State of the Hogs: First Look

Robb Smith won't come to the interview room Thursday, but there were defensive questions for quarterback Brandon Allen on Tuesday when Arkansas football was front and center after two days of spring drills.

It was offensive day in the media room Tuesday after the second day of Arkansas spring football practice. Excuse me, but I asked defensive questions to quarterback Brandon Allen. What did he see from Robb Smith's new system?

Brandon has better eyes than me anyway. He looks at a practice from the quarterback's perspective. I used him the way I once borrowed the eyes of Wilson Matthews, Harold Horton or Louis Campbell after a practice. What a quarterback or a coach sees is different than even a veteran sportswriter.

What I wanted to know from Allen, was there more press coverage with Smith and new secondary coach Clay Jennings. Head coach Bret Bielema told me there would be a more aggressive plan on the outside under Smith, the new defensive coordinator and former Bielema roommate at Iowa when they coached under Kirk Ferentz.

"You see a change," Allen said. "What is it, I think swagger is one way of describing it, confidence maybe.

"I think what you see on that side of the ball is the same through two days for the offense as far as improvement from last year, fewer mental errors. You don't see as many there, just like for us.

"The corners, it's a lot more press. Sometimes they press and bail. Sometimes they stay in it. There's a lot of press. It's not every look, but a lot for us. It gives us a much tougher look as far as the quarterbacks. It's tough on us and that's good. It's been a competitive situation for our wideouts."

Smith will be in the interview room Thursday. It's the first time since the week after he was hired that he's met with the assembled writers and broadcasters. They are going to like him. Like Butch Davis told me three weeks ago, Smith is a good guy. And, Davis said, "He can really coach."

Davis and Smith have talked about Arkansas a couple of times since Smith arrived. They got to know each other the last year when Davis was special assistant to head coach Greg Schiano with the Tampa Bay Bucs. I've confirmed that Schiano was about to make Smith, the linebackers coach last year with the Bucs, the defensive coordinator before that staff was terminated following the season.

Over the past month, Smith has been learning Arkansas. I provided some history of the glory days in an interview a couple of weeks ago that appears in this week's Hawgs Illustrated, a meet the coach piece. Smith has some Arkansas flavor to him, having worked with the likes of Davis, a UA alum. And, his roots, if you see the way they cross, have a lot of Arkansas to them. Dave Wannstedt, one of his mentors, was coached by Jimmy Johnson, captain of the 1964 Arkansas team that won the national championship.

I asked Smith if he knew the Hogs blanked their final five opponents in 1964. If you can get one shutout in today's game of holding on offense and no contact in the secondary, you've accomplished a great feat.

"Five straight shutouts to end the year?" Smith said. "Wow. That gives me chills. That's great stuff.

"I love to hear about that kind of stuff. I'm here to tell you it can still happen, too. I know in today's game there are great offensive numbers everywhere you look, but I believe you can still play defense like they played here in 1964. I don't think there is any reason it can't happen.

"I firmly believe, defense wins championships. I still believe that in the day of the spread offenses."

Everyone knows the Hogs have to improve in the back end of the defense. It's hard to think about shutouts after what has happened the last few years with the Arkansas defense. It would be good to start with producing a few takeaways. The Hogs recovered three fumbles last year. Three. Only Texas A&M, with two, had fewer in the SEC last season.

The Hogs were minus 12 in turnover ratio last season, 14th in the SEC. That was among the nation's worst. They had 19 turnovers and had only seven takeaways.

So they have work to do on both sides of the ball. They have to be more violent on defense and they have to eliminate mistakes on offense.

How do you get turnovers? First, you have to get bigger, stronger and faster. Bielema said they did that in the offseason. But the trick is to start out with bigger, stronger and faster players. There's some of that arriving in August. Of the four mid-term arrivals, only Chris Murphy, a fast and physical corner, plays defense. So Smith will have to wait a bit for most of his new help, more athletic corners, safeties and linebackers.

In the meantime, Smith will work to streamline the thinking. He wants the defense to play faster by thinking about less. Maybe the Hogs were too detailed and had problems in communication the last few years. There was a big effort to pare some of the mental layers and make the transfer from coach to player easier before the snap.

The media will see Thursday's practice before meeting with linebackers coach Randy Shannon, new defensive line coach Rory Segrest along with Smith and Jennings. That's three new coaches.

I don't expect to have any chill bumps when I watch the 2014 Arkansas defense for the first time. But I do think I'll see an attempt at tighter coverage in the secondary. That will be a good start.

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