State of the Hogs: Front Four

Arkansas has joined the elite SEC teams because of improving defensive line depth. The Hogs outclassed Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl with a 10-man rotation in the front four.

The Big 12 veteran said it right. The defensive lines in the SEC are superior. They are the reason Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and South Carolina are in the top 10.

What's up front on defense separates those teams from the rest of the country, especially the Big 12.

Urban Meyer said something similar last year on the ESPN stage in the end zone at the last season's national title game as Auburn warmed up to beat Oregon. The whole nation saw it when LSU's defensive line destroyed Oregon to start this year.

What my old friend who follows the Big 12 told me early last month was simple. There aren't any defensive linemen in the Big 12 who would have started in Monday night's national title game. Zero.

That's what the veteran observer told me in advance of the Cotton Bowl matchup between Arkansas and Kansas State. He thought that would be the clear edge for the Razorbacks. He nailed it.

The Arkansas depth in the defensive line paid big dividends against Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein. Advertised as a tough, mobile north-south operator and a more than adequate scrambler in pass situations, Klein could not outquick or outrun the Arkansas front.

New UA defensive coordinator and the rest of the staff came up with one tweak in technique that helped against Klein's middle runs. The Hogs pulled their ends a little tighter and slowed down their rush. They played more physical and held off the K-State tackles with their hands until Klein committed with his angle. Then they squeezed him from two sides with closing help from linebackers Jerry Franklin, Alonzo Highsmith and Jerico Nelson.

The stats tell the story. Here's the numbers compiled by the 10 men -- and men is the right word -- who chased him for 60 minutes in the four-slot Arkansas defensive line:

• Tenarius Wright, five tackles, three for losses, one sack, one fumble recovery.
• Jake Bequette, five tackles, two for losses, two sacks, one forced fumble.
• DeQuinta Jones, three tackles, one without a helmet.
• Chris Smith, two tackles, two for losses, two sacks.
• Byran Jones, two tackles, one for loss, one sack.
• Colton Miles-Nash, one tackle.
• Zach Stadther, one tackle.
• Robert Thomas, one tackle.

Alfred Davis and Trey Flowers also joined in that wrecking crew that stuffed Klein's every move to give the Hogs that incredible 10-man rotation. It was so deep that Lavunce Askew, a productive player who was often a productive regular in his first three seasons, spent the year on the redshirt list as a senior.

It's that group that has been the key as Arkansas allowed only 19 second-half points in four games against Big 12 opposition in Cowboys Stadium over the last three years. When you are deep in the defensive line, eventually you wear down the other side's offensive line. Anyone think that didn't happen against K-State?

That's where Arkansas has improved the most under Bobby Petrino. It's the area that is the toughest to find. And it's where his strength program under Jason Veltkamp has paid the biggest dividends. See, Veltkamp, more than anything else, develops defensive linemen. He said he spends time in meetings, dinners, breakfasts, plane rides and in the on-campus recruiting in an effort to develop those big nasties.

Of course, recruiting is the key. Arkansas may be known as the Natural State, but it doesn't produce as many naturally gifted defensive lineman as some of the bigger metro areas. Note that of those nine men who played against K-State, only Bequette, Stadther and Byran Jones hail from inside the state.

Here's the best news; only Bequette and Stadther are seniors. And there are others aside from Askew on the redshirt list. Horace Arkadie and Darryl Kelly-Thomas will add to the end depth. There are young ones like Jeremiah Jackson and DeMarcus Hodge waiting their turn inside, too.

The key is not just what those guys to the opposing quarterbacks. It's what they give the Arkansas offensive line in practice, too. There's great competition when the Hogs work in those individual battles up front.

Former Ohio State coach John Cooper told me the same thing when we visited after his Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club trip in the fall. He said the Big 10 has a few fine defensive linemen, but not enough to rotate in games and that lack of depth also works against them in practice situations where they are trying to build an offensive line.

Cooper said it also makes a difference when you have an overflow so a few can be moved to offensive tackle. Arkansas did that this fall when Grady Ollison arrived from Malvern.

It's that growth in the defensive front that has meant all the difference as the Hogs went from five victories in Petrino's first season to 11 this season. I remember what Paul Petrino said in the aftermath of a 52-10 loss at Texas. It was the middle game in three lopsided losses to the nation's Nos. 9, 7 and 12-ranked teams.

"Some day we are going to be on the other side of this kind of game," Paul Petrino said. "We are going to be the one handing out the lumps."

That's how most of November went as the Hogs controlled the line of scrimmage with that finally healthy, deep defensive front. Ask Tennessee, South Carolina and Mississippi State how it felt. Ask Collin Klein.

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