In thinking about the 2014 Arkansas football season and all that's happened in the last six months, I'm most pleased with defensive progress.
There will be improvement in all areas of the team, including quarterback play and the ability to make plays at wideout (and yes, Cody Hollister, Jared Cornelius, Kendrick Edwards and JoJo Robinson are good). But the area that has to come the most is defense.
Interestingly, I think it will improve the most. I think defensive coordinator Robb Smith has the right approach in all areas. I think he's done a fine job of taking what he inherited -- and it's not all bad with 16 players with starting experience -- and retooling it to fit the way he wants to play.
There are finally some playmakers on defense, led by Trey Flowers, Brooks Ellis, Martrell Spaight, Carroll Washington, Tiquention Coleman, Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis, Darius Philon, Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines.
Coaches that I've talked to in the past six months are high on Robb Smith. I've talked to Butch Davis twice and both times he's given me lots of positives about what he thinks is happening here.
Robb and Butch talk and there is an indication that things are going well. Robb thinks what's going on inside the walls in the weight room, 7-on-7, football operation building has been very positive as far as chemistry and growth of the defense. I believe that.
It's the single most important thing that's happened, and I say that knowing that quarterback and scoring points are important. Arkansas will score more points. But it's critical that the Hogs do not have to score as many points as they did in the past when the defense was horrible.
I think the defensive staff that Bret Bielema has built is outstanding. They are all on the same page and what they are doing pleases the head coach, definitely someone who knows defense. Randy Shannon is a great fit with Smith. And, Shannon and Clay Jennings are tight. Rory Segrest seems to get along with everyone, including players. He's outgoing, positive and has instilled an aggressive take on technique and philosophy up front that meshes with what Smith is doing in the overall scheme.
If you spend any time with Smith, you are going to be excited about the defense the Hogs are going to put on the field this year. He's got that "it" factor and pulls everyone into his camp quickly. Players want to play for him. They enjoy the way he coaches.
There is a sense of urgency to what Smith is doing in the meeting room, the practice field and it all comes together with an aggressive style that is a throwback to the way Arkansas played in the 1960s, the glory days of Arkansas football.
I believe this defense -- as long as it stays healthy -- is so much better in the secondary. It's light years ahead at cornerback where there is finally depth and some ability. Tevin Mitchel doesn't look like the same player. And, Washington has the ability to make aggressive plays on the tight boundary side at cornerback that will make it easier for Smith to call stunts and blitzes. If you can lock down one side, everything gets easier.
Middle linebacker is in much better hands. Ellis and Otha Peters made huge strides the last two weeks of spring. They continue to get better this summer. Playing their second year under Shannon is going to be fun to watch. Shannon's ability to coach and teach is going to pay dividends this year. Look out when some of the young linebackers, including summer juco transfer Josh Williams, take hold to give Spaight and Braylon Mitchell some rest.
I'm excited to see that Gaines has finally topped 200 pounds. Playing with light safeties against SEC running backs is a slow death. Safeties need some bulk to make it through an SEC season. With De'Andre Coley now over 200 pounds, too, Smith has some bigger options to go with Turner. I don't know that the freshmen safeties should be thrown out there early, but one of them might pick up the system to help eventually. That's Smith's task in two-a-days, find one of the young ones who can get lined up right all the time to provide some depth.
There are some who can't get past the bad decisions Brandon Allen made during a season that was void of practice time and short on playmakers. I think the turnovers will go away this year in year two of the Bielema system with more knowledge in all areas of what coordinator Jim Chaney wants to do.
But it's going to be so much nicer to not need so many points. Defense is coming at Arkansas and the wins will be a happy result.
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