Friday, March 7, 2008

Coach Petrino Talks Football in Little Rock

Below is a story from Arkansas Business's Arkansas Sports 360. It's a great read - enjoy.

Petrino's Razorback Football Song and Dance Loaded With Substance
By Jim Harris - 3/4/2008 2:32:00 PM

Razorback Club meetings are intended as rah-rah sessions to keep Arkansas football fans fired up, ready to buy tickets for next season and expecting great results in the fall.

A unscientific study based on 40-plus years of closely watching Razorback football reveals that every new UA coach's initial appearance before a Razorback Club anywhere in Arkansas draws its biggest crowd.

Everywhere Bobby Petrino has gone so far in this pre-spring practice tour of the state, fans have turned out en masse. At the Little Rock Razorback Club meeting Monday night, the group had to turn away more than 200 people, and the ballroom of the Embassy Suites was required for the 700-plus who did show up for the sold-out event.

The Hogs were called, loudly, to open and close the event. Craig O'Neill of KTHV, Channel 11, cracked wise. Razorback assistant coach Tim Horton, a holdover from Houston Nutt's staff, got the fans in sync with a snap count drill. New assistant Lorenzo Ward, known around the Petrino staff as "Whammy" due to his own playing style of delivering a hard tackle, gave a defensive overview. Chuck Barrett, the football voice of the Hogs, spoke with as much enthusiasm as former UA basketball coach Nolan Richardson had used earlier in the day with the Downtown Tip-Off Club in North Little Rock. Rather than let Jonathan Luigs, Horton and Ward stand up and make small talk in front of unfamiliar faces, Barrett conducted a question-and-answer session that flowed perfectly with the rest of the evening.

Then came Petrino, dressed in a bright red turtleneck under a black blazer. At one point, "national championship" came out of his mouth. Not next year, not under construction, not even a promise of one - just his hope that the hard work the Petrino bunch plans to put in will maybe result in one, since that is his goal as a college coach.

If a college athlete isn't up for 5:30 a.m. offseason workouts, Fayetteville isn't going to be his place. Jonathan Luigs, the returning Rimington Award winner as the nation's best center, said he's up at 4 a.m. so he can make it by 5:20 a.m. Apparently, everyone is showing up 10 minutes early, Petrino noted.

In his first meeting with the team, Petrino told the returning Hogs that no one was a starter anymore, that all positions were wide open.

"We were smart enough by the second day to know that Jonathan Luigs was our starter at center," the coach said with a laugh.

Petrino ran down the lineup on both sides of the ball. He could thank the previous staff for leaving the new regime a foundation on both sides of the ball - returning offensive and defensive linemen. "With a lot of new jobs, that's not always the case."

That meant Petrino and his staff could focus on recruiting wide receivers, running backs, defensive backs and linebackers for this first recruiting class, one he likes. But who would expect a coach to say anything but good things about a recruiting class?

"The No. 1 thing we wanted was speed," Petrino said. "We recruit players who have a dream or desire to play in the NFL. We take up a lot of their time, so a player should aspire to that.

"We want to recruit players with the ability and desire to make it academically. We check with the players' classes, and if they aren't in class that day, they get to get in a lot better shape."

The first day in offseason, about 10 or 11 players didn't make the team breakfast. Petrino said the next day to one player in that group: "Whatever you do, don't miss breakfast."

Petrino figures having good athletes who are good students and good citizens means "our chances of winning go way up." Petrino emphasizes the three P's: preparation, practice and performance. It sounded like a nice way of saying what Nolan Richardson had emphasized earlier in the day. His five P's: "Preparation prevents piss-poor performances."

Every player will be encouraged to become the best at his position - in the country. "You CAN do it. Look at our center. He's the No. 1 center in the country," he said.

There are running backs coming, but during the spring the Hogs are going to have to find replacements for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones out of a trio of Michael Smith, Brandon Barnett and, a surprise, Chip Gregory, a rising sophomore who played on special teams and reserve linebacker last year. Smith got most of the snaps last year behind the dynamic duo, who both opted for the NFL after their junior seasons, while Barnett got a handful of plays as a sophomore junior college transfer.

