Paul Haynes began to study the tape soon after his arrival at Arkansas. He saw Ross Rasner make play after play when he was on the field. He wondered why Rasner wasn't playing more.
"We were trying to figure out who to put at our Star position," Haynes said. "Usually, that's where we put our best player and we wondered why he wasn't there in the (previous scheme). But there was Jerico Nelson, making plays, too. He was playing really well there."
So Haynes came up with the solution for the scheme against Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl.
"We came up with a dime package that had both Ross and Jerico out there at the same time," Haynes said, noting it worked well.
Haynes is a big fan of Rasner's play this year. He's been the focal point of the scheme variations at both the Star spot, the hybrid safety/outside linebacker and also when he's been at safety in the base defense. But mostly, the Hogs have been in nickel and dime looks, with Rasner at Star.
"I think Ross has played his best football the last three or four weeks," Haynes said. "I've always said until your seniors are playing their best football, you are going to struggle. Our seniors are playing their best football right now. Guys like Ross, Alfred Davis and Terrell Williams are leading us and playing their best football."
Two seniors got the defensive coaching staff's top awards in the victory over Kentucky. Williams got the "showtime" award. Defensive tackle Jared Green got the coveted "grinder" award.
Rasner thinks the play of the defense has been improving of late. He said it's just been a matter of getting time for the many freshmen in the package Linebackers A. J. Turner and Otha Peters along with corners Will Hines and Davyon McKinney weren't in the rotation early in the season.
"We've played better the last couple of games, but this is a lot better challenge," Rasner said. "Ole Miss is going to challenge us as far as how much we've improved as far as tackling in space. They are the fourth best overall offense in the SEC as far as total yards. They've made big plays on a lot of teams. They are going to pound the ball, but at the same time you have to be disciplined and play the play-action passing. They will try to beat you deep."
Rasner said the Rebels are tough because you can't key on one back or one receiver. The playmakers he's going to see matched up are numerous. Running backs Jeff Scott, Randall Mackey along with quarterback Bo Wallace are all potent running threats. Wideouts Donte Moncrief, Vine Sanders and Ja-Mes Logan all move around in a fast-paced style of play that makes it tough for the Hogs to get the matchups they want.
"They are going to put you in space against that speed and quickness," Rasner said. "This is a big game for our defense. We want to see how much we've improved. This is a big game because of where it is -- back in Little Rock. The memories of the last two trips to Little Rock aren't good and we'd like to change them."
The last two trips? Arkansas beat Mississippi State in Little Rock late last season.
"Well, it was that weekend that Garrett Uekman died," Rasner said. "Then, we go back down there and lose to Louisiana-Monroe.
"I want to go back down there and prove to fans that we can do some things they haven't seen us do. The talk in our locker room is that we need to redeem ourselves and we just don't want to disappoint our fans. That's been our talk among ourselves.
"The ULM game seems like a long time ago. But I won't forget the feeling of walking off that field, that losing feeling. I know it surprised everyone on our team. But I definitely remember walking off the field and thinking, 'What just happened?'
"It took awhile to get things turned around. I think it happened after the A&M game. I don't think attitude in practice had been bad before that, but it got better. Our practices have been much better since then."
Rasner said he knew it was going to be just a matter of time before the defense came together under the Haynes style.
"I always had a lot of respect for Coach Haynes with what he was doing and going through with us," Rasner said. "We just had so many injuries, but he kept coaching us just as hard and getting the next guy ready and getting us to play sound. Really, we had to have new guys learn some new positions. I know Coach Haynes has always supported us. I have a lot of respect for him."
It all might have coincided with the decision to play a little tighter coverage on the outside. It was at that point that the Hogs brought the cornerbacks closer to the wideouts to take away some of the quick game, perhaps gaining confidence that corners could handle the fade.
With that coverage sacks began to appear with what had been expected to be the strength, the defensive line.
Defensive end Chris Smith said Haynes turned his group loose a little more.
"I don't think it's been more blitzes, but more pressure up front," Smith said. "I think some of it was also getting the scheme down. We got to where we were playing without thinking about what we were doing. It just all fell in place a lot easier.
"Some of it's momentum, too. When you get on a roll, you play better. But momentum starts Tuesday. We've gotten it going in practice so the games come easier.
"We are playing up the field more with the ends. I think early there was a lot of thought about staying home and playing the run. We are going after the quarterback more. Most times, (defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell) has been telling us not to get up the field. But that's changed now. He wants us up the field, including this week. I don't think we'll change what we've been doing. You have to be responsible for your gap in the option, but I think we are going to go after the quarterback."
On the other side of the ball, how much will Ole Miss coordinator Dave Wommack go after the quarterback. The old coaching adage may hole true -- you go after the young, learning quarterback and drop back and cover against the veteran, talented quarterback. Obviously, Tyler Wilson fits in the last group.
However, Wommack's style has been to blitz and blitz some more. He'll send cornerbacks and both linebackers at times. That might play into Wilson's hands both with run checks to the outside with Dennis Johnson, Knile Davis and Jonathan Williams -- and with the passing to Chris Gragg. Linebackers are generally involved in tight end coverage. Hence, Wommack may be ultra selective when he goes after Wilson.
"It bodes well for us if they blitz," Arkansas head coach John L. Smith said Thursday.
But this might be the week that the Hogs rely on their running game to take the pressure off Wilson. Draws, sweeps and play-action passes in the flats are effective blitz busters. It seems like the Hogs have been adding those plays over the last month.
Gragg is back for the first time in one month. He sustained a leg and knee injury against Rutgers. He's looked good in the open week practices and has his speed back. He helps in the running game with the perimeter bocking, something the Hogs have missed as much as his receptions.
Another key has to be the young Arkansas linebackers and how they play the fast-paced Ole Miss option with Wallace calling the shots. Can A. J. Turner and Otha Peters stay disciplined? Put safety Rohan Gaines in that category, too. Wallace likes to show the dive option, then pull it back for a play-action pass. Gaines said he's worked to get his eyes in the right place. He'll be tested by Wallace's fakes this week.
"I can't be reckless," Gaines said. "I have to be calm with my eyes. I had trouble with that early. I don't think we are the same team we were the last time we went to Little Rock. Coach Haynes got me calmed down and understanding that we have to be disciplined. We just want to be disciplined and focused with our eyes and come out with a victory. That's all that matters, getting the victory.
"The objective of the Ole Miss defense is to get our guys in one-on-one situations and hope we miss. We've worked on tackling every day. That's always a big part of each game, but we know we have to tackle well this week."
Safety Eric Bennett said he sees improvement from Gaines. He said he remembers his first year as a starter. He said it took him about half of the year before things slowed down. Gaines said he understands.
"Eric is right," Gaines said. "About halfway through the year, it slowed down and began to click for me. I think that's what it takes. I see things a lot better now."
That may be the biggest key. The Hogs have to find the ball in the Ole Miss ball fakes, trickery and option package and be ready for play action all of the time. There is no room for reckless play this week. As Haynes notes, if the Arkansas seniors are playing their best football, the Hogs have a great chance against the Rebels.
State of the Hogs: Keys (Ole Miss)
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