State of the Hogs: Turning the Corner

Who would have thought Arkansas would have an extra corner to help at safety? That could happen as press coverage emerges as a weapon for Robb Smith's first Razorback defense.

My eyes have a hard time staying away from the quarterbacks in practice. I'm no different than anyone else. Throwing and catching can mesmerize. You can spend all of your time charting throws and catches and deciding the difference between catchable, uncatchable and drops.

I let someone else do that. I learned that about 30 years ago. Someone will fill out those charts. And, yes, Jim Chaney, the offensive coordinator, said that at Arkansas there is someone doing that and the receivers are catching at or above 90 percent on catchable passes this spring.

Instead, I look inside the lines, or turn my eyes to the secondary. What goes on there sometimes slips past many observers at practice. An old line coach once told me, follow the center and you will see the guards, and then the defensive tackles and the linebackers.

I did that last week at Saturday's scrimmage and learned that Mitch Smothers is taking hold at center. I found that the little defensive tackle, converted Taiwan Johnson, can play. He'll probably need another 15 pounds this summer, but he's going to be a factor in the SEC because of his speed and quickness.

Then there's the cornerbacks, something of an enigma at Arkansas over the last half decade, or perhaps longer. Cornerback may be the most difficult position on the field. It is the lone place where you can't scheme much help. You do and the run game suffers because safeties can't get to the line quick enough.

Arkansas has been short on numbers and talent at cornerback. Oh, there have been attempts at catching up, but recruiting misses always seemed to wipe away the depth. That probably seemed obvious to Chris Ash when he arrived as defensive coordinator for his 12-month cup of coffee in the Ozarks. It may have even been obvious when Ellis Johnson had that infamous two-week stay at the start of Bobby Petrino's time here.

It was clear that Ash did not have much confidence in the ability of cornerback to play tight coverages. He got squeamish in interviews when you mentioned press coverage. About the closest he'd come to commenting came when he'd say, "We are trying to evaluate what our corners can do and can't do and we'll try to use them how they fit best in our defense."

I heard that one about five times over 12 months. It was extremely obvious from watching games that the evaluation came back that they couldn't play press. Because they didn't ever show it in games. If they showed press, they generally bailed into something softer at the snap.

What that does, it forces you to "tackle the catch," something that Arkansas corners and safeties have been doing ever since the turn of the century, or so it seems. In talking with old quarterback Clint Stoerner (sorry, Clint, but you are now getting to the point that you can be called old) earlier this spring, I mentioned that phrase and it produced a tirade.

"I hate that, tackle the catch," Stoerner said. "I don't ever want to hear it, but I agree that's what they did."

The philosophy produced an almost automatic second and 5 in the SEC. You could throw a hitch. You could turn and toss it to the tailback for a sweep. It was going to be 5 yards on first down. Don't try to make your living trying to stop second-and-5 in the SEC. It's a losing game.

All of this is to say that's not where the Hogs are anymore. With the emergence of Carroll Washington, Jarred Collins and Tevin Mitchel, the Hogs have three solid press cover guys. Washington is creeping into the "special" category from what I've seen in scrimmages. He loves press. He owns the boundary side when I've seen him there. Collins, with a little more weight, has been able to battle in hand-to-hand combat, too. Mitchel seems built for press both physically and mentally and has blossomed until a hamstring injury got him last week.

There are more corners jumping into the battle almost every day. D.J. Dean and Will Hines have their good days. Robb Smith and Clay Jennings, the two new assistants coaching the secondary, were challenging the corners to fight for every inch in Tuesday's practice.

Sense of urgency was preached by Smith, the new defensive coordinator, on every snap during extended third down work in both pass skeleton and team. The quarterbacks and receivers won a lot of battles, but there are passes being deflected and sometimes intercepted.

There may be enough depth at cornerback to move one or two to safety after spring drills. That wasn't something I saw coming six weeks ago.

The secondary isn't great, but it's better. The focus on the pass by the offense this spring -- and it's obvious that the throwing game was a major point of emphasis -- has helped the pass defense. Rohan Gaines looks to be a player at free safety. Alan Turner helps the specialty package at inside linebacker where the Hogs got the best tackler on the team more in the area where the underneath catches come.

It's tough to determine sometimes when you play against yourself how to measure progress. After all, you are playing against yourself. I get amused when I hear a coach or player tell a young one early in spring -- like someone did freshman receiver Jared Cornelius -- something akin to "welcome to the SEC." Is this really like the SEC? Is it like the top of the SEC?

Well, it appears to me that the defense is finally ready to join the SEC. There is some resistance there and there hasn't been much in recent years. No where is that more obvious that at cornerback.

If that is all that comes out of this spring, that will make it a success to me because it's the area that needed to come from so far away. Bielema hit his mark with the hires in the secondary with Smith and Jennings. There is critical improvement in what they've done.

Just take a long look at the corners Saturday in the Red-White game. You'll find them much closer to the line of scrimmage at the snap, and much closer to the wide receivers after the snap.

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