State of the Hogs: Nothing Changes

Robb Smith still gets "chill bumps" when he thinks about what the Razorbacks did 50 years ago. Jim Mackenzie's formula still works. It's like the words came out of Bret Bielema's mouth.

Fifty years ago almost to the day, Arkansas defensive coordinator Jim Mackenzie did a one-on-one interview with a reporter. The goal was to explain the five shutouts to end the 1964 season that would eventually produce a national championship.

“Defense is mostly effort and believing in yourself,” Mackenzie said on Nov. 28, 1964. “After we started shutting out people, our kids began to believe that they could, and when your defense gets good, when it's aggressive, confident, and then can afford to be reckless, then you get your big plays.”

There were specifics on what Mackenzie had done as far as blitzes from linebackers Ronnie Caveness and Ronnie Mac Smith. But he said there wasn't so much blitzing or stunting as in previous years at Arkansas. Personnel had improved dramatically in the defensive front, especially with the speed and strength of tackles Loyd Phillips and Jim Williams.

Basically, Mackenzie was able to call “straight” defenses and turn the ends, Bobby Roper and Jim Finch, loose to rush the passer because Phillips and Williams were keeping blockers off of the two superb linebackers.

And, Mackenzie was quick to credit the offense, with hardly a turnover after early in the year. The defense never had to play on a short field.

“We had the best field position we've had at Arkansas,” Mackenzie said. “The offense helped there, particularly after the early games in never giving up the ball in our end of the field. We weren't on defense much and we were usually playing them in their end of the field, which makes it easier. I think you could say that personnel has made the tremendous difference, about 99 percent of it.”

Some of that sounds familiar. Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith nodded his head Wednesday afternoon when Mackenzie's comments on confidence were relayed. And, there is something to that field position stuff.

Smith has been fascinated by the legacy of that 1964 team and all of those shutouts. He learned about those five straight in the spring when he met with an Arkansas reporter for a one-on-one for the first time.

“I love it,” Smith said then. “I get chill bumps when you tell me about the 1964 team. And, you can still do that. I truly believe that. I know some think offense has the advantage, but you can still get shutouts on defense. I don't think anything has changed.”

Seven months later, Smith takes a rebuilt Arkansas defense to Missouri for a 1:30 kickoff Friday – mostly with the same personnel as last year. He's got a chance for what I'll call the border shutout trifecta.

It's a long shot, yes. But no one would have predicted the Hogs could blank both LSU and Ole Miss the last two weeks. Why not Missouri?

The defensive personnel is remarkably similar to last year, except the linebackers have grown up. Freshman Henre' Toliver has been added as the field cover cornerback. That has enabled revitalized senior Tevin Mitchel to move inside to play the nickel. Sophomore nose tackle Taiwan Johnson provides quickness and consistency at nose tackle, replacing Robert Thomas. Sophomore JaMichael Winston takes over at end from Chris Smith.

The leading tacklers are from the same cast as last year. Granted, Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis, the stalwarts at linebacker, are totally different players. They may not be vastly different physically, but they are now cerebral in all areas. Their brains are joined with Smith, and their position coach, Randy Shannon, after living in the videotape room for the last year.

It's to the point now that when a team lines up for a snap, Spaight or Ellis, almost in unison, will point to the spot where the ball is going. They know from seeing tendencies in alignment on tape and listening to their coaches.

Of course, Smith and his defensive assistants have taught better tackling. It's a system and a philosophy that he developed as a coordinator at Rutgers, with some previous development under Jack Cosgrove at Maine. And, they are going to try to get their hands on footballs when the ball is thrown. You don't hear the "tackle the catch" phrase any more, something I heard from Chris Ash, Paul Haynes and Willy Robinson, the last three UA defensive coordinators. These Hogs want to knock the pass down.

Arkansas broke up 47 passes in 12 games last year, 89th best in the country. The Hogs have broken up 62 to date, 15th best in the country. The Hogs are 16th in scoring defense after sitting No. 79 last year.

“I still get chill bumps as you talk about the 1964 team,” Smith said Wednesday, almost exactly as he said it last spring. “You read those comments from Coach Mackenzie, it's like they came out of Coach (Bret) Bielema's mouth. He preaches the same things. It's like Coach B wrote that.

“What he preaches, the running game is important, take care of the football and win the turnover battle. And, he believes it helps you to go against yourself in practice when you run the ball. You have to stop the run first.

“I don't think anything has changed from what Coach Mackenzie was saying in 1964. I really do believe that.

“I think the catalyst in the way we've played starts with stopping the run, limiting yards after first contact. I think as we've improved our tackling, it's led to playing with great confidence. And, as we have stopped the run, we've also limited the big plays.

“I don't think we are a big blitz team, maybe one out of five. It's like they were in 1964. We never are in an all-out blitz. Mostly, we might send five. That's just so we create one-on-one match-ups with our defensive front.

“Our secondary does a nice job of disrupting the routes to give the defensive line a little more time. We'll play some press and we'll have a post player in the middle of the field.”

The Arkansas legacy of defense and all of those shutouts in 1964-66 makes Smith smile. There were nine shutouts in those three years.

“We were able to keep the ball in front of us the last two weeks,” Smith said. “You see the tackling, but it's also what we are doing in the secondary. Jared Collins played as well as you can at cornerback the last two weeks.”

Smith went back to the Texas A&M game when Collins got beat on a deep ball that changed the game.

“Like I said, it's a process,” Smith said. “It started with getting Tevin Mitchel back. We didn't have him at Auburn. Then, you look at what happened against A&M, Jared giving up that play. The last seven weeks, every single team gets in that look and tries that. He knows it. He is not making that mistake again.

“Jared is improved. He's so smart, smarter than me, way smarter. He's playing with great effort and when he made a mistake, he learned.”

Clearly, Smith is excited to be coaching with Bielema, an old defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

“I wouldn't want to put words in his mouth, but I think what we did to start the game might be the perfect script for what he wants to do,” Smith said. “We defer, we kickoff, Martrell Spaight makes the opening tackle on the kickoff, we get a three-and-out, the offense takes the ball down and we go up 7-0. We play defense and the kicking game and we get it to 17-0 in the first quarter.

“I know this, that's how I want to play. Now, I'm a defensive coach, but I think that's how you win championships. I believe that defense wins championships.

“I think Jim Chaney, our offensive coordinator, believes in it, too. He understands we are going to slam the ball into their defense, wear them down, run the clock and rest our guys. We are going to win time of possession. I believe those are the things that Jim Mackenzie was talking about. They just don't change.”

Can the Hogs do those same things at Missouri? One thing is for sure, the Hogs do know that the same script that worked 50 years ago, will still work. If the other team doesn't score, it's hard to lose.

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