Perhaps the most interesting of our editions in this weekly segment this year, we thank Robbie Neiswanger (@NWARobbie) of the Arkansas News Bureau for filling us in on the mentality Arkansas players and their embattled coach, John L. Smith.
Aaron Brenner: Speaking from the beat writer’s perspective … the day after ULM pulled off that overtime shocker, did you think it was possible for Arkansas to freefall like this with losing to Rutgers at home and getting destroyed by Alabama and Texas A&M?
Robbie Neiswanger: I don’t think anyone imagined a scenario in which this team would start 1-4. Lose at home to Alabama? Struggle in your first road game at Texas A&M? Those were possible. But the depth of Arkansas’ dive has been jaw dropping. This team entered the season with some big question marks and deficiencies (secondary, linebacker, offensive line), but we’ve seen Arkansas teams work through some of those trouble areas in the past and still find ways to win games. It hasn’t happened. The fallout has been unbelievable.
Neiswanger: Good question. Publicly, they’ve handled it well. They regard Wilson as the team’s leader and understood where he was coming from. Behind the scenes? We just don’t know. But I don’t think players resent Wilson or have thrown in the towel for that matter. What you’re seeing on gameday is a delicate team struggling to handle adversity when it hits. A mistake leads to a turnover. Then it leads to a big-play touchdown. Then it leads to a blowout. Arkansas hasn’t been able to overcome the snowball effect from an emotional standpoint. Wilson wasn’t excluded in the Texas A&M loss and said as much.
AB: Cobi Hamilton’s stats have been the brightest of bright spots. What makes him so good as a top-ten WR nationally?
Neiswanger: He’s everything Arkansas had in Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams rolled into one in a way. Size. Speed. Soft hands. Good route runner. He’s not afraid to go over the middle. The Razorbacks miss the trio of guys now in the NFL, but were very fortunate to still have Hamilton on campus. He knew going into the season he was going to be Arkansas’ No. 1 receiver and has delivered despite the losses.
AB: John L. Smith has had one of the most eventful months a coach can have, and not in a good way. How has he treated this collapse on a day-to-day basis, and not just in the couple of bizarre press appearances that have gone viral?
Neiswanger: You have to feel for John L. Smith. He didn’t want this. Nobody did. He’s an upbeat, quirky guy and the Razorbacks really believed some of those qualities – as well as his experience as a head coach – would help them get through this strange and difficult situation. We all know it has backfired and Smith simply being Smith in public (the “Smile” press conference is exhibit No. 1) has made many groan. He seems to have toned it down in press conferences lately, but is trying to stay as positive as possible. Smith and the rest of the staff must realize their fate at season’s end. So salvaging what is left is all they can do now.
AB: Auburn’s September wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, either. Are the Razorbacks genuinely confident they can be the team to fix its season Saturday based on the matchup?
Neiswanger: Auburn has struggled offensively, so that should give one of the nation’s worst defenses a sliver of hope. Tyler Wilson has played very, very well in his two games against Auburn. Smith called it a decent matchup Monday and I think that’s appropriate. It doesn’t change the fact Arkansas still has to do a lot of things right – things it hasn’t done most of the season – to get any win at this point.