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April 1997. All-SEC tailback Madre Hill was to return from a shredded knee he suffered in the 1995 SEC championship game, itself an exercise in suffering. Hill missed 1996 after that knee was reconstructed, and the team limped to a 4-7 season. Optimism trickled again during spring ball...and Hill's other knee gave out. Months later, the Hogs were 4-7 again, Danny Ford got canned, and Tommy Tuberville was hired after...wait, no, that didn't happen.
Or maybe you'll recall July 2006. Coming off a 4-7 season (emerging pattern, huh?), the Razorbacks nearly lost Darren McFadden when he headed to a club called The Palace and, commensurate with the royal stature of the establishment, committed a royal mistake. Doctors managed to reattach the Captain of D-Mac's Toes, and he thankfully rehabbed his way to a record-smashing, Doak Walker Award-winning sophomore season.
Perhaps August 2007 comes to mind. There was that macabre offseason full of textgate and Malzahn- and Mustain-related drama, and then the Hogs lost their best — nay, their only — receiving threat when Marcus Monk got popped on the knee in practice. He was ineffective when he returned in October and by then Arkansas was sputtering to a forgettable five-loss campaign.
Knile Davis' fractured ankle appears to be a fine act to add to this horror-show production. He was, after all, a 1,300-yard rusher, the vital cog in the machine that blistered a path to New Orleans, and a Heisman Trophy candidate this year. Losing one of the rare big backs with burst and uncanny stamina (see, e.g., his fourth-quarter evisceration of LSU) is a withering blow to any team.
Yes, we've seen this script before. I'm not sure the director is all that perturbed, though.
Bobby Petrino's brief tenure as head Hog has been a cultural oddity. Fans accustomed to failure (or at least success in fits and starts) are more mellowed these days. No particular figurehead is lording over the program as if it's a personal asset. Scandal? That's for Miami. And Ohio State. And on and on, ad nauseam.
This is an era of equilibrium up on the Hill, and that is why an injury like Davis' does not spell despair. This team is not without proven backs in the stable (Ronnie Wingo and Dennis Johnson have 1,200-plus rushing yards combined, and both are capable pass catchers). At last count, there are 73 wide receivers on the roster capable of playing at the next level or being damned productive at this one. The offensive line is generally light on experience but that seems to be the only thing light about it: nearly everyone on the two-deep clocks in at three bills. If Tyler Wilson and Chris Gragg can do suitable imitations of their predecessors, this will be the Petrino archetype: surgically precise, remarkably balanced and murder on a tiring defense.
As for our own defense? That lean 2008 season is a hazy memory now. Willy Robinson has taken unjustifiable grief but he is the architect of what has morphed into a sound defense, starting with a line that finally (FINALLY!) strikes an SEC-level posture. There is girth up front, but as with the offensive line, it is also an athletic bunch. Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright are hell on quarterbacks; the hope is that Robert Thomas will dole out the same degree of punishment on running backs or draw double-teams. The second level of the defense is not flashy, but Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas are undeniably productive, and Darius Winston seems ready to assert himself as a lockdown corner. This is a year where, hopefully, Robinson finally earns his redemption.
Even those chronic special teams pains have ebbed. Zach Hocker had a brilliant debut as placekicker and Dylan Breeding earned a scholarship as one of the conference's most consistent punters. Johnson returns from last year's bowel injury (I cannot type that phrase without squirming) to give the kickoff return unit the threat it sorely missed last year, and Joe Adams is an electric punt returner. Coverage teams should be greatly improved.
In taking stock of all this, then, have we really been through this before?
The familiar, sickening apprehension just isn't there. On balance, the roster has never had such quality and quantity, a proverbial embarrassment of riches. We are unaccustomed to that after years (decades, even) of slipshod player recruitment and retention. This coaching staff pinpoints needs and labors to fill them.
What all this means for the 2011 season is unknown, but is obviously encouraging. One troubling trend is that sewing up wins has been an iffy proposition. The Hogs have lost 15 games under Petrino; in nine of those losses, Arkansas either surrendered a fourth-quarter lead or failed to cash in on chances to take the lead late. Even in triumph (last year's Georgia and Mississippi State contests), the Hogs have ceded late leads but managed to triumph.
Success this year is predicated on attaining that coveted, "Glengarry Glen Ross"—inspired ability to close. That die has been cast, though. This team has all the elements of another BCS contender, if not something greater. Winning 10 again should be more than manageable; taking aim at a national title will require the team to apply the lessons it has learned from the narrow defeats of the past couple of years.