We'd be willing to bet than no one in the country knows more about college football than Phil Steele. Each summer, fans eagerly await the publication of the stat-laden Phil Steele's College Football Preview. Mr. Steele was gracious enough to talk with us recently about the 2010 Razorbacks. In this second installment of a three-part Q&A (here are parts 1 and 3), Steele discusses the Hogs' defense. We think you'll be, to say the least, pleasantly surprised at what he has to say. And after you've read part 2, be sure to head over to PhilSteele.com, a veritable treasure trove of stats and analysis that is updated daily.
Expats: The defense is bringing back a bunch of guys from last year, but on the other hand, it was pretty weak unit. Do you expect the defense to improve much and if so, where do you think that improvement will come from?
Steele: When I looked at Arkansas heading into last year, I said, in Petrino's first year, they lost their top seven tacklers from the previous year, so I expected them to be weak. They gave up 31 points per game, and they gave up 375 yards per game. That's right about where I projected them.
Last year, they had nine returning starters on defense, and I thought they'd be a much-improved defense. You look at the points per game - the points per game was better. They went from 31 points per game down to 25 points per game, almost a touchdown less allowed per game. But a lot of that was due to the plus-15 [turnover margin] that they had, so they did catch a few breaks from here to there.
Probably the most alarming number to me was that the yards per game actually went up. I was very surprised that last year they allowed 401 yards per game as opposed to 375 the previous year.
You look at this year's squad - they only [lost] five lettermen. They have seven starters returning. On paper, you'd have to say this should be a much-improved defense. Factor in the fact that last year's defense underperformed a little bit.
Now will they be to the level of your Alabamas, your Floridas, your Oklahomas, Texas? No, they will not be. This will not be a top 10 defense. But my rankings actually say they could be a top 30 defense. With that offense, if they have a top 30 defense, they have a shot to win each and every one of their games.
So I think we will see improvement on the defense, not only in overall yards. We saw a little improvement in the yards allowed per carry. Last year, they improved from 4.4 yards allowed per carry to 4.0. I think they'll improve there again. And then the sacks went from 23 to 29. I think they'll improve upon the sacks again.
So not an overwhelming defense but to have a top 30 to top 35 defense would be enough for this team.
Expats: Willy Robinson and Bobby Petrino have been tweaking the secondary this offseason. Do you think those changes are going to have an effect, or is Arkansas still going to be prone to giving up multiple 70- and 80-yard receptions and touchdown bombs?
Steele: I think the tweaking will do well. A lot of that has to do with the experience level that this secondary has. Last year, they finished number 80 in my pass defense rankings. They allowed a 21/13 [touchdown/interception] ratio, and as you mentioned there were a lot of big plays given up.
I look for a bigger impact out of a player like Darius Winston, who was my number four rated defensive back coming out of high school. He missed six games last year. Overall, this is a faster, deeper, more experienced secondary.
To say I'm calling for improvement would be an understatement. I'm calling for large improvement. In fact, I rate them the number 19 secondary in the country. I think you're going to see them be one of the most-improved pass defenses in the country.
A lot of it comes from the talent level, the speed and then the overall experience. The tweaks in the defense will help as well. So I'm looking for a large improvement in the pass d rankings.
Expats: We'll take it. That sounds good. The next question concerns individual defensive players. Obviously, most SEC coaches would love to have somebody like Ryan Mallett or D.J. Williams on their teams. But in terms of defensive players, which Razorbacks do you think other SEC coaches or coaches nationwide would covet?
Steele: I would start in the middle with Jerry Franklin. Jerry Franklin's a good size. 241 pounds. Led the team in tackles last year. I've got him second-team SEC heading into the season. I think Franklin is what you look for in a middle linebacker.
Keep in mind the SEC has a lot of very good defenses out there so there's a lot of good players, but as far as the other ones to look at, there's a lot of folks in the secondary that I think will come on. Maybe Rudell Crim at the cornerback spot, or as I mentioned Darius Winston could emerge this year.
Upfront, a couple of players - maybe Jake Bequette or DeQuinta Jones. Those are two guys that I think can emerge upfront and make an impact as well.
Expats: One of the bright spots last year was that they forced a lot of turnovers. Is that something that you expect to happen again or is that kind of a random occurrence?
Steele: I've done studies on turnovers since actually the first year of my magazine. I started an article called "Turnovers Equals Turnaround." Basically it shows that teams that are plus-double digit in turnover margin one year, about 75 percent of the time they have a weaker record the next year, which is a little disconcerting for me for Arkansas.
But keep in mind, if it is 75 percent, that still means there's 25 percent of the teams out there that actually are the same or improve the next year. So there are teams that are able to avoid that particular predicament.
You look at Arkansas in 2008, for example: they were 5-7, and they were minus-nine in turnovers. That basically qualified them for the "turnovers equals turnaround." They were one away from a double-digit [turnover margin].
Last year, they changed up to plus-15 and improved to 8-5. As mentioned, this is a team poised to be better than that. I don't think they're going to be plus-15 in turnovers this year. I would think the level would come down to more of a plus-3, plus-4. It's just the way my research has shown. There's very few teams that can put together back-to-back plus-double digit turnover seasons.
It will be interesting to see how Arkansas shapes up in that category.
(Be sure to read Part 1, in which Phil talks about Arkansas' explosive offense, and Part 3, in which he discusses Bobby Petrino's performance in Fayetteville and how the Hogs are likely to fare in the SEC West.)