Lorenzo Ward reeled off the names of cornerbacks who could figure, but frankly none have done much so far to make anyone feel comfortable with the pass defense just yet. Jamar Love of North Little Rock seems to have impressed the coaches with film of last year's game and his offseason work. Veteran backup Shedrick Johnson, freshman speedster Isaac Madison, returnee Ramon Broadway and redshirt freshman Greg Gatson were all mention by Ward, who said he likes tall, fast corners. He won't necessary find those just yet at Fayetteville.

"Cornerback is the second toughest position to play behind quarterback," said Ward, who was with Virginia Tech for several seasons before moving to the NFL's Oakland Raiders in 2006. "As a cornerback, you've got to have short-term memory, whether you make a positive play or a negative play."

The first goal, even with the secondary, is stopping the run, Ward said. Petrino later backed that up. "We're going to stop the run first," he said.

A fan asked about Petrino's thoughts on special teams, noting that blunders in the kicking game in recent years had hurt the Hogs in key games. Petrino says he expects to be "very sound" in that area. "I want the fastest guys on the field on our kickoff teams. I'm not afraid to have starters on special teams, especially early in the season. Games are won early that way. Having veterans on special teams mean you don't put a young guy in position to lose a game, but play him when he's ready.

"We don't need to break even with our opponent in our special teams. We need to be ahead in our special teams."

Petrino hung around his father's practices at Carroll College in Montana as a third-grader, even holding tackling dummies and being knocked down. He later helped brother Paul off the field for medical attention when his younger sibling - and now his offensive coordinator at Arkansas - busted his lip. Petrino said he leaned on his dad, and still does, for advice.

The Petrino patriarch will attend his sons' first Razorback spring practice starting April 3, the head coach said. Look for spring practice to be very physical, Petrino added, within the NCAA's guidelines of offseason contact, of course.

When players beat their maximum in the weight room these days, they get to "ring the bell," the coach said. That's part of the "performance" part of his three P's. It becomes a habit. "We want to ring the bell 12 Saturdays in a row."

He told the crowd, don't worry, the Hogs will throw the football. They'll also run the ball to win. "It's just a matter of what we do first. ... We want balance on first and 10. Fifty percent of the plays on first down will be passes and 50 percent of the plays will be runs. After that we just play the situation."

Expect a fast-tempo offense; the coach said he expects NO delay-of-game penalties. "With a good tempo, your offense takes care of itself." The playmakers will get the ball. "I expect when we step on the field offensive to score every time. We'll do that when the players expect it."

Defensively, he said, the Hogs must get off blocks with whatever shedding technique is needed. They must tackle well. And they must deliver a blow. "A principle of good defense is to create turnovers." They'll stop the fun first, they'll rush the passer and they'll hit the quarterback to cause even more turnovers.

Meanwhile, Petrino won't try to "handle" the other team's blitz. "We'll defeat it," he insisted, through run-checks, protection checks by the line and quarterback, and quick passes. "You're at a good point when you're begging the other team to blitz you."

Petrino said quarterback recruits Tyler Wilson and Jim Youngblood are being prepared now to know the offense in order to help next fall. That will include the physical side as well as the mental. He said eight to 10 freshman figure to play next year.

Petrino said the first lesson he learned about coaching from his father was this: "You surround yourself with great people." Assembling his first staff at Fayetteville took longer than he expected, but Petrino said he knew he had a winner immediately in Horton. "Tim Horton had that Razorback blood running through his veins. He has tremendous pride in the university, in the state. He understands the players and the fans. But more importantly, he has a great rapport with the high school players and coaches around the state."

Petrino met up with Ward in Atlanta not long after his controversial departure from the Atlanta Falcons. Petrino joked about meeting Ward at a Holiday Inn because "we were still hiding out" around Atlanta.

"We were there so long, I forgot to pay the check," he recalled. "We started to recruit the waitress, as fast as she caught us in the parking lot. I gave her a good tip. She didn't put it in the newspapers."

His philosophy in building a staff will translate to the team. "We want players who care and have character, who will play their best and want to help the guy who lines up next to them play better."

Petrino's words seemed to strike a chord with every Hog fan present. A little longer and he might have had them suiting out. It sounded less rah-rah and more substance, with more accountability expected across the board, from the staff as well as the players. The fans Monday night seemed ready to join in too.

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