It was a beautiful, warm afternoon on the practice fields below Walker Pavilion for the first Arkansas spring football practice in full pads Thursday and the third workout of the week. It was also the first day open to the media, giving a chance for some reports on the progress of the 2014 Razorbacks.
Brandon Allen was clearly the best passer of the five quarterbacks, enjoying a crisp day throwing. Braylon Mitchell intercepted a AJ Derby pass in skeleton drills, but that appeared to be the lone turnover of the day, although there was a botched center exchange to start the inside run period.
There were a couple of notable absences, the most obvious strong safety Alan Turner, last year's leading tackler, and seventh in the SEC. He had a late class and arrived near the end of the workout in sweats. That gave TQ Coleman a chance to work with the first unit at safety along with Rohan Gaines.
The hitting excited defensive coordinator Robb Smith, first into the interview room Thursday afternoon. It was Smith's first time with the media this spring. He seemed pleased with the progress.
"We want to create an attitude and tempo," Smith said. "We were introducing scheme. We are doing some things similar to the past, but with some new language in some areas. We've had two good days and today added the pads.
"We had a lot of fun and it was great to get out there in pads. There is a lot of energy and we are building on that.
"I thought everyone was working hard and it was at an exciting tempo. The effort was phenomenal.
"We are trying to bring a hunger and energy to the defense and I think we are off to a great start in that regard. Now, it's time to refine things."
Smith said he's done some evaluation of the players ahead of spring drills in offseason workouts and with some tape study from last year.
"But I've told the guys that it's a clean slate," Smith said. "Now, I'm looking forward to pouring over the tape of these three workouts over spring break. I'm not going to Aruba or anything.
"It's too early to say anything specific about any player. I can tell you that I do like the effort."
Smith was asked about the way the defense lined up to start the practice, most notably the cornerbacks where Carroll Washington and Jared Collins were with the ones. Tevin Mitchell, Will Hines were with the twos and D.J. Dean and Chris Murphy were with the third group. It was quickly evident that those six were interchangeable as the practice continued.
"It's fluid in the back end for sure," Smith said.
Asked if he would play boundary/field at corner or right/left, Smith said it was too early to tell. He said an evaluation on strengths and weaknesses during spring and two-a-days would determine that scheme.
Speaking of scheme, he said, "Right now it's more about effort and physical play than scheme. We'll get to that. But I want to see tempo, attitude and physical play."
It was clear that Smith brought attitude and energy to the practice field.
"That's part of my job, to bring energy to games and practice," Smith said. "If I bring that to them, they'll give it back to me. We try to do that for each other.
"I thought what was important today about the hitting, they were willing participants. That's the brand we want for an Arkansas defense, to hit. We put the pads on today and they hit."
Secondary coach Clay Jennings said there were plenty out of his bunch that produced some fireworks.
"I thought Will Hines had some physical plays, D.J. Dean had a couple of hits, TQ Coleman had some plays like that and some of the other older guys had some nice hits," Jennings said. "I don't think you want to read too much into depth chart right now. Real fluid and we tried to mix it up in the first three practices.
"I do think we have a nice group and there is a good mix between older and younger guys. Chris Murphy, our freshman, missed the Sunday workout (to attend his high school prom) and he's catching up. But he's shown some athletic ability the last two days.
"De'Andre Coley, another young one, is learning the system and is a fish out of water at times, but you also see him do some nice things.
"I think we did show some physical attitude out there today. I saw quite a few pull the trigger today. We try to protect our teammates and we did that today. But we still played with a physical attitude at times, too.
"I wasn't in the inside run part of the practice because I'm going to be with one-on-one with our corners and wide receivers at that part of the practice. But we heard some of the hits down on the other end of the field. I believe you could hear some of those collisions all the way to Weddington."
Linebackers coach Randy Shannon was in a good mood after three practices. He compares where he was at this point last year with a group that mostly had never played linebacker and for sure hadn't played it in an SEC game.
"We are building now," he said. "Last year, we were starting from scratch. You look back, Braylon Mitchell was a guy who had only played in games as a tailback and that was in high school. Jarrett Lake was a wide receiver. And then you think about it, we didn't even have Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis in the spring. Otha Peters had been hurt for two years."
Lake is done with eligibility, but Shannon had Mitchell, Ellis and Spaight as his first team linebackers on Thursday. His next group consisted of Peters, Daunte Carr and converted safety Alex Brignoni.
"I think about last year, my guys were learning to play the position and also learning me," Shannon said. "I think they know me a little better now, know linebacker a little better and they know how to play a little better now.
"Now, we are able to learn the scheme and what are the finer points. It's good to have Otha healthy. He's a different player now.
"I see a lot of enthusiasm from this bunch. I've told them what we are going to do first is play hard and chase the football. If they do that, they'll be pretty good. We can fix some things and fine tune scheme, but we can't fix effort. I've seen effort these first three days."
Ellis is close to 250 pounds, easily the biggest of the linebackers. He looks like a middle linebacker.
Shannon said he sees a different player, but there's still room for lots of growth on the field.
"My job is to push him as hard as I can," he said. "I want him to understand that he's gotta be the guy for us in the middle. He has to come every day with a chip on his shoulder. He's doing that and I just have to keep pushing."
Mitchell smiled when he heard Shannon's comments about going from a tailback to a linebacker.
"There was a lot of times last year that I was a skater on ice," Mitchell said. "I have learned to be more physical."
Did someone call him a skater?
"No, that's my word for how I played," he said. "I had never been out there on the big stage at linebacker and I had to learn how it's supposed to be played. Fortunately, I have the best linebacker coach in the country and he's taught me. I don't think I'm like that anymore."
Mitchell said it's clear that Smith wants more physical play throughout the defense.
"Coach Smith has three things he wants done," Mitchell said. "He wants to stop the run, be physical and create turnovers. We MUST play more physical. We want to be the best linebacker corps in the country.
"I think you are going to see our linebackers play better than the linebackers have here in a long time. We are going to play with a chip on our shoulders. I was a little nervous last year. No more."
Defensive end Trey Flowers said he's excited about the first week.
"This is a day, our first in pads, that a lot of guys have looked forward to for a long time," Flowers said. "I think our first two days were good, but today's practice is what we have waited on, trying to improve our physical nature. I think we did.
"We have added some terminology that is a little different and we've learned it in meetings. But I don't think it slowed any of us down. I think we played with our pads today. I think we were comfortable with what we were doing. I know I was comfortable."
Flowers concentrated on defensive end, although he said there are some packages that might feature him at tight end. Those weren't explored this first week.
"I think there is just a little package (at tight end) for me," he said. "We'll get to that. Right now, it's defense. I want to be there to lead."
Flowers said he's made a few speeches in the past few weeks.
"Maybe a couple," he said. "Well, a few, anyway. Some of them have been at the 5:30 a.m. workouts. I say something when I think we need it. Didn't need anything today. Guys were ready to go. I just say something when I feel it was needed. I think a lot of guys looked forward to today."
Robb Smith gives instructions in a one-on-one drill.
Brandon Allen calls signals.
Chris Murphy prepares for practice.
Robb Smith works with the secondary.
Rafe Peavey gets loose.
Clay Jennings puts the secondary through a drill.
Cody Hollister makes a catch.
Jason Ivester Photos, Hawgs Illustrated
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