Published: Aug 04, 2012 4:54 PM EDT
Updated: Aug 05, 2012 6:32 AM EDT

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - John L. Smith was his usual exuberant self during his first media day as the Arkansas head coach.

The former Michigan State and Louisville coach cracked jokes Saturday about his lack of hair, called the athletic ability of several of his players "pretty" and compared star quarterback Tyler Wilson to a rose that's "started to blossom."

Oh, and along the way, Smith left no doubt about what he and the Razorbacks expect on the field this season.

"Right now we're talking about one thing, and that's our expectation of winning a national championship," Smith said in one of his few completely serious moments of the news conference.

It was just another day in paradise for Smith, who was hired by Arkansas in April following the sudden firing of former coach Bobby Petrino after a motorcycle accident revealed his affair with a football staffer.

Smith had returned to the head coaching ranks during the spring at his alma mater, Weber State, but his return to Fayetteville, Ark., after a three-year stint as an assistant with the Razorbacks marked his first FBS-level head coaching job since being fired by the Spartans following the 2006 season.

Smith is well aware all eyes will be on Arkansas this season in the wake of Petrino's firing, eager to see how a team that is 21-5 over the past two seasons handles the transition. He hasn't shied away from what happened in the spring, even hoping to use it as a bonding tool for the team.

"I think it's a part of what you have gone through because of the fact that you're going to grow from it," Smith said. "And I think that we have grown. I think that we have gotten stronger.

"I think we have to use it as a motivation that we're even going to get (stronger), if that makes sense. We don't care; whatever it is. It provides us and is going to provide us with an opportunity to be more special."

Smith is 132-86 in 18 seasons as a head coach, including a 42-21 run in five seasons at Louisville. That success didn't carry over to Michigan State, where he was 22-26 in four seasons, but he never had a team with the Spartans quite like what he inherited with the Razorbacks.

Arkansas led the Southeastern Conference in total offense (438.1 yards per game) and scoring (36.8) last season, with its only two losses coming to national champion Alabama and runner-up LSU. The Razorbacks return Wilson, the first-team All-SEC quarterback, this season along with a healthy running back in Knile Davis, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury.

Wilson has insisted throughout the summer that Arkansas became a closer team during the Petrino ordeal, and he embraced Smith's lofty expectations - particularly since the Razorbacks host both Alabama and LSU this season.

"We've got both of them at our place this season, so why not," Wilson asked. "Why not us? Why not now?"

As good as Arkansas' offense has been under Petrino, it's the defense that will likely determine if the Razorbacks can overcome the SEC's best - particularly after losing by a combined 79-31 to the Crimson Tide and Tigers last season.

Arkansas finished last in the SEC in total defense in Petrino's first two seasons before improving to fifth in 2010 - when the school finished 10-3 and reached its first BCS bowl game in the Sugar Bowl. Last season, however, the Razorbacks fell to ninth in the conference in total defense, resulting in the departure of former defensive coordinator Willy Robinson following the regular season.

Former Ohio State assistant coach Paul Haynes was hired as the new defensive coordinator prior to the Cotton Bowl against Kansas State. While Haynes kept Arkansas' previous system and terminology in place for the bowl game, his impact was immediate - with the Razorbacks holding the Wildcats to 260 total yards in a 29-16 win.

His system, one driven by simplicity and repetition, was welcomed by the defensive players.

"It's pretty tough because when you hear about Arkansas, you hear about the offense," sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchel said. "But we're looking to change that this year and we want people to think about our defense as well."

Haynes had time to fully implement his defensive schemes during spring practice.

"I think they need an identity," Haynes said. "I think they need to understand what championship football is. All championship teams play great defense, and I think that's what we need to understand. For us to be very, very good and us to take the next step, we've got to play great defense."