Petrino pleased with progress of Arkansas’ spring offense

By Dudley E. Dawson
on 2024-04-02 14:37 PM


FAYETTEVILLE – It’s no secret that former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino was brought back to Fayetteville as offensive coordinator to put points on the board.

Razorback head coach Sam Pittman made it clear that he was fully turning over the keys on that side of the ball to Petrino.

“It’s been fun,” Petrino said while meeting with the media after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s been enjoyable. The meeting time in the classroom with the quarterbacks is special and the fastest time of the day. The clock ticks when you’re in there.

“The year I took off from coaching and was down in Florida, I’m telling you the clock doesn’t move. You look at the clock. You look at it again. You’re like ‘Oh my gosh. What am I going to do today?”

“I even went and practiced at the range hitting golf balls. I hated it. I got better. It’s amazing how practice makes you better. But it was so boring.

“Now when I’m in the meeting room with the quarterbacks, I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve only got two minutes left? We’ve only got five minutes left?’ It just goes so fast. They’re a great group of young men. They’re fun. We have some fun in there. It’s easier.””

So how’s that offense looking nine spring practices in?

“I’m excited about it,” Petrino said. “When you look at the makeup of the team, it always is going to start with the offensive line. And I feel like the three guys (San Jose State’s Fernando Carmona, Tennessee’s Addison Nichols and Michigan State’s Keyshawn Blackstock) we got out of the portal and them working with the ones, and the ability they have helps that right away.

“Other two guys (returnees) Patrick Kutas and Josh Braun) are doing a great job, too, with the starting five. We’ve got to develop some depth there. I think right now we feel like we maybe have eight guys that we feel good about.

“And we’ve got some young guys that keep getting better, and then take a step back, keep getting better. The more you put in, the harder it is on those guys to improve right away. But they’re working hard at it. I like the O-line. And I like what they’re doing.”

Petrino is also impressed with his quarterback room, which features Boise State transfer Taylen Green, holdovers Jacolby Criswell and Malachi Singleton and newcomers KJ Jackson and Austin Ledbetter.

“We’ve had good work at quarterback,” Petrino said. “Taylen has kind of been the guy that works with the ones. He’s earned that himself from the minute he got here to how he’s conducted his business, how he leads, how he studies…He’s the first guy winning on the races. So he’s done a nice job on that.

Petrino, who actually recruited Green (6-6, 223) while he was a head coach at Missouri State, knows he hasn’t seen the full extent of Green’s talents yet.

He even dropped a comparison to Petrino’s former Louisville quarterback and current NFL star signal caller Lamar Jackson.

“The way you practice, he’s going to be held back,” Petrino said. “I’m not comparing him to Lamar Jackson or anything, but when we had Lamar, I was always like, ‘I’m not sure we’re going to know how good he is until they have to tackle him.’

“I’d keep saying that to the staff and keep saying it and then I just decided one scrimmage, ‘Okay, when he runs, you have to tackle him. If he’s in the pocket, nobody hits him.’ And then there was no question that he was the starter.

“Right now, we’re not even doing a lot of quarterback running game stuff just because we want to get better on the other parts of it. We do it in drills and we practice it all the time, but when you get in scrimmages, they blow the whistle and they tag him and he’s down.

“It’s hard to go execute and score points, so we haven’t done a whole lot of that. But he’s pretty special. When he turns it on and that stride and that speed that he has, he can really run.”

There is no doubt Green was a Petrino choice.

“When I got here, Coach Pitt said, ‘Go get a quarterback,” Petrino said. “Do whatever you want to do, go get us a quarterback.’ So I had help with Miles Fishback, who’s an analyst for us, and then Will (Kennedy), our graduate assistant.

“We scoured the portal, everywhere, traveled around the country. I really liked Taylen. I liked his video. I liked what other coaches said about him. I talked to (former Arkansas DC and current UNLV head coach) Barry (Odom) about him because Barry played against him in the championship game I think it was.

“Then I went out and met him. The thing I was most impressed (with) was when I was talking to him, I could see him picturing the plays and the formations and everything in his mind and his ability to do that. I’ve always felt that’s the one thing a quarterback has to be able to do.

“That’s how you get better on the sideline when you come off the field, that’s how you get better at halftime — I can say something to him and he can see it and understand what I’m talking about coverage-wise or route-wise.

“Then I just liked his motivation. He’s a very highly motivated young man. He spends more time in that building than anybody. He’s got this little routine he goes through where he takes his iPad out on the field and watches video and does his footwork. He’s just going to continue to get better and better.”

While Green is the front runner, it’s less clear who is No. 2 right now.

“I think there’s a good competition for who’s going to be No. 2,” Petrino said. “I’m really not sure who that is right now. Malachi, Jacolby and KJ, the youngster, have all had their bright spots. And then made some makes and had some spots that aren’t what we want.

“I think it’s been hard on Jacolby as far as the third new offense, and how he’s got to get there. Not necessarily mentally, but the drops and the things that we do different are different to him. So he’s got to catch his feet up. He’s got a great arm, and he’s working hard at it.”

Criswell, the former Morrilton prep star, began his college career at North Carolina and worked under former Arkansas OC Dn Enos, who was fired before the 2023 season ended.

