I am a little bit haunted by the words of both head coach John L. Smith and assistant coach Paul Haynes when they were asked last week about the status of the defense. They both said in short about the defense, "We've got a long way to go."
Smith was asked to explain that statement. He tried, noting that the opener always reveals a few things that provide a better gauge. He said his statement was nothing more than that.
One old adage about football says that teams make the most progress between their first and second game of the season. Maybe the Hogs won't have such a long ways to go after week two.
It's clear that the defense needs to improve at linebacker and in the secondary. Tackling and run fits were an issue with linebacker where Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright were coming off injuries. Loose coverage was the issue in the secondary.
That's the overview as it's time to tackle the second week of the top 10 keys to victory ahead of the Louisiana-Monroe game set for 6 p.m. Saturday in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.
1. Secondary Coverage
This was never supposed to be a team strength. The secondary was a weak point last year and the best returning player, Eric Bennett, missed most of fall camp with a hamstring injury.
Cornerbacks Tevin Mitchel and Darius Winston were decent in fall camp, but both of them were beaten in the opener. Winston had coverage on an early sideline route that wasn't all bad, but he never saw the ball -- a problem in past years. He was benched in favor of Kaelon Kelleybrew.
ULM's Warhawks have a decent passing attack. Quarterback Kolton Browning is a scrambler with a knack for finding his wideouts after breaking loose from the pocket. The Hogs will have to display better coverage than they did last week against Jacksonville State.
How much have the Hogs improved and how does Winston handle his quick demotion? Is communication better between Bennett, the cornerbacks and his fellow safety, Rohan Gaines?
2. Linebacker Play
John L. Smith said Thursday he wanted to see better mesh between the linebackers and defensive line in run fits. There were times when linebackers stepped into the same gaps that were occupied by the defensive line and that created holes in the front.
That means the linebackers must show some improvement in discipline within the scheme. It probably should not have surprised based on the number of repetitions the linebackers had in scrimmages in the fall. Wright and Highsmith had almost none.
The linebackers will also be involved in contain responsibilities when Browning is flushed from the pocket. They'll have to combine that with coverage underneath the safeties against the running backs. ULM will try to expose those weaknesses from last week. Can those linebackers improve in week two?
3. Physical Presence
It took until the third key to get to the first Alabama reference. The Hogs move to one of the season's big games next week when the Crimson Tide visits the Ozarks. They will need more up front on both sides of the ball when Alabama arrives.
Smith mentioned physical power on Thursday. He wants to see the offensive line move the line of scrimmage in a bigger way than it did last week against Jacksonville State.
The defensive line had three sacks last week. Can they get a little more pressure without blitzes this week? Chris Smith provided the most heat in the pass rush last week. Can anyone step up with the fine junior defensive end this week?
4. Running Game
This is an interesting area to watch. Paul Petrino, offensive coordinator, outlined the give and take that the Hogs must consider. They want to emphasize the run, but ULM blitzes about 70 percent of the time. The easy thing would be to call more passes.
"If they put 10 men near the line of scrimmage, we might should throw it every down," Petrino said Tuesday.
That might be in reference to the ULM game two years ago when the Hogs struggled in the running game for the better part of two halves until they dialed up pass after pass and the game quickly turned in their favor.
The Hogs lost three fumbles last week. Ball security was a huge issue in practice this week. Can the Hogs protect the ball and force some turnovers by getting after Browning in his first outing of the season?
Jacksonville State didn't really stop the Hogs last week. Without the turnovers, the Hogs might have scored 70. ULM has more team speed and will offer more resistance. Still, this is a game that the Hogs will be measuring improvement by how much they've cleaned up some mistakes.
6. Jason Peacock
Senior offensive tackle Jacon Peacock was the starter the last half of the season at weak tackle. He took over for Mitch Smothers after the Alabama game. Peacock sat out of the opener because of suspension after a spring arrest for stealing a debit card. He's available this week and will likely play.
But where? He played weak tackle last year. He worked behind David Hurd there in the spring and for a few days in fall camp. But of late, Peacock has been behind Brey Cook at strong tackle. It will be interesting to see where the Hogs plug him in this week. It could be on both sides. But that needs to be figured out quickly. Alabama is coming to town next week.
The Hogs lost senior Kiero Small to a foot injury in practice Wednesday. He underwent surgery that will probably knock him out of the lineup from six to eight weeks. He was as good at his position as any player on the team.
The Hogs moved Kody Walker to fullback early in fall camp. He's the goal line back in many plays, so he can't block for himself. He'll miss Small.
Grady Ollison, redshirt freshman offensive lineman, was in on a couple of plays as fullback on the goal line. John L. Smith hinted at an increased role for Ollison after practice Thursday, perhaps because of the loss of Small. Ollison is also working at guard, tight end and H-back.
That's a lot for a second year player, but it points to Ollison's huge talent. He was coveted as a defensive end out of Malvern High School. It will be interesting to watch how Ollison is used against ULM. Ironically, Small was thought to be able to help in multiple roles this season. Ollison has big shoes to fill.
8. Defensive ends
There's little doubt that Chris Smith has emerged as the top playmaker out of this talented group. Who steps up to join him as a pass rush demon?
Deatrich Wise, the slender true freshman, got six productive snaps in the opener. How many does he get against ULM? And will Trey Flowers step up as the other bookend. Flowers had a superb camp and was involved in a few plays against Jacksonville State. But he's going to be needed to chase down Browning. Maybe he sees Wise coming? The competition is heating up at this position as the Hogs continue to look for a way to replace Jake Bequette's production.
9. Special Teams
The Hogs were just average in special teams last week. Zach Hocker did his thing on kickoffs. There might be a breeze Saturday night if forecasts are accurate and that will mean at least half of his boots are returnable. What will coverage teams be like? Can Cameron Bryan, converted kicker, make a play? br>
Dennis Johnson set up drive with a nice return and he's always dangerous. He got more chances than the Hogs would probably like with JSU putting 24 points on the board. br>
Nate Holmes looked dangerous on punt returns, although he muffed one catch. His elbow touched on one electric opportunity to negate what most thought was a touchdown. Can Holmes lock up this job with a solid second game? Better yet, can the Hogs force enough punts to give him plenty of practice? br>
10. Tyler Wilson
The game is always in Tyler Wilson's hands. Paul Petrino said Wilson missed only one check and had only two missed throws in the opener. His only real mistake was losing the ball on a scramble. Can he add another impressive game in week two? br>
ULM is going to make Wilson make plenty of checks at the line of scrimmage. They will blitz or jump out of a blitz on every play. How does Wilson handle the pressure? br>
Petrino said that's what the Hogs want. They love to put up big numbers against a blitzing team. Can Wilson find the hot receiver on a consistent basis? What will his third down ratio be in week two? The Hogs were four of four in the first half against Jacksonville State. What will that number be in this first half? If it's good, this might be a big night for the wide receivers.