Still Playing Quarterback

Eric Bennett has stepped up as quarterback of the defensive secondary under safeties coach Paul Haynes.

Eric Bennett knew he needed to make a play. The then-sophomore safety was also pretty sure he knew what was coming.

No. 9 Arkansas was on the brink of blowing a 12-point fourth quarter lead at Ole Miss in October. The Rebels had the momentum after scoring a touchdown to pull within 29-24 with less than two minutes remaining, then recovered an onside kick and had 1 minute, 21 seconds to drive 57 yards for a game-winning score.

"They had to go deep," Bennett said.

After a sack, Ole Miss was on its own 32-yard line. Bennett lined up 16 yards off the ball.

The Rebels had one receiver split to the right, two receivers and a tight end to the left and a running back next to quarterback Randall Mackey. Bennett was responsible for the tight end and outside receiver on the left.

The play developed and Bennett dropped back, staying in the middle of the field even though Donte Moncrief, the outside receiver, was sprinting down the sideline.

"You can bait the quarterback into throwing the ball into your zone," he said. "You can make it seem like you're going to blitz, but then you drop into coverage. You can make it seem like you're going to the post, but you've got the deep pass."

Mackey scrambled around in the pocket, then turned left.

"Once you see the quarterback's shoulders, you just break to the ball," Bennett said.

Bennett broke on Moncrief, arriving in time to make a leaping interception. He returned the pick 46 yards, clinching the win and keeping the Hogs from suffering a costly Southeastern Conference loss.

"Keys never lie to you," Bennett said. "If you go through your progressions right, everything else is going to take care of itself."

The interception was one of many big plays Bennett made as a first-year starter last season. The 6-foot, 195-pounder from Tulsa, Okla., also had two other interceptions and finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles.

"The game speed slowed down so much," Bennett said. "I can play normal. It was like I was back in high school."

Bennett's high school experience is one of the key reasons for his collegiate success. He can read quarterbacks because he's been in their shoes.

Bennett starred at quarterback for three seasons at Booker T. Washington, throwing and rushing for more than 1,000 yards each and amassing 27 total touchdowns for a 13-1 state championship team his junior season.

"He was real smart," said Antwain Jimmerson, Bennett's coach at Booker T. "We turned the offense over to him his sophomore year and he flourished. We were a no-huddle team. So he called the plays at the line of scrimmage and could make the right calls."

Jimmerson watched Bennett's understanding of how offenses operated translate into a playmaking ability when he played defense.

"He knows what the quarterback is looking for," Jimmerson said. "He knows how to read their eyes. We were throwing a vertical and an out game, a curl and flat game. We always taught him who to read. Now, playing on the other side of the ball, he knows what the quarterback is looking for. He can anticipate things and keep himself out of bad situations.

Despite playing mostly offense, he was a highly-touted prospect on defense, ranked the No. 37 cornerback in the nation by in the 2010 class and named first-team all-state as an all-purpose player.

"In obvious passing situations I was going to have him on the field on defense," Jimmerson said. "It was amazing. There were times that late in fourth quarter would be the first time he played on defense and he'd have a pick."

Bennett signed with Arkansas and lined up in the defensive backfield from the start. He recorded 15 tackles and a pass breakup while playing cornerback in 12 games as a freshman in 2010, then transitioned to safety after the year. In 2011, he earned teammates' respect for his play on the field.

"He's a great tackler and he's a playmaker," senior cornerback Darius Winston said. "I've got a good comfort level with him because comfort comes with experience. I feel like I have a better chance to make plays with someone behind me I can work with. It helps out a lot."

Now, new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes wants Bennett, entering his junior season, to be the quarterback of the defense.

Last season, Bennett was the youngest in a three-player rotation at the two safety spots, working with seniors Tramain Thomas and Elton Ford. Now Bennett is the only safety on the roster with substantial game experience.

His role has changed. He is the older, battle-tested player, mentoring safeties Jerry Mitchell, Rohan Gaines and Alan Turner.

"In practice I'll always make sure I say the down, distance and personnel," Bennett said.

"I've got to communicate more now than last year. Me and Tramain were on the same page. He was older. So I didn't have to worry about him. Now I'm trying to help the younger guys out like the older guys did me. I've got to be vocal.

"In individual drills, I've got to be in the front of the line all the time. Last year, it was more seniors. I had to wait in the back. Now I get to step into the front and be a leader."

Bennett has also had to adjust to Haynes' personality and the new system he spent spring practice implementing.

Adjusting to Haynes' personality didn't take long after the new coach was hired from Ohio State in early December.

"We started getting comfortable with him by about the second meeting when he just kind of opened up down there in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl," Bennett said. "He just showed his personality more and more every day and we just got more comfortable with him.

He's real cool. He's a laidback guy. I can go talk to coach Haynes about anything. I could go talk to him about shoestrings and we'd talk for 30 minutes. That's just the type of person he is."

Haynes' calm demeanor extends onto the field, a welcome change in approach from former Razorbacks defensive coordinator Willy Robinson.

"He's more laidback," Bennett said. "He's one of those guys who doesn't really yell a lot. Your players can react better if you don't yell at them all the time and you sit there and coach them. That's what I like about coach Haynes. He'll coach you and not just yell at you the whole time."

Scheme-wise, Haynes' system has been easier to learn than Robinson's.

For Bennett and the other safeties, Haynes employed a left and right safety in place of strong and free this spring, allowing everyone to learn how to play to the boundary and the field. He also cut down on the number of defenses the players have to learn.

"Coach Haynes system is more simple," Bennett said. "He always says, 'We don't have to have 37 calls. We can have four.' Those four base calls, everybody knows exactly what they do and where their help is. So we can line up and just run base the whole game.

"When you start putting in more, people start thinking too much. With your base defense, it's no excuses because you run it every day."

Haynes, Bennett and the rest of the defense will use the new system to try to improve on last season, when the unit ranked in the bottom third of the SEC in scoring and total defense.

"I feel like the defense is going to be the strong point this year and shock a lot of people," Bennett said. "We're going to have a lot of playmakers out there this year. (Receiver) Cobi Hamilton was like, 'You all are starting to get better. You're starting to break on the ball and everything.' It has been a fresh start."

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