State of the Hogs: Hit the QB

It's a simple quest for these two defenses. Hit the quarterback. Texas A&M will be trying to zap Ryan Mallett. Arkansas will be trying to blast Jerrod Johnson.

I do a little thing on Friday called the Top 10 things to watch for on Saturday when Arkansas plays that week's opponent. There are usually about 40 things scattered through it in a series of 10 overall topics. That's coming tomorrow, I promise.

But I'm going to cover one of them in greater detail today because it's not just the key to what the Hogs need to do to beat Texas A&M, but the key to the rest of the season.

Most think the key to the rest of the Arkansas football season is tied to running the ball. That would be nice, a strong running game for the fourth quarter. I'm not willing to go there after what I've seen so far. I think it has more to do with wreaking havoc in the pass rush and the Hogs' ability to protect their own quarterback.

You might say that the running game keys all of that. If the front seven has to play run, defensive ends can't widen their alignment and come after the quarterback with their ears pinned back. Again, I'm not going there. There's probably something to it, but in today's game, you better pressure the quarterback regardless.

Simply put, hit the quarterback. Find a way. Mess with his mind. Change his vision. Rattle his cage. Make him turn his back on his receivers. Better yet, make him throw the ball up for grabs. And put him on the ground.

When Bobby Petrino was named head coach, his first talk to Arkansas fans included lots of stuff about how he wanted to play offense. He was going to throw the ball. He was going to throw it when it was required and when it wasn't required. He was going to run it. He wanted an offense that could score every time it stepped on the field.

Some may forget, but he did talk about defense that first night after becoming the head of the Razorback Nation. He talked about technique, fundamentals and forcing turnovers. But what hit me hardest was the one line about "hitting the quarterback."

It's where playing defense starts with Petrino. For sure, that's where it starts against Texas A&M. Last year's game with the Aggies was the first time I saw Petrino's defense really hit the quarterback. The game turned on that. Remember, the Aggies jumped out to a 10-0 lead, then the Hogs started hitting Jerrod Johnson, the big, fast A&M quarterback. The game turned and the Hogs romped.

Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright had a field day with a couple of overmatched Aggie offensive tackles, Stephen Barrera, a freshman, and Lee Grimes, a senior. Neither are playing in the A&M O-line this year. In fact, the only returnee in that five-man group is center Matt Allen. He played right guard last year when they saw the Hogs.

The Aggies do a better job in protections this year, but you can still get to Johnson. The problem is there are times he is better on the move than he is in the pocket. The Hogs don't want to flush him, they want to contain him and make him a dropback passer and hope coverage holds up a few seconds so they can crash the pocket around him.

"I don't know that you ever want to flush too many passers," said Willy Robinson, defensive coordinator. "And with this big guy, the main thing is you don't want to flush him to the right. That's where he's dangerous, making plays with his right arm going to his right. So we want to make him go left."

Bequette said that's really nothing new.

"I think that's what you know about all quarterbacks," he said. "If they are a righthander, they are going to be alright going to their right. They probably aren't going to be very good throwing back across their body going to the left. So that's what you want to do, but it's easier said than done."

What about the improved Aggie protection packages?

"Yeah, they are better," Bequette said. "You watch the tape of the Stephen F. Austin game in week one, then watch the Oklahoma State game last week, you see steady improvement. They are definitely better than last year as far as protection.

"But we aren't the same defense they played last year. We are better. We've gotten better in every phase since they played us last year."

It's surely the same with the Aggie defense. It's a new scheme with a new coordinator. It's a 3-4 look with A&M's best pass rusher moved from end to outside linebacker. Von Miller led the nation with 17 sacks last year. He's been bothered by an ankle injury early this year, but might be rounding into form just in time to chase Ryan Mallett.

Tim DeRuyter, the new coordinator, has ties to both Tim Horton (Air Force) and Chris Klenakis (Nevada) on the Arkansas staff. He and Klenakis worked together three seasons at Nevada.

"Coach K knows him best," Horton said. "I got to Air Force that winter, was around him for the spring, then came to Arkansas in July. But Coach K had several years with him."

The DeRuyter blitz is most frequently out of zone looks. It's the zone blitzes that Petrino solved best in Conference USA. The SEC is more of a man-to-man blitz league.

"We haven't seen much zone blitz so far this year," Horton said. "That's what they are going to bring."

Offensive guard Wade Grayson said it will be lots of corners and safety fires from the outside.

"We'll have to do a lot of things in protections to stop them from the outside," Grayson said. "They are pretty good at it. I think the main thing is, you don't know when it's coming. It looks like they are coming a lot."

Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said it's the fake of the blitz that causes problems.

"I think the Oklahoma State coach said it pretty good, they look like they are doing one thing and then they do something else," McGee said. "They make you think they are coming to one side, then they come on the other side. That's tough."

Horton said the Hogs will have to protect in different ways.

"You can't do the same thing every time," he said. "So it's a game of sorts. Our backs will be involved with some of the protections on the back side, but we'll change it up. That's a constant battle, to see where they are coming and then find different ways to protect it."

That's on the quarterback. He has to set the protections and make the checks. That will be the case for both Mallett and Johnson. It's the pre-snap adjustments after both teams line up that will be most important in this game. The quarterback who does it the best is probably going to be the one that stays off the ground the most.

If he can keep from getting hit, his team is probably going to win.

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