State of the Hogs: Safety First

It's all about the quarterbacks in the Cotton Bowl. But it's not just Tyler Wilson and Collin Klein.

Sometimes we want to say it's all about the quarterbacks. Perhaps that would be the simplest way to view the Cotton Bowl when Arkansas squares off with Kansas State on Friday night.

That's a great matchup, too. UA signal caller Tyler Wilson and K-State's Collin Klein are coming off wonderful seasons. They are as much responsible for a pair of sterling 10-2 records as any two players on the field at Cowboys Stadium.

But it may be the other quarterbacks on the field Friday night as anything else. The other quarterbacks?

That would be the four safeties in the game. K-State's Tysyn Hartman and Ty Zimmerman and the Arkansas tandem of Eric Bennett and Tramain Thomas are all former high school quarterbacks.

"I think when you have former quarterbacks playing safety it gives your defense a different insight into the game," Wilson said. "I know our guys see the game as an old quarterback. When I watch the K-State safeties play on video, I see the same thing."

There is little doubt that when Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino game plans, it often starts with the safeties. He is extremely good at coming up with schemes that force the safeties into precarious position by the use of formation changes.

"I know that most everyone around the country thinks about our passing game first," Paul Petrino said Tuesday. "But what I think our head coach does best is scheme for the running game.

"What he does to give us some edges there is really outstanding. I don't think many give him the credit there for what he does in that respect."

The K-State defense likes to play its safeties deep. The Wildcats play quarters, a look that puts them in four deep more often than two or three.

"I think if you look at the teams we've played, they most resemble Auburn," Paul Petrino said. "They are going to play four deep. They play quarters more than anything else.

"And they don't blitz much. Now if they get you in a third-and-long, they are a situational blitz team. But they are going to make you earn it. They are not going to do things to give up big plays in scheme."

That may mean that the Arkansas running game is more of a factor than in some recent games. And that could put Dennis Johnson in a big role. He's made plays all year, but he's also had some fumbles. He lost a key fumble late in the first half at LSU in the regular season finale.

There's been focus on the 18 pass interceptions the K-State secondary has produced. But they've forced fumbles, too.

"We're good at stripping the ball," said Chris Cosh, the K-State defensive coordinator. "I think they've been big momentum changers in our season, too. That's one of the things that I think has been similar to the two teams that have beaten (Arkansas) this year. I think that's where we are alike both LSU and Alabama, that we force turnovers and we don't give the ball up with our offense."

K-State is seventh in the country in turnover ratio. No one has been able to force Klein into turnovers.

"I think what we have to do is get the ball out of his hands," Arkansas outside linebacker Jerico Nelson said. "We have to make him give the ball away. I mean, we have to make him hand it off, pitch it or throw it. That's the best thing we can do to disrupt their offense and put risk into it."

Thomas wants to have an impact game for the Hogs at safety. He had his worst game of the season the last time the Hogs were in Cowboys Stadium. He was so shaky in the first half against Texas A&M that he gave way to Elton Ford for much of the second half with Bennett moving to free safety.

"I want to make up for that game," Thomas said. "I do remember that game. I do want this to be better. It's my last time to play for the Razorbacks. I want this to be different. The good thing is that my team still won that day."

Thomas will play an important role. He's going to be forced to make a decision on every play. Is it a run with Klein -- and a chance for him to come up to make a play -- or is it just a play-action fake and an over-the-top chance for the Wildcats?

It will be interesting to see how Thomas and Bennett play after working with new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes. He's tutoring the safeties. Has he given them any new technique or ways to handle a mobile quarterback?

It's no secret that the Hogs have had trouble with dual threat quarterbacks. They had no answer last year for Ohio State quarterback Terelle Pryor. Haynes said he gave the defense some new tricks to use against mobile quarterbacks in bowl preparations.

"We had to go against Pryor in practice and we also had a good one in our league, Michigan's Denard Robinson," Haynes said. "I think Klein is like Pryor in size and speed. I think he's like Robinson in that he is very tough and seems to get better as the game goes along.

"I'm not sure anyone is going to stop Klein completely, but we have to just keep competing. If he makes a play, we have to fight back. That's what I've tried to instill in our guys. If we give something up, we have to come back stronger. I think that's what he does. We have to match that."

Cosh said his goal is to try to "disrupt" Wilson.

"I think he's going to make some plays," the K-State defensive coordinator said. "He's got playmakers and lots of weapons. So he's going to get the ball to them and make plays. But we have to keep pressuring, keep getting people around him.

"We haven't been a team that has gotten a lot of sacks, but we have been disruptive. We have gotten around quarterbacks and made them move. And when you do that, sometimes you get them to do something that helps your secondary. Our guys do a good job when they can get their hands near the ball. We do have some ball hawks."

One of the big keys might be in special teams. Both teams have made plays in the return game. But the Wildcats are missing their best weapon, all-purpose man Tyler Lockett. He's out with a kidney injury. That leaves the Hogs with an edge.

Lockett was also the gadget man for the K-State offense, a surprise weapon in trick plays. With Lockett on the sideline, that should make it easier for the Arkansas safeties. That's the winning edge in a slugfest and the reason I think the Hogs will win.

There's one more reason I think this Arkansas defense will be up to the challenge. I like the switch in philosophy to put two coaches in the secondary. Moving Bobby Allen to cornerbacks, with Haynes taking the safeties, is a win-win to improve specific technique at both spots.

There's no doubt that should help in the long term. It might in the short term, too -- in the form of a Cotton Bowl victory. Here's my score: Arkansas 35, Kansas State 27.

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