By Kurt Voigt/The Associated Press
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas linebackers coach Reggie Johnson had just teed off during a preseason golf outing when one of his playing partners offered up a potentially burdensome piece of news.
“Coach, we’ve already reserved our hotel room in New Orleans and can’t wait to see you there,” the Razorbacks fan said.
Such is life these days for the coaches and players at Arkansas, where thoughts of a Southeastern Conference title and trips to the Big Easy for the BCS National Championship game lean more toward expected than hopeful.
The Razorbacks have come a long way as coach Bobby Petrino prepares for his fourth season. After suffering through a 5-7 season in Petrino’s first season in 2008, the Razorbacks went 10-3 last season and reached their first BCS bowl game.
Thirteen true freshmen and seven other redshirt freshmen took the field that first season. The 18 of those who remain are eager to cap their careers with an exclamation mark in the post-Ryan Mallett era.
“That’s what is exciting for me is that senior class,” Petrino said. “The message to them is ‘It’s your last go-around. You’ve done a lot for this program … You’re the guys who have established our standards and how we operate.’
“Now let’s go finish it.”
Mallett left for the NFL following last season after he helped guide Arkansas to 18 wins in two seasons and set the school record for most passing yards in school history.
Petrino has yet to name Mallett’s successor at quarterback, though junior Tyler Wilson is perceived to have the edge over sophomore Brandon Mitchell. Wilson threw for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns in relief of Mallett at Auburn last season, and he was selected by his teammates as one of six team captains.
The starter will have an abundance of returning offensive talent at his disposal.
Unfortnatley that does not includes junior Knile Davis, who led all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards rushing last season – averaging 147 yards per game over the final seven games of the season. Davis is expected to miss the season after suffering a knee injury early in fall practices.
Big shoes to fill
Replacing Mallett isn’t easy, but Wilson hasn’t shied away from encouraging the high hopes for Arkansas.
“You’ve got to embrace and vocalize those expectations to an extent,” Wilson said. “Because if you don’t have any dreams or goals, then where do you aim? We’re going to take those expectations and ride them as far as we’ll go.”
Senior Greg Childs is one of four Arkansas receivers named to the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list, along with Joe Adams, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright. Childs was the team’s leading receiver when he suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through last season against Vanderbilt.
He thought about leaving for the NFL but decided to return because of his closeness with high school teammates Wright and tight end Chris Gragg as well as other friends on the team.
Many of those were a part of the freshmen group that suffered through Petrino’s first season, which included being outscored 139-31 during a three-game stretch of losses to Alabama, Texas and Florida.
Despite the success of last season, Childs feels like the Razorbacks have unfinished business on the field.
“We got beat down that first season,” Childs said. “But from there to now is a complete turnaround. You’ll never see one of those games again for Arkansas.”
Senior safety Tramain Thomas was another of the 2008 freshmen, playing in all 12 games. Thomas said he has “no doubts at all” that Arkansas can compete for both the SEC and national titles, even without Mallett.
“The expectations are definitely crazy, but at the same time they’re realistic,” Thomas said. “Our team as a whole, we’re a tight bunch. We’re like a family. If we lose a guy, like a Ryan Mallett, another guy is ready to step up.
“We’ve laid the foundation for Arkansas. We’re not trying to rebuild, we’re trying to reload.”