|Quarterback Tyler Wilson :: Getty Images|
About an hour before Arkansas announced coach Bobby Petrino's firing on April 10, AD Jeff Long broke the news to players and assistant coaches in the team's amphitheater meeting room. When Long finished speaking, a stunned silence was quickly replaced by the sound of spring-loaded seats snapping upward and feet shuffling toward the door, everyone heading in different directions with different thoughts racing through their minds.
Acting on instinct -- as if he were smothering a fumble, you might say -- senior linebacker Tenarius Wright jumped to the front of the room and told everyone, at the behest of defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, to "sit your ass back down." Quickly joined by quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, Wright stood in the exact spot where the head coach should have been and delivered the first of three impromptu speeches (Wilson and Davis each spoke as well) that helped the Razorbacks begin the task of coalescing.
"My goal was to make sure we were all on the same page," Wright said. "To make sure we kept our focus on playing for the national title."
Thirteen days after Petrino's ignominious ouster -- he was found to have given a prominent recruiting job to Razorbacks employee Jessica Dorrell, who was revealed to be his mistress after she and Petrino got in a motorcycle accident -- Arkansas hired former special teams coach John L. Smith to be the interim coach. By that time, the program's leadership and direction was clear. "Tenarius said this wasn't the time for us to take a step back," linebacker Alonzo Highsmith recalled. "We're still the same players, the same team."
It's a team that lost only to Alabama and LSU last season. The offense, led by Heisman hopefuls Wilson and Davis, is fortified by several players who shone last season, while the defense forced 19 turnovers during Arkansas' final nine games. Two of those came against Kansas State in a 29-16 Cotton Bowl win. In that game -- Haynes' first at Arkansas after leaving Ohio State -- the Razorbacks held the Wildcats to 87 yards rushing. "We have some of the most explosive players in the SEC," Wright said. "We have to take that dynamite and let everyone know we're a great team no matter who's leading us out of the tunnel on Saturdays."
Will Tenarius Wright continue to be a high-impact player now that he has moved to linebacker from defensive end?
2 -- Straight seasons Arkansas has averaged 300-plus passing yards, the first SEC team to do so since Florida, 1993-96.
Cobi Hamilton, WR, Sr. -- The receiving corps' lone senior had a career-high 34 catches for 542 yards and four touchdowns last year. At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, Hamilton can go over the middle and break away from defenders, as he did on a crossing route to score an 80-yard touchdown against LSU in 2010. Alonzo Highsmith, LB, Sr. -- The 6-foot-1, 233-pounder had a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss, and he did a little bit of everything in 2011. Along with his 80 total tackles, Highsmith had two quarterback hurries, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery that he returned 47 yards for a touchdown against Auburn. Zach Hocker, K, Jr. -- He has the best field goal rate in school history, having drilled 37 of 46 attempts (80.4 percent), and last season Hocker set the school's single-season record for points by a kicker with 118. Tenarius Wright, LB, Sr. -- Though he missed nearly half of 2011 (broken arm), Wright had 25 tackles (five for loss), 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hurries. At 6-foot-2, 252 pounds he is nicknamed Tank.
Knile Davis, RB, Jr. -- He's already a star -- he led SEC running backs with 1,322 yards and had 13 touchdowns in 2010 -- but Davis has another level to go. After fracturing his left ankle and redshirting in 2011, he ran the team's fastest 40-yard dash in March workouts (4.33 seconds). Watch him make a run at Darren McFadden's single-season school record of 1,830 rushing yards.
Austin Flynn, DE, Jr. -- A transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College, the 6-foot-5, 260-pounder had 45 tackles (16 for loss), 11 sacks and 21 quarterback hurries in 10 games last year. Flynn was in Fayetteville for spring practices, and he'll get lots of playing time.
Frustrated, upset and worried: Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson wrestled with those emotions as he questioned whether to remain in Fayetteville. For the homegrown talent the soul-searching long predated coach Bobby Petrino's firing, which rocked the program last spring. One of the most prolific high school passers in Arkansas history, having thrown for more than 8,000 yards and 93 touchdowns while leading tiny Greenwood (pop. 8,952) High to Class 5A state championships in 2006 and '07, Wilson rarely saw the field during the first three years of his college career. Have I chosen the wrong school? he wondered during that time. Should I transfer?"Those things creep into your brain. It was a mental struggle because you're used to being the Guy," said Wilson, who redshirted as a freshman in 2008, then backed up Ryan Mallett for two years. "I'd call my dad and say, 'We might do this or that.' But I always wanted to be a Razorback."That turned out to be a good thing for him -- and for Arkansas. Last season Wilson completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 3,638 yards with 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His 1:73 picks-to-attempts ratio was the third best in SEC history among quarterbacks with at least 300 throws in a season. It's no accident that the Razorbacks tied a school record with 11 wins in 2011 and finished fifth in the nation, their highest ranking since 1977. Now Arkansas has seven starters back on offense and its sights set on a national championship -- as if the transition from Petrino to interim coach John L. Smith never happened.Wilson, who could have declared for the NFL draft, says he was "really, really tempted" to bolt for the pros after last season. He could have made millions as a first-round pick. Consider that at Cowboys Stadium last Oct. 1, Wilson thrilled the whoooo, pig, sooey! faithful by throwing for a school-record 510 yards and rallying the Razorbacks from an 18-point halftime deficit to a 42--38 win over Texas A&M. He completed 30 of 51 passes and tossed three touchdowns, outperforming the Aggies' Ryan Tannehill, who would go on to finish the year with virtually the same statistics as Wilson and be drafted eighth overall by the Dolphins as a potential franchise savior.But even after Petrino's ouster, with 16 days until the NFL draft, Wilson refused to reconsider his options or apply for the supplemental draft. "I vowed to my family and to my teammates that once I made my decision, I wasn't going to look back," the senior said. "The draft would have been favorable for me, but in the long term I thought I could become a better player by coming back."Many analysts now tab Wilson as the No. 1 pick in 2013, partly due to the leadership he displayed during those two weeks in April when the Razorbacks practiced without a head coach."With all the turmoil in the spring, Tyler made this his team," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Paul Petrino, Bobby's brother. "He had a great attitude, and he got his teammates to follow. He held meetings, but mostly he just came out and practiced unbelievably [well]. His teammates see that toughness, and it makes them play harder for him."Said Wilson, "The situation was tough because we were all kind of blindsided by it. But our goals have not changed. Everybody [here] believes we're going to be a great football team. We can compete for a national championship. I'm so glad I'm here. I'm cherishing every moment of it."
SI: How has this team's focus been affected by the coaching change? JLS: Our goal is not going to change. It's to win the SEC championship. Once you get that, you're playing for the big one. That's our expectation. SI: What is your main worry this season? JLS: We're not as deep as we'd like to be on defense. Our defensive front will be very capable, but our linebackers and secondary have to stay healthy. SI: You signed a 10-month contract. Will that impact how you coach? JLS: Ten months is no different than four years. You act like you'll be here a lifetime. But the reality is, you have to produce. If they want you gone you're gone. SI: There appeared to be several viable internal head coaching candidates. Were there hurt feelings among the assistants? JLS: I'm sure. But we don't have time to think about that. There won't be a transition. The staff has hit the ground running and we have to come even closer together. SI: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino stayed on after his brother's firing. Any awkwardness? JLS: Of the coaches on staff, Paul and I have been together the longest. We're part of each other's family. Paul knows what had to take place. Would he love to be head coach? There may be a point in time when he may be. But I don't think he would say anything but, "This is the right move and I'm going to do everything I can do." He's a super individual. This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.