"John L. Smith is approachable, grateful and friendly. Hog fans will love him... if he wins."
That was my final take in a blog I wrote about coach attending a golf tourney back in June. He didn't win and fans didn't love John L. Smith. For some fans, the best news concerning this season came on Saturday, when Jeff Long officially fired John L. as head coach, seven months into his 10 month contract.
I can't blame John L for the Hogs' 4-8 finish. He was hired "not to coach." His job was to oversee the operation while the assistant coaches called all the shots. A strong senior class led by then-Heisman Trophy hopefuls Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis would also play a big role in providing the leadership this team needed to make a run at a national title. Jeff Long decided this was the best option for 10 months.
So what went wrong?
Losing Marquel Wade didn't help; catching punts was an adventure all season. Bobby Petrino thought this was going to be a breakout season for Wade.
Then there were the injuries. The Razorback offense wasn't the only thing that went through Tyler Wilson. The likable leader from Greenwood was also the face of the Hog franchise.
As Tyler goes, the Hogs go.
It was the perfect storm. Tyler Wilson goes out with an "above the shoulder" injury against a better than expected Louisiana-Monroe team. Without their leader, the Hogs were lost. The Warhawks ended up making all the big plays when it counted. With Tyler out, the only quarterback people were talking about on that night was Monroe's Kolton Browning. The Hogs left Little Rock a wounded team.
For much of the season, it was a Hog offense that lacked offensive weapons. In one season, Arkansas went from "Receiver U" to "Cobi and the decoys." Chris Gragg only played in five games this season and finished the year as the Hogs third leading receiver.
I don't think we fully appreciated how much Joe Adams and Jarius Wright meant to this offense. We assumed that a Petrino-coached offense would always have plenty of SEC ready receivers.
With the exception of the second half in the Hogs' farewell performance against LSU, Knile Davis didn't look anything like the back who terrorized SEC defenses in the second half of the 2010 season. A one-two-three punch of Davis, Johnson and Wingo was supposed to be one of the SEC's top tailback groups. This should have been a redshirt season for freshman Jonathan Williams.
Defensively, we suffered from the Kansas St. hangover. We watched a Paul Haynes-coached defense shutdown a Wildcat offense that put up monster numbers during their march to the Cotton Bowl. Most viewed Haynes as a big upgrade from former coordinator Willy Robinson. This defense would have to be better than Robinson's Hog defense. It wasn't.
It's not about the x's and o's, it's all about the Jimmy's and Joe's. Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas - all multi-year starters who graduated from the best defense of the Petrino era.
Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith would be counted on to lead an inexperienced defense. The X-factor would be Kiero Small. The rockem-sockem fullback was slated to also help at linebacker. His season ended on September 6 when he underwent foot surgery. By week 7 of the season, Highsmith and another veteran defender, Tank Wright, were done for the season. The defense also lost it's best corner, Tevin Mitchell, for four games.
That schedule, which looked so friendly in the pre-season, also turned out to be much tougher than expected. Monroe, Rutgers, Ole Miss and Texas A&M were much better than anyone anticipated or predicted. All four proved to be too much for a Razorback team that was, in a word, "mediocre" for most of the season.
We knew going in to the season that Coach Smith's Monday press conferences would rival Les Miles' weekly press events. Coach fired his first salvo in his "Welcome Back" press event. Remember the "K-nile" reference? I can only imagine what Jeff Long was thinking as he looked on. At that point, it was too late to turn back.
Then there was the "Just Smile" press conference. He implored the media to "just smile" the Monday after getting obliterated by Alabama. That video went viral. People all over the country weren't laughing with the Hogs 63-year old coach, they were laughing at him. If Hog fans had it their way, he would have been required to wear a muzzle for the remainder of the season. It was just John L. being John L.
When it rains, it pours.
John L. was also the only major college coach to declare bankruptcy during the 2012 season. I have a hard time believing that Jeff Long had a good grasp of John L's financial problems when he made the call to bring him back. It was just more ammo for a rabid fanbase that was suffering through one of the most disappointing seasons in Razorback history.
Then there were the questionable decisions on the field. Going with a new snapper in the Alabama game backfired in the first quarter when the new center sent the ball flying over Dylan Breeding's head. Then there was the fourth quarter's 4th and 1 call from the LSU 1 yard line. A touchdown would have tied the game. Smith, who is the ultimate risk taker in life, played it conservative and opted for a field goal. It may have been the only time in Hog history that a successful field goal was booed in Fayetteville or Little Rock.
I'm convinced that John L. Smith is in coaching for all the right reasons. He is genuinely concerned about the young men he coaches. You won't hear any player or coach who has been around John L say a bad word about him. It just didn't work.
Jeff Long's 10 month experiment failed.
On Saturday, the John L. Smith reassignment story was the most shared story on the KATV website. What would John L. think about that? He'd probably just smile.
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