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LOOKING AHEAD

Camp start: Aug. 6

Camp objectives: 1. Provide new starting quarterback Ryan Mallett, who went 3-0 as a starter with Michigan in 2007, the confidence he can have a big-time year in the SEC. 2. Keep the starting linebackers healthy, because it's a steep drop-off. 3. Find a replacement for punter Jeremy Davis, who handled every punt last season.

Season opener: Missouri State in Little Rock on Sept. 5 (7 p.m. EDT on pay-per-view)

Fun fact: Arkansas last year became the first team to defeat LSU in consecutive seasons since Florida won four straight from 1998 to 2001.

Senior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard has heard the same forecasts all summer concerning his Arkansas Razorbacks.

Typical projections have the Razorbacks being better than a year ago, when they went 5-7, because of new quarterback Ryan Mallett and returning tailback Michael Smith. Almost every analysis also includes Arkansas having to survive a lot of shootouts because of its defense.

"It's an insult, but it's well-deserved," Sheppard said. "Our defense wasn't good last year. This year, we don't want to be a team that has to outscore people."

Arkansas allowed at least 21 points in every game last season, the first time that's happened since it took up football in 1894. The Hogs gave up 101 points on consecutive Saturdays against Alabama and Texas, and late in the season they allowed 31 points to offensively repugnant Mississippi State.

Youth led to a lot of heinous results last season in Fayetteville, but second-year coach Bobby Petrino believes it will be different in 2009 with the top 10 tacklers returning.

"Before one game last year, I was looking at our roster on defense, and we were starting five sophomores and four freshmen, which obviously made me very, very nervous," Petrino said. "I didn't sleep very well that night, but hopefully now that helps us. There is no doubt that we will be better. We will be much more aggressive.

"Our coaching staff has done a great job of making sure our defense really understands to get lined up quickly and play with aggressive behavior."

Sheppard, a former Bainbridge (Ga.) High teammate of Georgia linebacker Darryl Gamble, heads the list of returnees after finishing second on the team in tackles (68) and first in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (6.5). His 1.33 tackles for loss per game ranked second in the SEC.

He did that as a 6-foot-2, 269-pounder but will enter preseason camp around 292.

"There are a lot of players who have gained weight, but I think I was the biggest weight-gain issue because of my position," Sheppard said. "I've had ham sandwiches and peanut butter and anything I could put my hands on to eat."

Arkansas was fortunate to start 2-0 last season, needing comebacks to topple Western Illinois (28-24) and Louisiana-Monroe (28-27). Alabama, Texas and Florida came next and showed no pity, but the Razorbacks followed that ghastly gauntlet with a 25-22 win at 20th-ranked but free-falling Auburn.

The Hogs went just 2-6 in league games, but their second win was a 31-30 thriller against LSU in the season finale.

That game continues to have a positive carryover, and Mallett's eligibility enhances the optimism. He transferred from Michigan after the 2007 season and will be in the backfield with Smith, whose 107.2 yards a game last season ranked second in the SEC behind Georgia's Knowshon Moreno (107.7).

"This team has gotten a lot closer in the past few months," Sheppard said. "I've been here since 2006, and we've beaten every team in the West, and we're definitely capable this year. We try not to pay attention to preseason polls. We're just preparing to be the best team in the SEC West."

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