Opening preseason camp: Arkansas

Schedule: The Hogs’ first practice is Thursday. The newcomers will go at 4 p.m. ET and the veterans at 7:30 p.m. ET. The first day in pads is scheduled for Monday. Arkansas opens the season Sept. 1 against Jacksonville State in Razorback Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on a pay-per-view basis and also shown on ESPN3.

Returning starters: Eight on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.

Star power: Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson thought seriously about declaring for the NFL draft this past spring, but ultimately decided that he had unfinished business at Arkansas. After leading the SEC with 3,638 passing yards last season, Wilson could make a run at 4,000 yards in 2012.

New faces: Junior college newcomer Austin Flynn should make an immediate impact at defensive end. He was one of the stars of the spring. Another junior college transfer to watch is receiver Demetrius Wilson. He wasn’t on campus for spring practice, but the Hogs think Wilson can be an explosive target in the passing game. The same goes for incoming freshmen D’Arthur Cowan and Keon Hatcher. On defense, incoming freshman Otha Peters will get a chance to show what he can do at linebacker, where the Hogs are hurting outside of Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith. Senior cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew, a transfer from Mississippi Valley State, had his moments this spring, while incoming freshman Defonta Lowe may be able to work his way into the safety rotation.

Don’t forget about: Kiero Small, a 5-foot-10, 255-pound bruiser of a fullback, is back for his senior season. Small’s forte is blocking, but he might get a chance to do some tackling this season. The Hogs are going to look at him at linebacker. Small played both linebacker and fullback in junior college and led his team in tackles.

Big shoes to fill: Between them, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams scored 20 touchdowns last season, and a lot of them came from long distance. Cobi Hamilton is a star in his own right and ready to become the Hogs’ go-to receiver, but he can’t do it by himself when it comes to generating big plays. Marquel Wade looked like he was going to be a nice complement with the way he performed in the spring, but he was booted from the team following his burglary arrest. The Hogs need guys like Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Keante Minor to come through this fall.

Key battle: One of the first orders of business this preseason will be settling on a starting five in the offensive line. Junior Travis Swanson is the starter at center, but nothing is written in stone after that. Junior Alvin Bailey has started 26 games at guard, but Mitch Smothers, Tyler Deacon and Luke Charpentier are all pushing hard. Senior Jason Peacock is a returning starter at tackle. He was suspended this offseason and then reinstated to the team following his arrest on a theft charge. Sophomore Brey Cook is the favorite to win the other tackle spot, although junior David Hurd, a former walk-on, was impressive this spring while working with the first unit.

Rising star: Sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchel made seven starts last season and was named to the All-SEC Freshman team. He just kept getting better and now that he’s been through an entire season in this league, he should emerge as one of the Hogs’ leaders in the secondary. They need him to be a rock back there because Mitchel and senior Darius Winston are it when it comes to experience at cornerback. The 6-foot, 192-pound Mitchel had 56 total tackles last season to rank him third among all SEC freshmen.

Bottom line: Preseason practice couldn’t get here soon enough for the Hogs, especially given the whole Bobby Petrino scandal this past spring and his subsequent ouster. John L. Smith takes over and joked recently that his most important task is making sure he doesn’t screw up things. Having been a part of this program for the past three years, Smith knows that he has a talented football team with some really good leadership. His job will be to press the right buttons. Knile Davis appears to be 100 percent, and that’s huge. Still, everyone will be watching him closely. Injuries have plagued him throughout his career. Getting both Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville this season also works in the Hogs’ favor. But breaking through in the Western Division still gets back to defense and whether or not new coordinator Paul Haynes can get the Hogs to play championship-caliber defense when it counts most. They ranked 74th nationally against the run last season, and that's not going to cut it in the SEC.