SEC preview: Sheppard hoping to have impact for Arkansas

HOOVER, Ala. — Malcolm Sheppard has spent the past six months stuffing himself full of whatever edible creations he could find. There were a lot of ham sandwiches, tubs of peanut butter and gluttonous portions of anything suitable for consumption.

The result, the Arkansas defensive tackle hopes, is that this season, there will be plenty more of him for head coach Bobby Petrino to love.

“There were a lot of players on our team with weight-gain issues,” said Sheppard, who hid his new 290-pound frame under a sport coat and tie during the kickoff of SEC Media Days on Wednesday. “I was probably the biggest one because I play defensive tackle, and I was only 270. But everybody’s met their weight over the offseason, and now it’s just a matter of keeping it on.”

After a 5-7 season in Petrino’s first year, Sheppard is hopeful 2009 will feature a new-look Razorbacks — both in terms of wins and losses and in how the players fill out their uniforms.

Everything was an adjustment last season. Petrino brought a new style of play, new standards for conditioning and a new approach to practice. Few of Arkansas’ players were ready for the transition, particularly the hefty contingent of freshmen and sophomores who earned a majority of the playing time.

After a productive offseason, however, things are falling into place. The veterans are better prepared, the younger players are more comfortable, and nearly everyone seems to have sculpted their bodies into a more SEC-friendly physique.

“Most of our guys who we needed to gain weight gained weight,” Petrino said. “We are in the process of having a few guys lose weight, get down to where they need to be. I think our players feel good about what they’ve done in the weight room, and I know they’re excited about that, just to see how much better they really are.”

The task of improving on last season’s disappointing finish won’t be a simple one for the Razorbacks in the ultra-competitive SEC West, but after showing glimpses of potential a year ago, Sheppard thinks this offseason was just what the team needed to take the next step.

“This offseason meant everything,” Sheppard said. “We had a lot of young guys, and this offseason gave them a chance to catch up.”

Catching up began with getting into better shape, and that started with committing to a far more stringent strength and conditioning routine.

For players like Sheppard, it meant packing on some pounds in order to stand up to the grueling pace of the SEC. For others, like new starting quarterback Ryan Mallett, it meant shedding nearly 25 pounds to increase his athleticism in the pocket.

Regardless of which direction the scales were moving, however, Petrino hopes the results will be a more competitive team, beginning on the practice field.

“We are going to be much bigger and stronger than we were a year ago,” Petrino said. “When we start practice, the competition and the depth will be something that will really help us become better each day.”

For all the problems last year, Arkansas wasn’t really that far from being a contender in the West. At least that’s the way Petrino saw it.

Eight of the team’s games — including six of its final seven — were decided by seven points or fewer, with the outcome in doubt until the final play.

While the Razorbacks managed to win a few of those close contests, tight end D.J. Williams said a lack of preparation prevented them from winning more. That won’t be an issue this year.

“If you look back, a lot of those games were lost in the fourth quarter,” Williams said. “Some of that is not knowing the playbook, some of it is fatigue, some of it is just not being hungry enough. But we’ve grown as a team, and the strength coaches have done a great job of making sure we’re not going to be tired in the fourth quarter.”

Of course, getting into shape during the offseason is the easy part. Staying there during the course of a long season is another battle altogether.

But regardless of how the new-look Razorbacks fare on the field, Petrino said his team is far ahead of where it was this time a year ago. They look better, they feel better, and they’re better prepared for what’s in store for them in 2009.

“We’ll be better,” Petrino said. “We’ll be a better football team. We’ll play better football. We’ll execute better in all three phases. How many wins that comes out to remains to be seen.”