By Robbie Neiswanger
By Robbie Neiswanger
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas special teams coordinator John L. Smith set a goal for his group for the 2011 season.
“We told our guys, ‘They have to fear us,’” Smith said. “And that is one of our goals. … They better fear us.”
After scoring five special teams touchdowns in 10 games, it’s safe to say the Razorbacks have accomplished it.
Arkansas’ special teams have been a dominant group in 2011, presenting plenty of headaches for opponents as they prepare to play the Razorbacks (9-1, 5-1 in SEC). It’s one reason Arkansas is enjoying its best season under coach Bobby Petrino and the Razorbacks want the success to continue against Mississippi State (5-5, 1-5 in SEC).
Return men Joe Adams and Dennis Johnson have led the charge, leading a group that has turned in explosive plays and steady performances all season. They’ve also made Petrino draw a blank when trying to remember a better performance in any one season during his coaching career.
“Our return game is something that I don’t know if I’ve ever been around one that’s done as well as we have this year with the big plays, the consistency, making the opponent punt the ball out of bounds or punt it short,” Petrino said. “It’s all played into our favor for sure.”
An Arkansas player has been named the SEC’s special teams honor four times in 11 weeks. That includes the current stretch of three straight weeks, with Zach Hocker (Vanderbilt), Dennis Johnson (South Carolina) and Joe Adams (Tennessee) earning recognition after three wins.
Arkansas players also lead the SEC in numerous special teams categories, too. Adams is on top of the SEC — and the NCAA — in punt returns (17.9 yards) as well as touchdowns (3). Receiver Marquel Wade, who has not played the past two games because of suspensions, tops the conference in kickoff returns (29.6 yards). Dylan Breeding is first in punting (44.6 yards an attempt) and Hocker leads the SEC in points scored by kickers (88).
It’s an impressive sweep. One Arkansas seemed far from accomplishing early in Petrino’s tenure, when fumbled kickoffs, botched field goals, big returns allowed and other special teams gaffs were staples for the Hogs.
The transformation has been steady and Smith credited continuity at key positions for the results in 2011.
“Some of these kids have been on them for three years and that’s when you start to get good,” Smith said. “You bring certain guys along and you don’t have to be changing and re-loading all the time, like last year.
“You know our return game, with Dennis being gone, we were reloading every week. We were trying to find somebody that worked. Well, not having to do that, then we can get some consistency, not only the return guys, but also that are doing the blocking and other guys around them.”
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said last week the Razorbacks were a dangerous unit, something the Vols found out firsthand when Adams got his hands on a punt and turned in one of college football’s plays of the year. It was the first special teams touchdown Tennessee had allowed this season, stinging an otherwise sound group.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said his team is wary of the dangers as well — Adams especially.
“What makes them really different is their ability to be a special returner and make you miss in the open field, but their ability to break tackles,” Mullen said. “Even when you have them surrounded. Even when you have a guy in position to make the tackle, they can not only make you miss and run away from you but they break tackles.
“They play with a lot of confidence, and once your returners are making big plays a lot of times the guys blocking for them, their confidence level picks up and you can see the whole team improve.”
Petrino said Smith, who he hired after the 2008 season to work with Arkansas’ special teams, has helped turn the Razorbacks into a formidable group with his ability to adapt. He said Smith’s teams were well-known for blocking punts when he was a head coach, but the game’s shift in punt protections has made it much harder to accomplish.
Arkansas doesn’t have a blocked punt this season. It’s last block came in the Sugar Bowl, when Colton Miles-Nash nearly helped the Hogs complete a late win.
But Arkansas has made a big impact in the return game with its five touchdowns, which leads the NCAA.
“I think our special teams are feared,” Adams said. “A lot of guys don’t really punt or kick to us really.”
But here’s something even scarier.
For as good as Arkansas has been on special teams, Smith insists there’s much more for the Hogs can accomplish.
“We still have a lot to do,” Smith said.
Mississippi State (5-5, 1-5 in SEC) at BCS No. 6 Arkansas (9-1, 5-1 in SEC)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock
TV/Radio: CBS (KTHV-11)/KABX-FM 103.7
Series Record: Arkansas leads 14-6-1
Last Meeting: Arkansas 38, Mississippi State 31, 2OT in 2010
Coaches: Arkansas, Bobby Petrino (32-16 in fourth season); Mississippi State, Dan Mullen (19-16 in third season)