After watching Saturday's scrimmage and Monday's two practices, Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith came away with one big take.
“The big thing was, I really liked the way we ran to the football,” Smith said. “I thought we had a physical presence, a physical mentality. We’ve got to do a better job at times of keeping the ball in front of us and setting an edge on things, but I think we can continue to improve from a technique standpoint there and clean that up and we’ll be on the right track.”
Razorback linebackers coach Randy Shannon took pride in how his group ran to the football in the scrimmage.
“We chased the ball a lot better (than lat season),” Shannon said. “We had like one missed tackle, that's even with the younger guys in the game. And the mental mistakes were cut down a lot from last year.”
The defense has changed since Saturday with middle linebacker Otha Peters deciding to transfer and Taiwan Johnson taking over at nose guard after previously backing up Darius Philon at defensive tackle.
Shannon and Smith referred questions about Peters to Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, who will meet with the media next after a Wednesday night practice.
Junior college transfer Josh Williams is backing up starter Brooks Ellis at the Mike linebacker while true freshmen Khalia Hackett was inserted in there on Monday and Tuesday.
Martrell Spaight and true freshman Dwayne Eugene are working at the Will linebacker and Braylon Mitchell, Randy Ramsey, Tiquention Coleman and Daunte Carr at Sam.
“Next guy in,” Smith said. “The next guy up the depth chart. We’ll get a little bit better look at Josh. We’ve got a couple of younger guys that we can shuffle in and out of there. We feel really good about Brooks. Now we’ve just got to keep developing depth with the guys we have within the program.”
Smith talked about how Williams is a thumper who is made for the middle.
“Josh is a guy, he loves to play football,” Smith said. “ He likes to get the pads on. He’s a physical presence. He’s continuing to learn our system. Those are all good things and positives for us.”
Shannon added that Williams' strength has been in the run game early.
“He's doing some good things,” Shannon said. “He played the run well early in camp. His pass coverage wasn't where it's supposed to be at, but like anything, he's still going forward in the pass game. Today you could tell he's starting to understand what we're doing as a whole system, it was kind of pleasing to see him do some great things in the pass coverage today.”
Bielema had mentioned earlier this week that Williams was a few pounds overweight.
“Maybe stay away from that late-night snack and I think we can get him back where he needs to be,” Smith said. “I don’t think he’s too far off the ledger yet. But he can help himself a little bit, move a little better. But the guy brings it. He’s a physical football player and you love that mentality in the middle of your defense.”
Johnson, who arrived on campus as a 235-pounder, is now up to 257 pounds – which is still smallish for an SEC nose guard.
But Smith likes the way that Johnson is so active inside, especially when he plays from a tilt position, which is just off the center's nose.
“It’s kind of been a part of this package, in and out of it, for awhile,” Smith said. “The whole thing there, we want to put some pressure on the center at times and force him to get covered up and get blocked and we think it helps us. There’s times that you want to be in the tilt. There’s times you don’t want to be in the tilt. So if we have that little tool in our tool box we hope that it can help us at certain points in time.”
That was not something that Arkansas was doing a lot with DeMarcus Hodge, who was moved from noseguard to back up starting defensive tackle Darius Philon.
“He would do it at times,” Smith said. “Hodge is a guy that does a great job going straight ahead. We moved him out to the three technique to see what he can do there. We thought he made progress there today as well. So as long as he can keep improving, he’s going to create opportunities for himself.”
True freshman nose guard Bijhon Jackson (6-2, 317) is backing up Johnson.
“Bijhon's a guy who is a big, strong presence,” Smith said. “He's learning exactly what's going on. He'll give us something in the middle of our defense. As he continues to learn the defense and improve and move around, we're going to be in great shape with him.
Grady Ollison, who was moved from the offensive line to the defensive line after the scrimmage, is getting a good look this week to see how much he can help according to Smith.
“Right now we’re trying to evaluate that,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that we knew was a great athlete on the offensive line and those guys, when you tend to make the move going that direction you need great athleticism. So we’re kind of anxious to see how that plays out and evaluate him through the course of this week.”
Shannon is thrilled about how his trio of freshmen – Ramsey, Hackett and Eugene are progressing.
“It's unbelievable,” Shannon said. “Just coming in and getting Khalia and Dwayne and Ramsey to understand the tempo and understand the defense we're playing … going into the second week, they understand it now. You go up now and it's, 'Coach, I screwed up, I was supposed to do this.' They're understanding when they make mistakes.”
Tuesday's practice allowed the defense to practice some situations in which it had the offense backed up.
“We got some more situation work in, got a chance to work some things when we’ve got an offense backed up, little bit more with third downs, Smith said. “So we’re progressing from our situations, which is a positive. Now we’ll get a chance to come back in tonight, watch the film and use it as a great teaching experience as well.”
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