Collins steps up on the outside

Jared Collins stepped up with a strong performance in the spring to help the Razorbacks build depth at cornerback. The competition is intense under new coordinator Robb Smith and new secondary coach Clay Jennings.

Arkansas redshirt sophomore Jared Collins may have well had the best spring of any of the Razorbacks' sudden plethora of healthy cornerbacks.

He came out of a six-pack of candidates listed as a first-teamer along with senior Carroll Washington.

But Collins (6-0, 171) knows that while he remembers a his big play in the Mississippi State game, most fans focus on essentially the last play the defense was on the field for the 2013 season when thinking about Collins (6-0, 170).

"I guess a high point would be my first career interception against Mississippi State and a low point would be the ending of the LSU game," Collins said of the two games that he started during the 2013 season.

The big blow happened with 1:22 left in the game in Baton Rouge and Arkansas on the verge of a major upset at LSU as the Razorbacks were leading the Tigers 27-24.

LSU had back-up quarterback Anthony Jennings in the game as starter Zach Mettenberger had to leave the game after taking one of the multitude of shots Arkansas defense put on him during the day.

After taking over at his own 1-yard line because of Sam Irwin Hill's brilliant 65-yard punt, Jennings was faced with the task of taking his team 99 yards for the win or at least 60 or so yards for a game-tying field goal.

The Tigers were facing a 3rd and 10 at the Razorback 49 when Jennings dropped back and looked for Travin Duval as Arkansas defenders manned their zones.

Collins released Duval to senior safety Eric Bennett as the defense called for, but Bennett had taken a fake and came up and that left Duval streaking wide open down the left sideline for what turned into the game-winning score.

"That was tough," Collins said. "Me, personally I didn't want to place the blame on either one of us, but it was tough to have that put on me or put on both of us actually."

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema was obviously upset by the miscue, which kept his team from ending its woeful regular season on a high note.

"It was obviously a very difficult ending to a good football game," Bielema said, noting the Hogs were in "deep half coverage" that should have provided help for Collins. "In deep half, there are layers. The deep layer was not there.

"…It's a difficult play because there is supposed to be top half help for (the cornerback)," Bielema added. "The player was not there."

Collins decided the best thing he could do was just put the play behind him and get better for the 2014 season and that's the mindset he took into spring drills.

"I think it went well," Collins said of the 15 spring workouts allotted by the NCAA. "I think we all progressed each and every day and the mental and physical toughness we now have will help us going into the future. I think it was an overall good spring."

He played in 11 games last season while recording 27 tackles, six of those coming against LSU, five against Mississippi State and a team-high five coming on special teams.

Collins also had two pass break ups in the final two games of the 2013 regular season.

"Getting thrown into the fire was an interesting experience and I think it helped me a lot to just gain experience out there and be in the game and playing the speed of college football," Collins said. "I think I took advantage of every opportunity I got and just worked each and every day to get better."

While he'll never be confused with a physical specimen, Collins is at least no longer under 150 pounds as he was when he arrived on the University of Arkansas campus.

"My number one goal is to put on weight," Collins said. "That's been my goal every year. Right now I am around 170 and I got here at 149. I have put on some weight, but my goal is to put on some more."

He is absolutely thrilled with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith usage of more press coverage and an overall more aggressive style.

"I think to be in press coverage helps us to be in the play more," Collins said. "We all have a mentality that we can lock down receivers and playing press has helped us mentally as well. I think it is just fun to cover a guy."

Collins and Washington (6-0, 180) joined a group of cornerbacks that also includes former starters in senior Tevin Mitchel (6-0, 188) and junior Will Hines (6-1, 191).

There's also sophomore D.J. Dean (5-10, 198) – who also started the final two games – and true freshman newcomer Chris Murphy, who was an early high school graduate and went through spring drills. There are rumors that Murphy won't return after a homesick first semester of college.

"Where we were struggling a year ago, and I know we're not playing the SEC schedule right now, but you really feel good about those five guys competing," Bielema said of the five upperclassmen.

New secondary coach Clay Jennings, who arrived from TCU, loves what he is seeing out of the group.

"Those guys are enthusiastic every day," Jennings said. "They've got a smile on their face," Jennings said. "They're working hard. As long as they're giving great effort, then it's my job to make sure I put them in the right position to win."

All got a chance to go through the off-season with Arkansas conditioning and strength program coach Ben Herbert.

"I think we have very good depth and we have a lot of guys that come in and play," Collins said. "As far as staying healthy, I think we are just working with Coach Herb just getting stronger and getting bigger so we can withstand the things we need to."

Washington, who came to Arkansas last season as the nation's top junior college cornerback and played in 11 games, had a strong spring as well.

He is coming off a junior season in which he had 18 tackles and 2 pass break ups.

"Carroll Washington is playing the best that I have seen him play," Collins said. "I don't know if he made a change somewhere, but it has really helped him a lot."

