State of the Hogs: Strong Linebacker

Playing Texas may be like lining up against Alabama and LSU, as far as scheme. That may mean more time for Braylon Mitchell and Randy Ramsey in the Texas Bowl.

It was about two weeks into fall practice when I began to get excited about improvement on the defensive end for the 2014 Arkansas football team. I know, I've been excited before about improved defense and it didn't come to fruition when the games were played.

The general question remained the same: How could the Arkansas defense not be improved?

I get that. When you are bad, it's not difficult to get to less bad.

I was excited in the spring after I saw new defensive coordinator Robb Smith come together with holdover assistant coach Randy Shannon (linebackers) and new coaches Clay Jennings (secondary) and Rory Segrest (defensive line). What I saw was improved tackling along with a major development, the defensive backs and linebackers would follow the football in the air, often breaking up passes.

The way the defense played pass defense reminded me of the way Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson coached defense in basketball. You re-routed offensive players where you wanted them to go, not where they wanted to go. It was a physical style of play at the second and third level of defense and made all the difference in giving the defensive line a little more time to rush the passer.

Defensive pass break ups went from 39 in 2013 to 58 this season. Cornerback Jared Collins deflected 12 this season after breaking up just two last season.

After allowing 30.8 points per game last season, the Hogs lowered that to 20.2 this season, with shutouts of both LSU and Ole Miss.

I can recall in August someone suggesting that if the defense could reduce scoring by five points per game, it would be a nice improvement. To lower it by 10.6 is stunning.

And, it's going to continue to improve. I believe Robb Smith is just getting started. Secondary play will continue to improve, but I think linebacker play will make a major jump over the next two years as better players learn the system.

I'll point to Randy Ramsey, sure to blossom at strongside linebacker, as a perfect example. Ramsey one of the reasons I was pumped about defensive chances in August, yet Ramsey hardly got on the field outside of special teams. His ability at outside linebacker has been missing for many years at Arkansas. At 6-4 and 222 when he arrived, Ramsey will play next year in the 235 range and he'll still be long and lanky. He runs like a deer with a burst.

So why didn't Ramsey play this season? First, he sprained both ankles about two weeks apart, with the first late in camp and the second early in the season. That stunted his development. Second, Braylon Mitchell got the message that he was about to be passed by a true freshman and got with the program. Third, the Hogs didn't play a lot of base requiring a true strongside linebacker.

The Sam linebacker was like the Maytag repairman for the Arkansas defense this year. He wasn't called upon often, but both Mitchell and Ramsey were plenty good when they played.

“We really didn't play a lot of base defense, true 4-3, outside of the Alabama and LSU games,” Smith said. “And, we were delighted with the way Braylon played in both of those games. When you go back and watch Braylon in those two games, you are not going to find anyone playing Sam linebacker any better. He really improved. And, we still love Randy Ramsey. He's everything we thought he would be.”

And, coaches and players alike raved about Ramsey in two-a-days when he was a terror in scrimmages. It's the kind of speed that Ramsey brings to the defense that might allow the Hogs to play base against spread teams in the future. He brings some cover ability because of his past time at safety. It's that same versatility with true freshman corner Santos Ramirez, with the ability to play corner or safety, that excites Smith about the future of this defense.

But there just wasn't much chance for him to get Ramsey on the field with the way Smith decided to play with the emergence of extra corners, starting with Tevin Mitchel, when he got healthy for the Texas Tech game. Ramirez was injured just about the time he was ready to blossom, too.

Mostly, the Hogs played their nickel the other 10 games. They went with an extra defensive back, mainly Mitchel in the slot. His ability to cover and play physical at the line of scrimmage changed the Arkansas defense this season. With Collins along with D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver playing solid at cornerback, the big plays were reduced. And, everything was funneled to Martrell Spaight, who went from 22 tackles as a junior to SEC tops at 123. That's a jump in 101 tackles.

Interestingly, the Sam linebacker will likely be on the field against Texas in the Dec. 29 Texas Bowl, according to Smith. The Longhorns are going to play with a tight end.

“We'll have the opportunity to play more base against Texas,” Smith said. “That's going to put Braylon on the field more. And, Randy is practicing well. Competition is great for everyone's development and that's what we've had at Sam. We envision both of them playing a great deal in the bowl game.

“I've been recruiting early in the week and only have seen a smidgeon of Texas tape. But what I've seen has been a lot of the first and second down tapes. They are well coached and they are going to run the ball and we will be required to stop the run with our base.”

Smith said the Xs and Os are easier to figure than the intangibles. He knows that Arkansas players – and the staff – have to get a better understanding of the nature of the rivalry.

“Without question, there is an element of that we are learning,” Smith said. “We've been a little disjointed as a staff the last week and we are learning about that. But I have a sense of it now and I think our players are starting to embrace it, too. I know Bret will do a good job with that area.”

One of the things Smith wanted to fix at the start of bowl practices were some errors that put the Hogs at a disadvantage in the fourth quarter against Missouri. He said the defensive front missed assignments in regard to fits when the Tigers “pulled their center” for some plays in an 85-yard drive – all on the ground – for the winning touchdown.

“We covered that,” he said. “That was disappointing. We went over some other things about that fourth quarter in a long meeting today.”

The Tigers scored 15 points in the fourth quarter. It put the Hogs behind, 74-64, in the final quarter on the year. They lead every other quarter by decisive margin. It's 134-35 in the first and 68-41 in the third.

If you look at defensive scoring improvement over last year, it's that third quarter where the Hogs have made the most gains. The Hogs were outscored, 115-82, in the third quarter last year. They allowed only 41 points in the third quarter this year, a reduction of 74 points.

“We played good defense down the stretch,” Smith said. “I think everyone notices what Martrell did this year. But we had others make significant improvement. Jared Collins made just as much improvement.

“We are still getting better. When I see those young linebackers like Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene fly around in practice this week, along with our young guys in the secondary like Josh Liddell, Henre' Toliver and Ramirez, I know we are getting better.”

The best is yet to come.

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