Exceeding expectations is a rare occurrence in Razorback football. Anything short of a top five team, playing a perfect game and going undefeated comes with a barrage of negative feedback. Arkansas fans (and all college football fans) are notoriously unrealistic , fickle, impatient, short-sighted and quick to react to everything. For a lot of these fans hiring Robb Smith as the defensive coordinator was not the monster home run hire that would restore the tradition that this program held for so long of a tough hard nosed defense. Those voices have long disappeared.
They were still found after the second half of the Auburn game. Texas Tech was a passing team which is still a weakness of this defense and a few doubters remained. Northern Illinois was just overrated in many of those doubters' opinions as the Arkansas defense completely dismantled the Huskies. A&M was a shootout with a more talented version of the Air Raid, and even though it was a loss that game will pay dividends for this defense down the road.
Robb Smith 10/16/2014 "We started from day one with a belief system. Not that we were really worried about what happened before, or what was going to happen three or four years down the road, but we’ve just taken it day by day and focused on getting better at the things that we preach all the time. Whether it’s ‘smart swarm’, tackling, ball disruption, stopping the run, limiting big plays, creating takeaways - if we just focus on those things on a daily basis, the results usually take care of themselves."
Going into the Alabama game those doubters were still around. But after only giving up 66 yards rushing and under 250 yards total it was apparent that something had changed.
It is undeniable that Robb Smith and his staff were able to surpass even the most optimistic predictions. Multiple shutouts and holding the top offenses in the SEC well below their average has given Smith significant praise from his head coach, and along with that a significant pay raise.
I imagine Robb Smith sometime last February after being hired, sitting in his office or film room planning, preparing, and looking for ways that he could improve on a team that struggled on defense in 2013. The recruits this year were not guys that he was involved in bringing in but there is no doubt he had a plan of how to use them. Player development and depth were all pieces of the machine that he was putting together through spring practice into fall camp.
Tackling was the big issue, missed tackles to be precise, and he had a plan from his time in Tampa Bay and at Rutgers under Greg Schiano. Otha Peters transferring out in August was only a small set back as he had been injured and unable to produce even though he was a highly rated prospect as a recruit. Before the opening game, Smith would list 5 new players including 4 freshmen in his depth chart. Bijhon Jackson, Henre' Toliver and Josh Liddell all gave quality minutes but the biggest surprise was the improvement of Martrell Spaight,
Before the season, looking at what Robb Smith had done in his previous spots I really thought there would be one player who emerged as benefiting from his style of play more than others. Can't say I tagged Spaight as that guy, but he skyrocketed in the 2014 season, leading the SEC in tackles. He started drawing the attention of every opposing defense and undoubtedly NFL Scouts.
What was the improvement?
Went from 82nd S&P+ in 2013 to 18th in 2014.
|All Games PPG||30.8||19.2|
|Rushing YPA||4.67 (5.29 SEC Play)||3.47 (3.82 SEC Play)|
The vast improvement was not only apparent in the improved tackling, but also in a more consistent pass rush and better play on the ball in the passing game. There is still room for improvement in the area of giving up big plays in the passing game which was evident against Mississippi State and Missouri, but there is no doubt they are heading in the right direction.
Arkansas gave up 25 plays of 25 or more yards which put them in the company of Vanderbilt, Florida, Miss State and Alabama who struggled with giving up big chunk plays all year long.
|YPG Opp Pass||254||244|
|YPA Opp Pass||9.3||8.5|
Spaight, Spaighting, Spaighted?
Spaight finished in the top 20 in the nation in total tackles, and #11 in tackles vs SEC opponents. His 128 total tackles ranks in the top 20 all time at Arkansas for a single season and the most since the 2003 season. A guy that was buried on the depth chart a season ago, made mistakes and missed tackles when given playing time turned into an All-SEC First Team linebacker. He only had 22 tackles a year ago where he was a force on the practice field but not able to make the shift to game days. A big change was due to preparation and what he was asked to do on the field.
Spaight had a big season but there were several others who had solid and consistent play. Trey Flowers had 15.5 tackles for loss, which was #30 in nation, and the triangle of Philon, Flowers and Spaight was a key point made by the broadcasters during the Texas Bowl. This skill of putting his players in position to succeed and keeping them out of situations where they struggle has been what Robb Smith is all about.
Players like Braylon Mitchell, Tevin Mitchell and Brooks Ellis were given roles that suited them much better than what previous coaching staffs had attempted. Tevin Mitchel is an obvious case where he had some success early but really struggled on the outside when the ball was in the air, but this past season he was used as a shut down nickel corner who kept the better slot receivers in the league uncomfortable at the line (Amari Cooper). Braylon Mitchell was transitioned into a situational role as an edge LB against two back teams where he was better suited against the inside run than sideline to sideline pursuit like where Spaight and Ellis excel. Josh Williams will be a guy who may better fit this role next season.
