Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Mention Bobby Petrino's name most places, and his messy departure as the Atlanta Falcons coach last year with three games still remaining will invariably come up.
Mention his name in the state of Arkansas, and he's the offensive guru entrusted with returning the Hogs to prominence in the SEC. Make no mistake, Petrino has this state buzzing. Yes, he understands his image took a beating with how everything went down last year in Atlanta, and he also understands that the glare will be as bright as ever in Arkansas given the attention the Hogs command in this state.
But he's ecstatic to be back in college football, thinks the Hogs aren't that far away from being a contender again and thinks he's been unfairly cast as a coaching nomad despite his hasty exit in Atlanta last year. One thing nobody debates is his ability to coach football and construct high-powered offenses.
He was 41-9 in four years at Louisville, and to give you an idea of how quickly he works, the Cardinals were 97th nationally in total offense the year before he came. They soared to fifth during his first year there. Petrino sat down with me Wednesday afternoon in his office for a wide-ranging interview and didn't dodge any questions. Here's the first part of that Q&A:
With the opener less than two weeks away, where are you with this team compared to where you thought you'd be at this point?
Bobby Petrino: You really don't know. You've got so many young and new guys that we're going to have to get better each week and concentrate in practice and play that game that week. I feel comfortable in some of the things we're doing, some of the things Casey Dick is doing at quarterback. Defensively, we've just got to get 11 guys on the field to be together for a week, because we've had some guys nicked up and missing practice. Our continuity hasn't been real good.
How many freshmen will you play this season?
BP: It looks like a lot. I was thinking going into the year maybe six to 10. It's leaning more toward 10 and maybe even higher. We need help at both linebackers and have three freshmen there, and two of them (Khiry Battle and Jelani Smith) have been taking a lot of reps with the first team and the other one (Tenarius Wright) would be, but he's had an ankle. (Free safety) Elton Ford has been playing quite a bit with the first team.
You put a lot of pressure on your quarterback. How much has Casey Dick developed into the type of quarterback you want in your system?
BP: He's worked hard on really trying to understand our offense. I think he has a good grasp of it, and he's working hard on learning defenses. They kind of have to work together, because you have to know both. I think he came out of spring ball with confidence, because he played well in the scrimmages and the spring game. He came back and kind of started over a little bit, and now he's starting to get his timing back and get his accuracy on the ball and throwing them where they're supposed to go. There was a point in two-a-days where his arm wasn't as live, all those little things you've got to struggle through during two-a-days, but I think the last week he's started to get back to where he was at the end of spring ball. He has a pretty good comfort level, I think, in terms of his knowledge of what we're doing.
Can you do all the things you want to do in your offense with Dick at quarterback?
BP: I think we can, because what we do is that we've always molded the offense to the quarterback. When Stefan LeFors was our quarterback, we did things he did well. When (Brian) Brohm came in, we did the things he did well. We have a big enough package that now's the time we start molding it for what his strengths are and what we feel like he can do well. That's why each year, it kind of changes a little bit. The identity of your offense changes.
What's the strength of your team right now?
BP: I think our offensive line and defensive line, which is a good place to start. You'd be real nervous if it was the other way around where your youth and inexperience were up front. That really gives us an opportunity to get better each week and bring some of the young guys around and have consistency with what we do up front.
Has everybody bought into you, your system and your approach, or is that still evolving?
BP: I think it's always evolving, but I was real happy with how we came out of spring ball. I think they did an excellent job throughout the summer. Our strength and conditioning staff is very good, and we really try to correlate the two, what we do in the weight room and what we do in conditioning with the same themes we carry over to football. So they've been hearing it now for quite a while. What we really need now is to have some guys take over the leadership of this team. I think they're right there and they're ready to, but now we need some guys to make sure they go over the fence.
Who are your leaders?
BP: Jonathan Luigs and Casey Dick on offense. Michael Smith has done a nice job on offense. He's not real vocal. But when you watch him behind the scenes, he helps those freshmen out a lot and gets things going in the right direction. Defensively, Elston Forte was doing a good job, and he got nicked up and missed practice. That hurt us a little bit. Malcolm Sheppard is a great leader by example of how to play hard, go full speed and try to do what you're coached to do, but he's young and doesn't talk a whole lot.
Arkansas is probably different than any other school in the SEC in that the Razorbacks are the state's "professional" team and the team everybody in the state identifies with. What's that been like for you?
BP: It's been very unique and something I've enjoyed throughout the recruiting process and throughout the booster season where you go travel and speak. You see the fact that everyone throughout the state are Razorback fans. That's unique and something I'm excited about.
What question have you gotten most from fans?
BP: They all want to see the ball in the air. The thing you want them to understand is that we are going to be a balanced offense. We like throwing the ball. I like throwing the ball, but I do believe you have to run it to win. That's something we always did real well at Louisville. People had to defend our passing game, and then we ran the ball real well.