Ever since Zach Hocker arrived at the University of Arkansas and his spectacular freshman season, the Razorback placekicker and I seem to meet each year at media day to discuss how the next season might top the previous one.
This is the year, his senior year, that Hocker’s season MUST top the results of 2012.
Hocker seemed caught up in the same funk that overwhelmed the entire team last fall when John L. Smith took over as head coach, ostensibly on an interim basis, to keep all the already-proven working parts running smoothly all the way to championship status.
For the last time, before the Razorbacks kickoff a new season under a new head coach, let’s all let out a collective, “Ha. Right! How did that work out?”
Instead of asking Zach Hocker the same questions used in the two previous media days, but also trying to stay away form conjuring up the bad memories of 2012, culminating by his benching in the season finale against LSU, I thought young Zach might want to hear a story he possibly could relate to.
I asked him if he new the story of Steve Little — not the tragic one of how Little could not adapt to the NFL regime and saw his professional career ended, only a few hours before he drank too much and plowed into an interstate highway sign, an accident that left him a quadriplegic.
No, I wanted to know if Zach Hocker knew anything about the greatest season a Razorback kicker ever had.
He said he knew a little bit about Steve Little. Fair enough; Little’s incredible season of 1977 preceded Hocker’s birth by about 14 years. There are images around the Razorback football complex, though, of Little’s powerful leg crushing another kick more than halfway down a football field.
I wondered if Hocker knew the similarities their college career paths were on, leading up to their senior seasons.
Little struggled mightily during his junior year, a lost year for the Razorbacks and Frank Broyles, in his final season as head coach. Major preseason expectations coming off an impressive Cotton Bowl victory; a strange season that ultimately became a dumpster fire at the end of four straight, embarrassing losses. Little wasn’t immune to the misfortune, though most fans that year didn’t realize he dealt with a leg problem the UA tried to keep quiet; an enterprising young cub reporter from Pine Bluff, though, noticed Little had a battery operated device on his lower leg and asked about it, and it was eventually revealed that the treatment was to stimulate the nerve and help the healing process of this heretofore untold leg problem.
Before that, Little bombed like no kicker before him in a stunning upset against Tulsa, missing five field goals in a 9-3 loss. To make matters worse, Charleston product Steve Cox, who didn’t want to compete with Little for the kicking job for a year and went to Tulsa instead, won the game for the Golden Hurricane.
Broyles stepped down and the irascible Lou Holtz arrived. One of the first players he met with was Little and asked him to recommit himself for his final year as a Hog.
And, did he ever!
Placekicking, punting, kickoffs — Little did it all, and he did it with aplomb. Against Texas, he bombed a 67-yard field goal to tie the national record (See video below). Against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, his punts and kickoffs kept OU pinned deep and his placements and one field goal attempt were all true.
He earned All-American honors at the end of the Hogs’ 11-1 season.
That’s the story I felt Zach Hocker, after what he went through last year, could appreciate, and he noticed the history seemingly repeating itself.
New coach arrives and asks the once-dependable kicker with an amazingly strong leg to rededicate himself.
Hocker, facing competition in the spring, won back the placement job, nailing every attempt in the Red-White game. Allowed to choose his own holder this year by new coach Bret Bielema, Hocker seems more assured on his placements — recently he drove home a 57-yarder in a scrimmage.
Arkansas signed a new punter to replace the graduated Dylan Breeding, but Hocker’s distance has been so overwhelming, Sam Erwin-Hill’s opportunities may only come on “pooch” punts.
Now, all Zach Hocker has to do is have an All-American season, or something close to it, and the story is complete.
There’s even more to this story that might sound a little farfetched. Arkansas had lost many of its playmakers from 1976, and Holtz’s first team was forecast to be middle of the pack in 1977 in the Southwest Conference. When the Orange Bowl ended on Jan. 2, 1978, Arkansas was one of five teams at the top of the national rankings at 11-1, settling for No. 3 in the wire service polls.
OK, maybe there still isn’t the talent available for Bielema that Holtz had at his disposal that first year, and the old SWC is a long way from today’s Southeastern Conference, led by powerhouse Alabama. The SEC West Division alone might be the best assemblage of teams in one division ever.
But having a dependable all-purpose kicker at top form will go a long way to helping Arkansas win some games that, in preseason, weren’t circled as victories. Knowing that Hocker is a guaranteed three points when the Razorbacks reach the opponents’ 40 eases the load on the offense, helps them relax, leads to more touchdowns because they know they can get points.
The defense should be happy to know the kickoff and punting games will pin opponents deep most days; all the defense has to do is eliminate big plays and force more turnovers than last season to have a better year than 2012.
Arkansas has had an array of good kickers over the years, and the Hogs were most successful when they could count on consistency in the kicking game. It was never better, though, than in 1977 with Steve Little.
Zach Hocker liked the Steve Little story that afternoon at media day. Arkansas fans will love Zach Hocker if he manages to repeat it.