State of the Hogs: Safety

It hasn't taken long for Paul Haynes to put his stamp on the back end of the Arkansas defense. There is more depth and more versatility in the Razorback safeties.

It didn't take long to figure out what I liked about the change to Paul Haynes as defensive coordinator. There would be more coaches in the secondary. It stands to reason that more coaches means more coaching help.

I looked around college football to see the breakdown of staffs the last few seasons. Generally, I saw two coaches in the secondary, one for the safeties and one for the corners. Not at Arkansas. Willy Robinson had the corners, safeties and was also the coordinator. That was a massive task.

This is not a knock on Bobby Petrino, the man who made the overall assignments on his staff. He didn't force that on Robinson, putting an extra assistant in the front. No, that was Robinson's choice.

That's fine, if it works. But it didn't work much of the time. You can argue that there was a lack of experience early on and quality talent at the end of Robinson's four years. But it also stands to reason that he needed more help.

The Hogs have seemed to corrected that with Haynes at defensive coordinator. Immediately, he said he would coach safeties and Bobby Allen, a man with experience throughout the defense and several seasons in the back end, would join Haynes in the secondary as corners coach.

I thought it paid dividends in the spring. The scouting report on Haynes (from old friend John Cooper at Ohio State) was that Haynes made three-star recruits into players coveted by the NFL year after year. Cooper said graduation never derailed the back end of the Buckeye defense, dubbed the Silver Bullet for the way the safeties, corners and linebackers arrived to the ball in a flash.

Haynes taught tackling, Cooper said. The Ohio State back end always had big, sure tacklers and was generally fast. Better than being fast, the safeties and corners played fast. The way he did, Cooper said, was to coach running to the ball and communication. It takes communication to turn loose in a confident way.

Some of this was noticeable against Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. Tackling was better. There were more defenders to the ball. The big plays disappeared. Haynes explained that in the spring.

"The big plays don't so much come when someone misses a tackle, but when you don't have two, three and four defenders running to the ball," Haynes said. "What's glaring to me in a big play is that there was a missed tackle and then no one else was there. That's where the problem generally lies, not in the missed tackle. So that's what we stressed."

Of course, it takes players. I wasn't so sure there were enough players when I watched the first two spring practices because I wasn't confident some were really able to play. But Haynes stuck to his knitting. He worked them all and some emerged as the scrimmages arrived.

The biggest jumps came from Jerry Mitchell and Rohan Gaines. Mitchell had been tried first at safety and then at corner the previous two springs. The best that came out of that is that Mitchell earned time on special teams, but was on the field for very few snaps from center.

Both Mitchell and Gaines, a highly touted first-year player, had solid springs that got better every day. They also got help from Alan Turner, a fierce hitter. Davyon McKinney was at corner for the spring, but if several in the new recruiting class are true corners that could free him to move back to safety. He has a safety build.

Mitchell is a big, strong, fast 210-pounder who looks like an SEC safety. What he learned to do this spring was play fast. He was the surprise of the spring in the personal view. He's a player now. Kudos to Haynes for coaching him up at safety.

Gaines made some mistakes in the spring, but he showed up at the ball an awful lot. And he made plays when he got there. The best description I can give you is that he's a football player, an Orlando Watters type. I like ball players in the secondary.

The development of Mitchell and Gaines is huge because it allows the Hogs to use Ross Rasner both at safety and the nickel linebacker spot, the playmaking spot Haynes calls the Star. Rasner understands that spot and had a standout spring.

Rasner seemed able to float between safety and star with few mistakes, understanding the technique and pass drops for both. He stepped into run fits with low, level pads and made plays.

Obviously, the other safety is manned by returnee Eric Bennett, the quarterback of the back end. Don't forget that he was a three-year starter at quarterback at Booker T. Washington in Tulsa in a fine high school career. He was able to make reads as a sophomore in his high school offense. He understands quarterback play and that helps him in his current role.

Haynes developed all of those safeties with both free and strong in mind by keeping them as left and right in the spring. That will make it easy to adjust if and when injuries hit. That coaching point developed more depth.

It also gives me an easy feeling about the spot I worried the most about going into the spring. More than anything it confirmed the scouting report on Paul Haynes from John Cooper. The man can coach safeties.

That's the best news that came out of this Arkansas spring. It's nice when safeties look the part. But it's even sweeter when they can play like they look. That's where I think 2012 is headed in the back end.

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