The Arkansas defense as a whole lost some key pieces but in the secondary that impact was not quite as pronounced. Alan Turner at strong safety, Carroll Washington at corner, and Tevin Mitchel at nickel played a lot of snaps over their careers, but several talented underclassmen are ready to jump into those roles. The overall depth is improved from last season which will give the back part of the defense more options and an expanded rotation.
The defensive staff has a noticeable aptitude for finding a player's specific skill set, maximizing that and putting those players in comfortable situations. I look for more of that with this set of defensive backs, and a more aggressive approach to coverage with time spent learning Smith's defense.
The Arkansas secondary ranked 13th in S&P+ on passing downs and 11th on standard downs in 2014. Robb Smith and Clay Jennings developed a two deep that consists of much better tackling, improved break on the ball, and overall superior cover skills from 2013 and I anticipate more of the same in 2015.
"We were backed off last year,"(2013) Collins said. "Coach Smith has had us press a lot this year and he has confidence and faith that we can do it. His emphasis on mental and physical toughness has changed our whole philosophy. Coach Jennings and Coach Smith changed my whole mentality."
Jared Collins Tulsa World Interview
Spring Game: DB's not really tested
The pressure up front from the 1st team defensive line really put the quarterback in panic mode. Not many deep downfield shots were taken, and when they were tested the secondary was all over it. The coverages were basic, matching the play-calling on both sides of the ball in the Spring Game. I saw some rotation to man free, mostly base quarters coverage, and cover three with the safety creeping in run support on early downs.
Different skills sets: Maximizing strengths, hiding weaknesses
Jared Collins: Since he arrived he has added strength, gained weight, and still has the most speed out of the 2 deep at corner. His downfield cover skills are where he stands out and that's why he plays mostly at the field corner spot. In most situations Collins will be asked to play off and play deep quarter or thirds depending on the coverage and can run with just about any one.
DJ Dean: He has more physical presence at the line of scrimmage and also can play some bail or off technique. In my opinion he shows the most complete coverage skills. No pressure, just looks fluid and has played a lot of downs against quality opponents.
Henre' Toliver: At 6'1 has the size to cover flexed TEs and taller WRs, as well as the physicality to be a solid run stopper. His role this spring has been at the nickel position where he can play press and jam at the LOS. Look for him to make some big plays in 2015.
Rohan Gaines: Moving to the SS spot replacing graduated senior Alan Turner will yield some opportunities for more big hits and solidify the run support. Gaines has shown he can play in the box and terrorize WRs over the middle.
D'Andre Coley: Has size at 6'1 and showed willingness to run the alley to fill in run support. In this scrimmage Kody Walker showed him he is not your typical running back, and ran over Coley on one of his runs. Fortunately there were not any lingering effects and Coley returned later to rack up several more tackles. His aggressiveness from the safety spot on the white squad stood out, and made some plays with the 1st team in the second half.
Josh Liddell: Saw an increase in playing time late last season when Gaines was suspended, and is always in the right alignment. SEC offensive coordinators will try to throw some double moves at him and take some shots his way early in games.
Quarterbacks in the Secondary, Incoming Freshmen and Overall 2015 Outlook:
DJ Dean, Kevin Richardson and Rohan Gaines were all dual threat quarterbacks in high school. Josh Liddell was a wishbone option quarterback and brings that same mentality to the safety spot. That experience in reading coverages from the other side of the ball and understanding offensive alignments translates to defense very well.
The top of the depth chart is loaded with guys who had to play early by necessity. Unlike with Dean, Collins, Tolliver and Liddell, Clay Jennings now has the luxury of not being forced to put many freshmen in the fire right away. Incoming freshmen Dre Greenlaw, Willie Sykes, Ryan Pulley, and Nate Dalton will all have time to learn and develop.
This group will be tested early in the 2015 schedule by Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Most opponents will see the corner and safety spots as favorable match-ups and build a game plan going after them. At times last season teams isolated Jared Collins in short to intermediate routes with more physical receivers. His impact will be felt in improving those situations and will be put in position to add to his pass break-up totals.
Liddell at safety has the potential to be the next breakout player on defense following Spaight in 2014. Many of Robb Smith's preferred coverages and blitz packages depend on the secondary playing without much help, either underneath or over the top. Smith's play-call menu will be further expanded in 2015 with his secondary building on that experience. How much improvement will they make? Well, after the huge leap last season on defense the back part could have the best opportunity to take a skyrocket in production next season.