Hogs' Petrino eager to take next step

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- In addition to being one of the brightest offensive minds in football, Bobby Petrino -- fairly or unfairly -- is also known for his nomadic ways.

Yet, as he enters his fourth season at Arkansas, there’s a different air about the guy who still elicits scorn from his former players and coaches with the Atlanta Falcons for leaving in the middle of the night.

Maybe that’s because Petrino has finally found a home.

“I love living here,” Petrino said. “It’s a unique job with what coach [Frank] Broyles did here. By not playing anybody in the state, you’re able to have the entire state be Razorback fans. They can still support Arkansas State and Central Arkansas, but they’re still Razorbacks.

“It’s a really special place and one of three unique jobs, I believe, along with Nebraska and LSU, where everybody in the state is behind you and loyalties aren’t split. You can feel that passion and pride everywhere you go in the state.”

Indeed, the Hogs are truly the state of Arkansas’ professional team, and while the caliber of high school talent in the state might not be nearly as deep as some of the other SEC states, that oneness appeals to Petrino.

Here’s something else that appeals to Petrino: He believes profoundly that he can win a national championship at Arkansas.

Any doubts to the contrary went out the window this offseason when he signed a new seven-year contract that will pay him an average of $3.56 million per year.

It’s the kind of contract nobody would sign unless he was serious about putting down roots.

There’s a mutual $18 million buyout in the first two years of the deal, and the buyout remains at $10.8 million by the fifth year of the deal. Even in the final year, it’s $3.9 million, and the non-compete clause in the contract has been broadened to where Petrino can’t take another job anywhere in the SEC.

Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long points out that it’s not the kind of thing where he went to Petrino and had to push to lock him in long term. Rather, Petrino was on board from the start.

Simply, he wants to be at Arkansas.

He’s been consistent in saying that. But whereas a lot of people probably didn’t believe him when he bailed on the Falcons with three games to play in the 2007 season, there are more people now who view Arkansas under Petrino’s guidance as one of the SEC’s healthiest programs.

The Hogs are coming off a 10-win season and their first BCS bowl appearance in school history.

Even though they lost quarterback Ryan Mallett early to the NFL draft, they own the deepest arsenal of offensive playmakers in the league, returning 1,322-yard rusher Knile Davis and a quartet of receivers -- Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright -- that accounted for 23 touchdown catches a year ago.

Defensively, eight players return who either started or played most of the snaps last season. It’s easily the most talented and experienced defense the Hogs will put on the field under Petrino, not to mention the fastest.

“I don’t think there’s any question that people understand now that this is where I want to be,” said Petrino, who’s had six different jobs with five different teams since 2000, but only two other head-coaching jobs.

“I think it’s really nice to be able to sit down in a young man’s house or when they come in here and say, ‘Now you do understand that I will be your coach throughout your entire career.’ That means something to that recruit and to his parents. Our players here understand that this is where I want to be and that we have an opportunity to go out each year and compete for a national championship.

“I thought we were really close last year. We had our chances. We blew a couple of them, but we need to get right back in it again.”

The Arkansas players are still smarting from the bitter 31-26 loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and say that taste of being a part of the BCS festivities has only made them hungrier for more.

“We accomplished something that we set out to do when we got here, and that’s to take Arkansas back to a BCS bowl game,” senior defensive end Jake Bequette said. “We were able to accomplish that. But we wanted to win one and then get to the big one. Coming off that loss to Ohio State, we’re that much more motivated to get back to New Orleans … just a little later.”

The BCS National Championship Game will be played in New Orleans next season.

Davis, who played a huge role in balancing out the Hogs’ offense last season, said the key is that the Hogs have worked this spring and offseason like a team that’s serious about taking that next step and winning a championship.

“We know after what happened last season that nobody’s going to give us anything,” Davis said. “We have to go out and take it. Two or three plays can be the difference in winning nine or 10 games and winning a championship.”

Every team is different, and Petrino said the Hogs are still learning who their leaders are going to be next season and how they will react when things get hard.

He likes the balance on offense, the experience and talent level on defense and couldn’t be happier with the job John L. Smith has done with the Hogs’ special teams.

As Tyler Wilson steps in at quarterback, Petrino said it will be critical that he protect the football and instill confidence in everybody around him. Wilson’s performance against Auburn while filling in for the injured Mallett last season was a big step in that direction.

“Everybody in our program understands now how we’re going to work and how we’re going to go about our business,” Petrino said. “We’re not fighting attitudes or guys saying that we never did it this way or that way before. Just the continuity of the program … it’s all in order.

“Now it’s time to take a huge step forward in everything that we do. The battles have been fought, and we’re going in the right direction.”

And doing so with their head coach firmly entrenched.