Mitchel was both the most highly-regarded cornerback the Razorbacks had going into last season and the most criticized one coming out it.

He had at least three missed tackles that resulted in long touchdown runs by opposing receivers and also several busts in coverage.

"I think Tevin has a totally different attitude and he is using last year as fuel to just get better for this year and I think it helped him a lot," Collins said.

Mitchel decided to change his number from 8 to 23 and try to get a fresh start.

"I can't even tell you how excited I am about No. 23," Bielema said after the first scrimmage on April 5. "He's had — in my opinion — the most improvement as anybody on the football team. Just confidence, swagger, ability, toughness."

Hines had 22 tackles, four pass break ups and an interception during an injury-prone 2013 season.

"Will had a good spring and he – in my opinion – is just a play-maker and a ball hog," Collins said. "I think is one of his biggest attributes."

Dean played in all 12 games as a true freshman and had 9 tackles and 4 pass break ups – all coming in the final two games of the season as he showed his coverage ability.

"I think all of us as a group have gotten better since last season and I think the competition and pushing each other is going to make a great group," Dean said. "There is so much competition out there now that nobody can take a day off."

Murphy is the youngest of the bunch and the older cornerbacks have rallied around him.

"Chris is a very hard worker and I think each and every day in the weight room he pushes us to all do our best," Collins said. "As far as getting him in the program, I think we are all just trying to help him learn our philosophy and learn his plays so that he can go out there and play fast."

Smith has been stressing takeaways to his secondary, which faltered in that department last season with only six fumble recoveries and eight interceptions in 12 games last season.

Conversely, Arkansas' first-team defense had three in three plays spanning just 30 seconds in one stretch in the Red-White game.

"It's certainly something we've emphasized," Smith said. "It's one of those things you've got to keep hitting every day and make sure it's part of your mentality, who you are. We want to create takeaways. We want to take the football back and give it to our offense and put them in a great position on the football field."

It's basically about fundamentals according to Smith, who was with the NFL's Tampa Bay Bucs last season.

"We work on ball disruption, whether it's creating a fumble or just literally catching the football — as mundane as that sounds for a defensive football player," Smith said. "But you've got to spend time and do that. I think if we can get better at those big fundamentals that are involved with takeaways, I think when we get ourselves in position to do that next fall, hopefully we'll be able to capitalize on it."

Player assessments on cornerbacks from defensive coordinator Robb Smith:

Carroll Washington (6-0, 181, Sr.) — I put him in the same category with Martrell Spaight, in that he made a lot of strides this spring. He really embraced what we were trying to do philosophically and had success with it. He is certainly a guy who can play the press for us and we are going to need him to do it and have success. Depending on what our call is, sometimes we are better off with a guy into the boundary and a guy out to the field. You want to disrupt the throw and when you have a guy who can put his hands on you and disrupt, that's a positive. He's a guy who has shown an ability to do that. He had a good spring for us.

Tevin Mitchel (6-0, 188, Sr.) — He can play boundary, field, left or right. I kind of told the guys when I came in, everyone had a clean slate. I think out of all of the players, he's the guy who embraced that the most. I don't know a lot about what Tevin's past or history was here and to be frank, I'm not concerned about it. I know this, he had a great spring. He's developing as a leader for us on defense. We are expecting a good season for us. Absolutely, he's a good physical tackler for us. He's taken that to heart. He wants to improve in that area and he clearly showed improvement as a physical tackler this spring. He's a smart enough guy that he knows to get where you want to go, you have to keep pushing forward. It will be a big summer with both mental and physical preparation for him.

Will Hines (6-1, 191, Jr.) — When you look at his frame, he's one of those guys you get really excited. When you talk about press, with his long arms and longer body type, you can really disrupt the timing with the receivers. When you talk about someone's eyes lighting up when you call press, he's one that gets excited about an opportunity to get up there and put his hands on you.

Kevin Richardson (6-0, 161, Fr.) — He had a solid spring. He's a walk-on who if he keeps improving, he can find a role on this football team. Absolutely, he might find a role on special teams.

Jared Collins (6-0, 171, Soph.) — Jared made a lot of improvement from day one to day 15. He's a smart football player. He really understands splits of receivers and uses that to his advantage. He's a hard worker as well. He needs a good summer program with Coach Herbert. If he gained six to eight pounds, I'd be happy. If they let me buy the food, I'd make sure he got everything possible. He's got to keep eating and we need to keep pushing in that area. I think he feels very comfortable (on the field side). Some guys don't like to play in a lot of space. He's a guy who doesn't shy away from that.

D.J. Dean (5-10, 198, Soph.) — He's doing well. He jumped in the slot (at nickel) at times. When you can cover a slot receiver, those guys are valuable. He showed a physical presence at corner and that was very encouraging. He's a guy who has a bright future at corner.

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