State of the Hogs: Swagger Back?

The Arkansas defense needed a little swagger and that's what they got after Bret Bielema retooled his coaching staff led by coordinator Robb Smith.

They call it swagger these days. I just called it confidence for years and I'll stick with that. A little confidence can go a long way. Too much and it's referenced as cockiness.

The Arkansas defense is definitely not cocky. They've struggled too long to fall into that category. But Bret Bielema thought his guys struggled with confidence last season, probably to the detriment of the unit.

In the offseason, Bielema tried to correct that with three new defensive assistants, starting with coordinator Robb Smith. Holdover Randy Shannon, the linebackers coach, was joined by his old friend at TCU secondary coach Clay Jennings. Rory Segrest took over with the defensive line.

Gradually over the winter, that bunch changed the swagger in the UA meeting rooms. They convinced what had been a downtrodden bunch that they could still play. They got some of the junior college transfers who were learning SEC football last year up to speed on alignment and put some spunk back in the old guys, most notably cornerback Tevin Mitchel.

Bielema said everyone noticed a change in Mitchel. It probably helped that Mitchel addressed the squad. He backed up his words with a strong showing over the first 10 practices of spring. He missed the last two weeks with a hamstring injury, something that allowed an early start on post spring shoulder surgery.

The key in all of this was a positive influence from Smith, who may be just the opposite of departed defensive coordinator Chris Ash. When Ash would tell the team and media how far they were from being an SEC defense, Smith tells them how they can become just that. He doesn't say they have arrived, but insists they will arrive.

And the first thing Smith did showed the players how. He moved cornerbacks to the line of scrimmage in press coverage at least part of the time and he showed them how to play more physical with their hands.

There is one constant refrain at practice, a scream from the sideline from Smith "to play with a sense or urgency." You saw that as the spring progressed. They back seven did bring a sense of urgency and they fought with their hands to keep receivers from gaining an advantage on their cuts. They tried to re-route receivers at every opportunity. It was hand-to-hand combat in the secondary when it used to be air.

This is still not the best defense in the SEC. But it may not be the worst anymore. They may force some turnovers. The only turnovers the Hogs got in the last two years were mistakes by an offense, pure gifts. They rarely made a play with the ball in the air. And they didn't cause any fumbles with vicious hits. They do now.

About the best thing you could say about the 2013 defense was that safety Alan Turner would get you to the ground. He made 97 stops, seventh best in the SEC. But he was the last man way too often, a bad sign for a defense.

There are finally middle linebackers on this defense. Brooks Ellis and Otha Peters do look and play like SEC middle linebackers. No longer is that position a void. That's what Ash said was the problem when he named Daunte Carr the first middle linebacker last summer. He said there was no one else.

And, it is just that kind of a statement that causes a loss of confidence, even if it's correct. Smith isn't going to do that. He is a glass half full kind of guy and it's refreshing with where the Hogs have been on defense.

I talked to Butch Davis, an old Razorback, about Smith when he joined the staff from Tampa Bay. He was on the Tampa Bay staff last year as a special assistant to head coach Greg Schiano and often sat in on defensive staff meetings. Davis said, "Robb will coach them up." That's exactly what I've seen so far.

That all sounds simple, but that's exactly what they did, simplify everything. The calls are shortened to make it easier to absorb. And, they were reduced in general. If you know it, you can play faster and that leads to confidence.

I know a lot of folks were down about the way the spring game went two weeks ago. The offense sputtered out of the gate. But by the same token, defense should win in the spring. It wasn't an altogether horrible sign when the defense made plays.

That sounds like a simple phrase, coach them up. But you can also coach them down, perhaps what happened with the Arkansas defense. For sure, they were beat down, told that they weren't good enough -- and no doubt they weren't.

But Smith's message is perfect for where these Hogs are right now. And, it appears they are being coached up. If the coach believes in them, then they have a chance to believe in themselves. Right now, the confidence is on the upswing and that's a good thing for the Arkansas defense.

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