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Petrino previews crucial spring for Razorbacks

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. | Bobby Petrino is ready to raise expectations.

The Arkansas coach spoke to reporters Monday, the day before the Razorbacks were to start spring practice. Although he didn't look too far ahead, Petrino made it clear his team should be much improved from a season ago.

"I expect us to take huge strides," Petrino said. "We came in a year ago and every day was a new day. There wasn't any carry-over. It was a lot about trying to memorize things and get lined up and really figure out what it was we were trying to do.

"I expect now to see a lot of improvement and see 11 guys working together, understanding the scheme and understanding the other side of the ball. When you do that you can play fast."

The Razorbacks went 5-7 in 2008, Petrino's first season as their coach, but they finished with a last-minute victory over LSU that left fans excited about the future. Arkansas returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense, meaning anything less than a bowl will be a disappointment this season.

The Hogs do have to replace Casey Dick, the Allen, Texas, quarterback who finished his senior season by throwing the winning touchdown pass against LSU. Ryan Mallett's Arkansas debut is much anticipated — he sat out last season after transferring from Michigan.

Mallett, however, shares the top spot at quarterback on the spring depth chart with Tyler Wilson, who played sparingly last year as a freshman.

"We try to install the offense," Petrino said. "And then we really try to understand what it is that the quarterback does well, and then try to mold the offense around the quarterback. Certainly the personality will be different than it was a year ago."

Mallett, who played high school ball at Texas High School in Texarkana, played 11 games at Michigan as a freshman, winning all three of his starts in Lloyd Carr's final season as coach. He transferred when Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez took over.

"One thing is, he knows football very well and he's a quick learner," Petrino said of the 6-foot-7 Mallett. "Obviously, he's got real good arm strength. He actually does a real nice job in our quick passing game with his height, and he throws the ball with a real quick release."

Mallett's offseason did take a negative turn earlier this month when he was arrested on a public intoxication charge.

"We all know about Ryan Mallett and his arrest," Petrino said. "We've been dealing with that. Ryan's working hard at doing things right. He's getting up awful early and he's making sure he's in bed late at night. ... Any time we have to deal with situations outside of football, it is a distraction and it's something that you're not happy with."

Arkansas is missing perhaps its most dynamic offensive player from last year. Michael Smith, who rushed for 1,072 yards last season, is still recovering from a hamstring injury.

D.J. Williams returns at tight end after catching 61 passes a season ago.

"The first thing he has to do is block better," Petrino said. "Obviously, we know he's going to run routes and we know he can catch and run well after the catch. This spring is more about him becoming a pure tight end and becoming a force in the running game and doing a better job continuing to drive blocks."

Wade Grayson is now atop the depth chart at center, replacing standout Jonathan Luigs, who was a senior last season.

Defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard had 6.5 sacks last season, but the defense allowed 31.2 points per game, the worst mark in the Southeastern Conference.

"The first thing we need to do is tackle better. We have to get to the ball. Eleven guys have to get to the ball and run full speed," Petrino said. "We have to make sure we don't have as many assignment errors. The good thing is, when you watch all our video from last year, almost all those guys in the video are back."

Arkansas' spring game is April 18.

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