different positions. He said it has made the Hogs a deeper team, a tougher team and has made practice more physical and intense.
“The best part of it is we have experience now, so we’re not teaching so much scheme-wise,” Petrino said. “We’re working more on technique and fundamentals. We have depth, so we have competition for spots, which is really helping us, particularly in the offensive and defensive lines. There’s a lot of competition going on, at linebacker and running back, too.”
In particular, Petrino has been impressed with three young guys on the offensive line –- redshirt freshman guard Alvin Bailey, sophomore tackle Anthony Oden and redshirt freshman center Travis Swanson.
With Wade Grayson battling a knee injury this spring, Bailey has worked with the starters at right guard.
One of the things the Hogs focused on in the spring is running the ball better out of the Pistol formation –- or Shot -– as the Hogs call it.
First-year offensive line coach Chris Klenakis, who perfected the Pistol formation at Nevada, has helped to broaden the Hogs’ attack out of that formation.
“Coach Klenakis is going to make us more physical in the offensive front with his background in running the ball,” Petrino said. “Last year, we threw the ball a lot out of the so-called Pistol or Shot and threw it real well. Our goal now is to run it better.
"His expertise helps us a lot. Our players like it, and I know that it will really help our passing game.”
Quarterback Ryan Mallett, who’s not practicing this spring after breaking a bone in his foot, threw some passed during the last couple of weeks in certain drills and really looked good, according to Petrino.
By the time Arkansas start throwing again in June, Mallett should be back to full speed.
“I’ve been very impressed with how Ryan’s handled everything,” Petrino said. “He’s into every play. He knows every call out on the field and he’s helped our other quarterbacks. I think he’s done an excellent job on the practice field. It’s killing him because he’s such a competitor and he can’t take reps. He’s thrown the last couple of weeks in certain drills and has done a nice job, and I think it will help him.
“He now realizes when he was over-striding and when he didn’t get his back leg under his hip. Right now, he’s as accurate as can be.”
Petrino said sophomore running back Ronnie Wingo Jr. got off to a slow start this spring, but has really rebounded these last couple of weeks.
“The four running backs are real exciting and have been competing all spring and all bring a little something different,” Petrino said. “We’ve been splitting up the reps based on who performed the best the day before in practice, and they’ve been very good about competing.”
Junior running back Dennis Johnson has had a big spring on the field, and Petrino said he’s also turned into a strong leader.
“That’s a little surprising to me,” Petrino said. “When he first got here, he might have been one of the hardest guys I’ve ever coached. His feelings got hurt real easily. He never really had to work hard in high school because he was the best player. But now, he’s completely different, and it’s helped us. It’s helped our practices, helped our tempo, and he’s been real pleasant as far as being able to coach and adjust. He’s really grown up.”
With so much riding on the Hogs improving their defense next season, the player that’s been hard for Petrino to miss all spring has been junior defensive end Jake Bequette.
“I always think back to my first year here and you’d see him out there and think, ‘We’re pretty solid here,’ and then you say, ‘Wait a minute, this is just a redshirt freshman,’ ” Petrino recounted. “He’s started just about every game and is now just a junior.
“Physically, he could be as dominant a player that we have at any position across the board just because of how big and strong and fast that he is.”
Petrino thinks the defensive end position has a chance to be one of the strongest positions on the team next season.
Speaking of the defensive ends, Petrino said the addition of former Tennessee assistant Steve Caldwell to the staff this offseason was key.
Caldwell had great success recruiting players from Arkansas and Oklahoma when he coached at Tennessee. He tutored several big-time defensive ends when he was with the Vols.
“Coach Caldwell brings a ton of experience and recruiting-wise was exactly what we needed,” Petrino said. “He’s helped a bunch, his maturity and understanding of the conference, the type of player it takes to win in the conference.”