It will be a big point of emphasis to watch in spring whether Brooks Ellis really moves to the outside as the coaches have said or if he remains in the middle. Who out of the young linebackers will make the jump next season?
How was it done?
The NCAA, ESPN and all the other places who keep stats do not include broken tackles in their data, but in the charting project for Bill Connely this is one of the key stats taken. To anyone who watched the games it was obvious that there were far fewer missed tackles in 2014 and this directly related to Smith's hefty increase. In the close loss to Alabama only one broken tackle was recorded on Rohan Gaines when TJ Yeldon spun free. One broken tackle against Alabama is unbelievable and when something like this can be done you know the defense is going in the right direction
Press the hip, wrap and roll, sweep the ankle.
Robb Smith's key points in tackling undoubtedly come from Greg Schiano, and include "Bite The Ball, Wrap And Roll, Sweep The Ankle". 'Bite The Ball' simply means to keep your head up, and hit the ball with your facemask so you could 'bite' it if there was no facemask in the way. Keeps guys from dipping their heads.
Perfect Angle Tackle in the 1st Q of the Texas Bowl:
More emphasis is put on angle tackles and using the shoulder with leverage.
'Wrap and Roll' is the fallback option. If you notice that you've lost the angle to 'bite the ball', you need to wrap up around the waist and start rolling. You'll slide down, but eventually you will bring that player down. As Schiano has said many times everyone is the same size around the ankles.
Sweep The Ankle. Take your outside arm and try to swat at the opponent's front ankle. Swatting with the outside arm gives you a farther reach, while swatting at the front ankle means if you miss, you still hit the back leg.
All these fundamental were used in some form under the last defensive coordinator, but it seems that Smith has a much better way of simplifying and developing a way to communicate them to his players.
Smart Swarm- Getting to the ball in waves.
Another concept is the smart swarm, where during pursuit of the ball, carrier players still have key responsibilities. If a player is not the first or second guy there they attempt to disrupt the ball, strip or rip - whichever is available. By doing this even an occasional missed tackling can be cleaned up by the second or third player who is coming in under control. On this chaotic play during the bowl game you can see Tevin Mitchel is the contain player who keeps the back inside between the hashes, where Philon and his never-ending motor cause the Texas back to go down on his own. Even though Collins misses the swarm is still able to cause the ball carrier to give ground. A screen like this is normally devastating to an overaggressive defense but by using the smart swarm a play like this results in negative yardage.
Many coaches have started using rugby-style tackling. One example is Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks. This is an important idea in the SEC where a lot of times you are using undersized linebackers and safeties that can cover downfield against passing teams one week and the few teams that have big 240 pound backs the next week. Giving these guys some tools to use in order to tackle effectively and in a way that will allow them to stay on the field has become an important part of the game.
Smith was the linebackers coach the season Eric LaGrand was injured playing for Rutgers in 2010, and I have to think this has molded his tackling philosophy. Every kid these coaches recruit has someone, be it a parent, coach, grandparent, or friend who will ask the question of how will you keep them from head/neck injuries. These fundamentals are not necessarily going to eliminate the risk, but by putting an emphasis on taking the habit of using the head as a part of the tackling process, the coaches will lessen the risk.
A big change in how guys like Spaight tackled in 2014 was the go low - wrap the legs and ankles. In the past he went for the big hit, missing entirely a lot of times or allowing the ball carrier to spin off. Anyone who played football before the last 5-10 or so years since the impact of head injuries have been in the spotlight would not be familiar with any of these terms. The main coaching points of the past were to get your head in front of the ball carrier, have a flat back, drive your feet and put your helmet on the ball. And many were not taught even those fundamentals and went for the highlight reel knockout hit. This team has turned into a solid tackling, aggressive defense and Robb Smith and his staff are the reason.
This video is from Rutgers while Smith was there. Shows a lot of the concepts.
Robb Smith deserves a lot of credit for the redemption of the Arkansas defense in 2014. Clay Jennings, Rory Segrest and Randy Shannon also had a lot to do with the changes but the extent of how much alike the Rutgers teams and this Arkansas team looked in tackling can not be overlooked.
Will the loss of several upperclassmen like Alan Turner, Spaight, Flowers and possibly Philon set them back next year? I really think the young guys that have heard the coaching points, watched the film, been through the tackling circuit a million times and will be again through spring and fall practice will be able to step into bigger roles.
Arkansas has a tradition of great linebacker play by undersized, underrecruited and undervalued guys. If Smith makes half as much progress in this offseason as he did in 2014 will the results again surpass expectations? Probably not since we are still impatient hog fans wearing those Razorback red colored lenses, but a steady improvement will keep the Hogs headed in the right direction in 2015.