“I love his attitude,” Petrino said of Criswell. “I just think he needs to catch up with our techniques and the timing. Because everything for us is timing, and he’s come from different systems from that. But I think he had a really good week last week, and he had a good day today, so that’s good.”

Petrino offered up wide receivers Andrew Armstrong (6-4, 199), Tyrone Broden (6-7, 198)and Isaiah Sategna (5-11, 183) as three players standing out.

“Well, Armstrong and Broden have done a really nice job,” Petrino said. “Armstrong’s been a little bit nicked up the last couple of days, nothing bad, he should be back out there. They’re tough matchups because they both have great size. They both can elevate and turn their bodies. They’re quick in and out of their breaks.

“Broden’s 6-6, he can work inside routes and outside routes. Armstrong’s 6-4 and can work inside and outside, so they’ve been impressive to me.

“Sategna’s speed is something that’s really shown up, and his ability to run with the ball and make plays, and he’s competitive. I like his competitive spirit, so I’ve been real impressed with those three guys with the receiver group and how hard they’ve played and how they’ve come along.”

Petrino was asked if Sategna could be a Joe Adams type of player, referencing one of his early playmakers when he was the head coach at Arkansas.

“He’s got that opportunity,” Petrino said. “He’s got that opportunity to be Joe and Jay Wright and that kind of speed and quickness change of direction. I’ve been impressed with his hands.

“You know, sometimes when guys go that fast, they can’t throw their hands up at the right time and he’s really natural at it. I was really happy with the yards he got after contact in the scrimmage the other day and right now he’s, he would be that guy that can run and let him touch the ball out of the backfield some and just get it in his hands because he is fast enough to make big plays for us.”

Petrino has always been a fan of getting the ball to his tight ends and has Luke Hasz (6-3, 230), Ty Washington (6-4, 240), Var’keyes Gumms (6-3, 244), Shamar Easter (6-5, 227) and Andres Paaske (6-6, 262) as scholarship guys on the current roster.

“Should have brought that up, because Luke’s special,” Petrino said. “He’s really a special player and his ability to run routes, catch the ball. He’s really competitive. He’s down a little weight right now from where he played at last year, so he’s got to get back up his weight, but you wouldn’t notice it by his blocking because he’s so tough.

“He gets a little more lead in his rear end, then he’ll be able to do an even better job of blocking. He’s a special receiver. He’s going to get open and make big plays for us and be the quarterback’s best friend on third down and in the red zone.

“I like what I’ve seen from Gumms. I think he’s a guy, he’s a playmaker. He’s got to get where he’s doing everything right and understand what he’s doing, but he’s really, really competitive. He wants the ball and he works hard to get it, and he makes yards after contact. The other day in the scrimmage was great to see.”

There is bevy of running backs for Petrino to utilize with Rashod Dubinion and Ja’Quiden Jackson leading the way and Dominque Johnson, Isaiah Augustave and freshman Braylen Russell also getting snaps this spring.

“The running back group is going to be real competitive, I think, with R-Dub and JJ probably competing for the starter,” Petrino said. “If we were playing a game at the end of the week, they would be the ones competing for that starter.

“The youngster, Braylen, has done a great job. He’s big (6-1, 252). He’s really physical. He’s got great hands. It’s all new to him, so there’s times he has a far-away look in his eyes when he doesn’t know the play or can’t picture it in his mind, but he’s got a chance to be special.”

Last week’s practices and scrimmage gave Petrino confidence in the run game.

“I think when we came off the field last week after the three practices and after the scrimmage, I think I said to Coach Pitt, we’re going to be able to run the ball,” Petrino said. “That was one of our goals going into the scrimmage on Saturday was to run the ball early. Establish the run and be physical with it.

“We did a good job blocking up front. They made it hard. The movements that they have, and that will pay off for us. Then, we broke tackles and got yards after contact and made a lot of plays after contact, which was great to see.” 

Petrino was also asked about the tempo of his offense and huddling these days.

“I think the thing that we will try to do here is mix up the tempo,” Petrino said. “Sometimes huddle. Sometimes a fast huddle. Sometimes go no huddle with quick fastball plays. Sometimes go no huddle and slow the tempo down a bit.

“Just change it up. Not just do one single thing. That’s something that I’ve felt like I like better than just going fast, fast, fast, fast.”

• • •
The late Ryan Mallett, who was Petrino’s first starting quarterback at Arkansas, will be inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor this year.

“It’s so sad that he is not with us,” Petrino said. “It’s hard, but I mean he was an unbelievable player and an unbelievable personality, because he’d walk into a room and light up the room and be happy, talk to everybody and everybody could meet Ryan Mallett.

“He is such a good guy; a good person and he should be in that hall of fame. There’s no question about that. He changed our program here I thought.

“On those 2008 (teams), that was when we struggled a little bit. Ryan was here, so that’s when I started to do Sunday night practices. We did Sunday night practices for Ryan to start working the offense, but also for our coaching staff to see Ryan executing the offense and give us energy to attack the week, every week coming in on Monday morning.

“So, I can’t say enough great things about Ryan and what he’s done for Arkansas football.”

Photo by John D. James

(Last updated: 2024-04-02 14:37 PM)