State of the Hogs: Defense

It's going to take time, but the Arkansas defense is headed right direction under coordinator Chris Ash. This is the first in a two-part series.

It's no secret that Arkansas has struggled on defense over the past five seasons. There was one constant with the last two defensive coordinators, Willy Robinson and Paul Haynes, the Hogs gave up big plays and lots of touchdowns.

Oh, there were some brief periods when turnovers or sacks were produced by Jake Bequette and Jerico Nelson, the best two playmakers of that sad defensive era. But more times than not, if Arkansas was going to win a game, the offense had to put up big numbers.

Has that changed with the arrival of Bret Bielema and a top-notch defensive staff with Chris Ash, Charlie Partridge, Randy Shannon and Taver Johnson? Bielema cut his teeth in the coaching profession as a linebackers coach, then as a defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Wisconsin.

Maybe, but the new defensive staff should be given some time to get things going in the right direction. Ash, the defensive coordinator and safeties coach, knows what he's doing and how to get it done.

The good news for Ash is that Partridge, an outstanding technician and motivator (and equally strong recruiter), has some experience and talent to work with in the defensive line. The bad news is that the best of the linebackers given to Shannon weren't linebackers until they arrived at Arkansas.

"That's a scary thought," Ash said after spring drills when he noted that the three sitting atop the linebacker depth chart were projections.

"At some point, you have to stop making projections and recruit players who were linebackers in high school."

Obviously, that's what the UA coaching staff is doing right now. They are spending as much time finding linebackers (along with defensive linemen and defensive backs) as the last staff did searching for quarterbacks and wide receivers.

Daunte Carr, listed as the No. 1 middle linebacker, was converted from safety this winter. Braylon Mitchell, the top strongside linebacker, was known more as a tailback at Heber Springs, although he did play some linebacker.

Jarrett Lake's high school career, what there was of it between stops at Jenks, Okla., and a prep school, was mostly spent as a wideout. Lake was the most productive weakside linebacker this spring.

The goals were simple in the spring. It was about daily improvement and getting some basics emphasized.

"To start, we had some things we wanted to come out of the end of spring feeling good about," Ash said. "I wanted us to be good at some thing. We ran very few calls throughout the course of spring.

"We wanted to educate these player. We wanted to build relationships. We wanted to get them to trust us and get them to believe in what we were doing and what we are telling them. We got that done. We have their ears. They believe, they bought in and how we try to do things. That's the first part of it.

"I wanted them to understand the fundamentals of their position whether it was D-line, linebacker, DB, it doesn't matter, regardless of where they play. I wanted the to understand those fundamentals.

"Are we there yet, no. But are we a lot better than where we were? Absolutely. So we made tremendous improvement from where we were at."

Ash said it was a difficult process and the starting point was not what he expected.

"The very first day we put on pads and watched practice, it was awful," he said. "I thought, ‘Oh, my God. What did we get ourselves into.' Our fundamentals on defense were about as bad as I've seen, the footwork, the hands, being able to get off blocks. It was ugly.

"But after 15 practices and when I watched the spring game, we are not even close to being the same football team. But, don't mistake that improvement for being good because we are not. But, the product we put on the field from practice one to 15, it is greatly improved. I'm happy with that and a lot of it has to do with the fundamentals, the understanding of their position and getting off blocks and tackling."

I like fundamentals and the direction Ash is taking this defense. Just give him some time.

Editor's Note: In the second part of the series, Chris Ash explains what he thinks concerning the ceiling for the 2013 Arkansas defense.

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