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Arkansas Football Spring Practice Preview: Defense

Recruits have been signed, some are already on campus, the coaching vacancies have been filled (except for recruiting coordinator) and the attention can now be focused on spring practice.

Wesley Hitt

Teaching a new system on defense and the process of development in that system from now until August 30th will determine the outcome of several games in the 2014 season.

The inconsistency from the linebackers and secondary will be areas of major focus, as well as finding replacements for several key players up front on the defensive line. New Defensive Coordinator Robb Smith has nowhere to go but up statistically and even a small improvement would give this team a shot to win several more games.

Finding a way to slow down the varied offenses in college football is a tough chore for any DC.  Arkansas has on their schedule everything from HUNH Auburn (power, misdirection) and Ole Miss (More Spread Option), Air Raid Texas Tech (Most plays ran per game in 2013 at 90.3), Air Raid Texas A&M, to power running teams, Alabama, Georgia (two back I and Spread), and LSU.

Arkansas Opponents Pace of Play 2013 Plays Per Game
Texas Tech 90.3
Ole Miss 79.8
N. Illinois 77.2
Missouri 75
Georgia 74.6
Miss St. 74.2
Texas A&M 73.8
Auburn 73.8
UAB 70.1
LSU 67.1
Alabama 65.9
Nicholls St ?

The front end of the schedule is loaded with faster paced teams with Texas Tech and Auburn - which will spur once again the pace of play and injuries debate.

Robb Smith does not really have a lot of experience playing against fast-paced teams during his time in the old Big East, at least really talented ones. It will be interesting to see how he’s able to defend them.

A big concern from now until kickoff on Labor Day weekend will be stopping Auburn - more specifically the Auburn run game. A repeat performance of what the Tigers were able to accomplish in 2013 on the Chris Ash D will not go over well with many fans.

Pre Spring Roster

A rough depth chart right now looks like this to me. At defensive tackle Darius Philon and DaMarcus Hodge are the top two with Bijhon Jackson having a chance to play some in the rotation when he comes in the fall. At defensive end Trey Flowers is the #1 pass rusher, and Brandon Lewis will most likely be on the other side. After that who is able to gain time in the rotation depends on these practices in spring and fall camp.

"You need fresh defensive lineman in the game. The way college football goes, really the guy the game is geared around is the quarterback then the next spot after that is the guys that are trying to eat the quarterbacks: the defensive lineman."

Robb Smith 2012

At linebacker Brooks Ellis and Braylon Mitchell will be the mike and weakside barring a drastic change at those spots by the new DC. At the other outside spot he has shown he prefers to have an undersized safety/LB hybrid like he had with Khaseem Greene at Rutgers. Martrell Spaight, and Khalia Hackett fit that same mold and there will be a good battle for the top spot. Where Otha Peters fits in to the rotation I am not sure. He has the size to play in the middle so it may be a competition between Peters and Mitchell for the weakside LB spot.

In the secondary Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines are going to be pushed by the younger guys in spring practice at corner. Alan Turner will be a veteran safety and they will have to find a FS out of Rohan Gaines, De'Andre Coley or Kelvin Fisher Jr.

Robb Smith had two DBs drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots in 2013 (Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon). These two had a combined 7 INTs for the Patriots in part time roles. By emphasizing his role in coaching the entire secondary I think this group will show the most improvement (Any improvement will seem monumental).

Jared Collins and DJ Dean have the same size as the previously mentioned DBs that were drafted. Midterm enrollees Chris Murphy and Jared Cornelius will have Spring Practice to learn the system and make their way in to the rotation at CB.

The more aggressive style is well suited for returning leading tackler Alan Turner in that he is a better run support/edge blitzer than in coverage. Seems to me that he could see the most benefit in his senior season from the change.

Overall, it may be harder to gauge the development and ability of the defense than it will the offense because more key contributors likely won’t be here until summer, such as Bijhon Jackson on the defensive line and cornerback Henre Toliver.

Last season, Arkansas shuffled linebackers  throughout virtually the entire season, struggling to find a trio that worked. Hopefully, they’ll be able to do that much earlier this year, maybe even this spring as it seems unlikely any of the three freshmen linebackers will be immediate starters.

It’s nearly a completely new defensive coaching staff, so it will be interesting to see how the spring plays out. They’ll be installing new schemes, developing new relationships with players, and - God willing - improving their skills and techniques. It’s a very important spring practice for this team.