State of the Hogs: Secondary Comparisons

The Arkansas secondary had a long way to go when Clay Jennings arrived from TCU. Have the Hogs made progress in that area and do they compare to the Horned Frogs yet?

Clay Jennings coached the cornerbacks at TCU the last six seasons. There have been few secondaries in college football any better. It was a group that annually drew a cast of NFL scouts as the Horned Frogs continued to lead the nation in defense annually.

So how does this rebuilt Arkansas secondary -- among the worst in the nation the last few seasons -- compare with those great TCU back ends?

Yes, I knew it was not a fair question. Jennings didn't mind, though. He just said it was a little early to get into that discussion. The goal is to get there and get there quick, but it might be tough to do it in the first game, no matter who is on the schedule, much less Auburn.

Those are my words, not from Jennings. Still it was worth a try.

"Tough question," Jennings said, raising his eyebrows and wiping his brow. "Remember, I was part of a group of coaches on Coach (Gary) Patterson's staff that was together for six years. It was a system that had been in place before I got there, too. They had already been playing great defense and my goal was to try not to mess things up.

"We had great continuity from year to year, had carry over with players and they played well as a unit. Coach Patterson and Coach (Dick) Bumpas really had things going and it was fun to coach in that environment with what we kept rolling year after year.

"It's different here. We are getting started with three new coaches adding to Coach (Randy) Shannon. I think we are off to a good start and we are much better than we were in the spring. We do have our system installed and there is buy in from the players. But it's too early to compare what we have to what was there (at TCU). We are making strides to getting there."

Jennings sees progress in all areas, including the press coverage installation and the tackling. He's gotten "buy in" at cornerback that there is no such thing as a cover corner. He wants tacklers, not just cover guys. Complete corners is what he's looking for and the improvement he sees from Tevin Mitchel and Carroll Washington, the first teamers, and throughout the rotation with D.J. Dean, Will Hines and even true freshmen Henre' Tolliver and Cornelius Floyd.

"Our tackling system is showing up," he said. "Our guys are doing a great job, both corner and safeties. We are setting the edge. We do have the pursuit. We have the smart swarm, we like to call it. We have great angles, we grab cloth and we finish the play."

It's gotten tougher every step of the way because Jennings sees growth across the line of scrimmage at the wide receivers.

"That's a pretty good group," Jennings said. "They have made improvement. You see real growth in guys like Keon Hatcher and then consistency from Demetrius Wilson. You've got the surprise guy over there in Drew Morgan, having a great camp. Then, you have Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister and the two newest guys, JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards. Those guys are coming on. Everyone over there is making strides.

"We've got our hands full and it's great competition. That's what you know is going to make you better."

Literally, the DBs do have their hands full. They are going to reach, grab and battle in hand-to-hand combat against wideouts. They play a disruptive style that Jennings teaches and that defensive coordinator Robb Smith preaches is the way to play in an aggressive style.

"All I can say is that our guys like it," Jennings said. "They are engaged and embracing our system. It's just coming to work every day. We are in the dog days of camp, at the end of the second week. Generally, that's a tough stretch, but our guys have embraced it even as camp has gotten tough.

"Camp is about mental and physical toughness. I've seen our guys fight through the tough days. It's a good start to camp."

It's all been fun for Jennings. He's all in at Arkansas, loving every second of it. He was prepared for the Arkansas culture by Bumpas, a UA alum with letters in 1968-70. When a reporter told Jennings that he'd known Bumpas as a player, the new Arkansas secondary coach went a little too far into his past.

"Did you know Bill Michael, my college mentor?" Jennings said.

Well, no, that would have been age 4 for the reporter when Michael was captain of the first Frank Broyles team at Arkansas in 1958. Michael was roommate and coached with Barry Switzer.

"Yes, sir, I've got all of those Switzer stories from Coach Michael," Jennings said. "They lived together and coached together. I keep up with Coach Michael still. I need to check in on him. He told me all about Arkansas. I know all of his stories about when Coach Broyles got here and then the history of the program. Coach Michael is proud to talk about the Razorbacks."

Michael was defensive coordinator at North Texas during Jennings' playing days for the Mean Green, then took him under his wing as a graduate assistant.

"Coach Michael is hanging out in the Metroplex, retired," he said. "He goes to the barber shop each day and is talking football, probably about the Razorbacks. I need to call him."

There are those Razorback connections throughout the staff. Smith, the new DC, said he got Arkansas stories last year from Butch Davis, a UA grad, and Dave Wannstedt, long-time Jimmy Johnson staffer. Johnson played on the 1964 Arkansas team that won the national championship.

"I think we are taking a page out of Coach Johnson's playbook with Taiwan Johnson's move to nose tackle," Smith said. "You want to be good in the A gap, and Dave Wannstedt told me that's how Coach Johnson always played. Coach Johnson wanted quality in the middle of his defensive line and he'd sacrifice size for speed, quickness and athletic ability. That's what we have with Taiwan.

"He's doing very well, too. He's getting better every day and is very disciplined. We know we have to be good right there and be good quickly. Auburn is physical and they are going to attack the A gap with zone read, power and you better be good there."

Any other Johnson stories in the memory bank from Davis and Wannstedt?

"I think when someone talks about Coach Johnson, the thing that always comes up is that he was committed," Smith said. "He was committed to a plan and committed to an approach. He didn't back away. He told you how it was going to be done and it never changed. He had a vision and you knew exactly what it was and got it done."

What does Smith see across the ball with the Razorbacks? Is there growth in the Jim Chaney offense?

"I see a lot of growth," Smith said. "They are getting better every day and what I really see is an impressive quarterback. I think where they've gotten better the most is the ability to make plays on the perimeter with the quarterback and the wide receivers.

"I also see a definite toughness in the offensive line. I think everyone knows those guys are good there. They are tough and physical and I think the other thing everyone knows, we have very talented running backs. Those guys are good.

"But where I see our team grow since the spring is at quarterback and the perimeter. We've had improvement and I think our quarterback is a very good player.

"Overall, we are a much better football team than where we were in the spring. The key is that we can't stop growing, getting better. I think we will continue to get better. I see our team coming together. I see communication and I see the ability to play together. We are having a good camp."

Some of those old-time Razorbacks in the past of these young Arkansas coaches might like it.

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