State of the Hogs: No Script

The pressures from the defense in Saturday's scrimmage made things difficult for the offense and that's a good thing this spring for the Arkansas football team.

The email came early Sunday. Perhaps the author had seen Brandon Allen's numbers in the passing game, 17 of 20 for 247 yards. The question was simple: Was the scrimmage scripted to help the quarterback?

It's an important thought because sometimes they are desgined to help the quarterback gain confidence, with no blitzes and a structure on defense that allows time for progressions. Bobby Petrino was famous for just that kind of a scrimmage.

Not this time. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith turned it loose, especially during the long sequence of third-down plays. Both offense and defense had spent time earlier in the week with their third-down installations, at least some of them on display Saturday, as much as any coach will show in an open scrimmage.

It was a competitive frenzy as Smith called several cornerback fires, probably more than we saw all of last year. There were 13 sacks, although not that many were against the first-team offense.

Offensive line coach Sam Pittman noted the offense could have countered with more draws and screens to combat the blitz, but that the plan was to try to protect and run the hot routes and progressions in the basics of the blitz pickup. In other words, see if you can protect first.

"I'd rather have it like this," Pittman said Tuesday. "You can always run a bunch of draws and screens, but we want to get to the point where we can protect it and throw it."

That's something the Hogs couldn't always do last year in the first year of the installation of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's offense. And, they didn't see a lot of pressure in the spring because the Hogs couldn't play press coverage with their cornerbacks and their linebackers were infants as far as Division I schemes.

There is some natural maturation on defense this spring. Corners are tighter. Although linebackers are still trying to figure out coverages, they do understand blitzes a little more. Braylon Mitchell, on the outside, can step up on the line and fire or play head up on a tight end. Alan Turner is going to help as a dime linebacker, stepping up from his strong safety role.

It's not the job of Chaney or Pittman to comment on Smith's defensive progress, but they volunteered a few tidbits. Chaney said he likes what he sees of the tackling through six practices this spring. Pittman called that side of the ball "well coached."

Pittman didn't hesitate with a follow-up thought on defense, especially with what he sees in the front, now coached by Rory Segrest. It was Pittman who volunteered an endorsement on Segrest after playing his line at Samford, and thumbs up on the hiring of Smith. He recalled preparation against Rutgers from his days at North Carolina.

"They come up the field," Pittman said. "It's a nice scheme. Our new guys have done a nice job over there. They are getting after us and it's only going to help us in the fall.

"We saw a lot of things Saturday. The corner blitz? Yeah, I saw those. We didn't handle them very well. We need to get better picking those up. We can do a better job as coaches in giving them some things to handle that.

"We are seeing some pressures this spring. Like I said, I'd rather get this worked out now. Our defense played well."

The tackling was solid Saturday. Davyon McKinney missed on a tackle against Hunter Henry that led to a 67-yard catch and run. The significance of that play wasn't apparent until I talked to tight ends coach Barry Lunney.

"Hunter couldn't have made that run down the middle of the field last fall," Lunney said. "He was never healthy enough. Now, he can open up and run in the open field."

I do remember mention of some leg injuries with Henry last year, but I didn't realize that they impacted his play that much.

It just shows the growth in the team in so many ways since last fall. Most of us were aware of Allen's bad shoulder, but probably not the depth of the problems. Allen didn't practice for the better part of six weeks.

It didn't hit me that tight end was in such a learning mode until Lunney reminded that Mitchell Loewen and Henry, the two starters, had never played tight end before last season. Loewen was converted from offensive tackle in the spring. Henry was used as a wide receiver at Pulaski Academy, although recruiting services listed him as the nation's top tight end prospect.

The other tight end in the rotation while Austin Tate recovered from shoulder surgery was redshirt freshman Jeremy Sprinkle, coming off a broken wrist that forced his redshirt in 2012. The tight end is going to be a big part of the offense. Lunney emphasized that again Tuesday.

"We throw to the tight end," Lunney said. "That's what we do. It's in Coach Bielema's track record, it's in Coach Chaney's track record. We don't just put them out there. We pump the ball to them."

But the tight ends must do more than just catch the football.

"Jeremy Sprinkle is now game ready in his receiving game," Lunney said. "Now we have to get him game ready in his run blocking and his protections."

It won't be scripted to make it easy for Sprinkle, or anyone else on offense. That much was clear Saturday.

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