State of the Hogs: Cornerbacks

Arkansas cornerbacks have improved by leaps and bounds this season under the coaching of Clay Jennings. It was easy to see it coming, but the cast changes as the season developed.

Sometime late last spring, I decided that the Arkansas cornerbacks would be the most improved outfit on the team for the 2014 season.

It's fun when you nail something. Looking back on the season, there's been huge strides in many areas on coach Bret Bielema's team, most notably throughout the defense.

Linebackers Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis – and even Braylon Mitchell when a true 4-3 base was on the field – played like studs.

But the improvement at cornerback was a pleasure to watch, too. But, it didn't turn out the way I saw it in the spring, except that I noted depth at cornerback in my evaluation for thinking that position would finally turn the corner at Arkansas. It was a different batch of corners blossoming under new secondary coach Clay Jennings than what I would have predicted in the spring.

I thought the likes of Carroll Washington, Will Hines and Tevin Mitchel would be the aces at cornerback. Coaches raved about Washington in the spring. Mitchel, bothered by shoulder and hamstring issues to open the season, emerged as the slot cover man in the nickel scheme starting against Texas Tech and his play should not be minimized since the Hogs played against spread teams most of the year.

No, it was Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver that became the stalwarts at cornerback. It's the play of those three, plus Mitchel, that makes the loss of Washington and Hines insignificant as the Hogs prepare to play Texas on Dec. 29 in the Texas Bowl.

Hines hasn't been with the Hogs any this year, beat out in August and now out the door. Washington was suspended for what would have been his final game.

Bielema knows the cornerback play has “jumped,” and he noted last week that if “you look at the beginning, everybody probably thought Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines might be our starters and now you’ve got really, I think the guys who have started the last couple games were D.J. Dean and Jared Collins. But Henre' Tolliver is playing very, very well, too.”

Bielema loves what he sees from Jennings, assigned to coach both safeties and corners when he joined the Arkansas staff last winter. Bielema gives Jennings “a lot of credit.” He went back to the time when he was trying to hire a secondary coach, looking specifically for someone with Texas recruiting ties. He did two hours of Internet study on a plane trip.

“It was kind of neat," Bielema said. "I really was looking for the best DB coach I could find, but I really wanted someone with Texas ties. So I was on a trip and I went through every Texas school. Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M to be quite honest. The old Texas staff.

“And I wrote down all the DB coaches. Then I kind looked at their resumes. It was a couple hours I was on this plane ride with Internet. That's what the world will do for you. I got off with about three or four names. Some guys I thought might know people on our staff. I remember I got off, and I'd asked my staff repeatedly anybody that kind of fit this mode of what I'm looking for, and no one was coming up with an answer.”

Then, Bielema made a call to linebackers coach Randy Shannon. He'd worked one year on the same defensive staff at TCU with Jennings, then coaching just corners.

“Randy was like, of course Clay would do a nice job,” Bielema said. “So then I reached out to (TCU) Coach (Gary) Patterson, and I knew he wasn't happy, so usually that's a good indicator that you might be on to something good. Then I got a chance to bring Clay in and as much as you guys can see the improvement on the field, he's a guy you love to be around every day.”

Bielema was looking for a coach who could restore some confidence in the corners. He saw quickly that the meeting room with players changed with Jennings in charge.

“I think he calmed the room,” Bielema said. “By that I mean, kids learn in different ways, but I really think he brought in a calmness, that just said, hey, let's don't have any stress here. We're going to get better in the spring. We're going to be the most improved group in the spring, which will give us a chance to be the most improved group in the fall.”

Jennings smiled when told he had a calming effect.

"I don't think yelling at them across the field is the way to do it," Jennings said. "I may whisper it in their ears at times, but there can be heat in the whispers. I want them tough between the ears and tough as far as physical play, too. I am calm at times, but the heat does rise at other times.

"I do tell them that I'm not counting reps in practice, I'm making sure the reps count."

The plan put in place by Bielema and Smith had Jennings with the safeties to start spring, then moved him to corners as things went along. Eventually, Jennings had all four positions in his room.

“I thought it was a really good plan, and obviously we're seeing the rewards of it,” Bielema said. “But I think overall he's just got a calmness that is very unique to coaching.”

Smith spent time with both corners and safeties in the spring, too, but eventually turned the secondary over to Jennings.

"That allowed me to spend time with some of the areas we specialized with packages," he said. "I might spend time with our strong linebacker in packages, then other days might spend extra time with our nickel. When Clay was able to take the entire secondary, it freed me up to do big picture things and specific items in packages."

Come full circle a little less than one year later, Bielema took Jennings on a recruiting trip last week, to all places, Austin. It was just hours after doing the press conference to announce the Texas Bowl.

“We fly into Austin that night and go recruiting,” Bielema said. “It was a lot of fun getting heckled everywhere we go. We're dragging our Razorback gear into the hotel, and people are cussing us (chuckling). So I was with Clay and we put it all in perspective. He's a fun human being.”

Jennings thought it was an interesting night in Austin.

"We got accused of coming to steal their playbooks," Jennings said. "Hey, we were looking for a bed and a meal. I'll say this, I've never worn a UT logo in my life."

There is great understanding of the Razorback heritage from Jennings. As a player and young coach at North Texas, Jennings was mentored by defensive coordinator Billy Michaels, the first captain for Frank Broyles at Arkansas. There was talk of playing Texas games as Jennings learned the ropes from Michaels.

"I owe Coach Michaels a call this week," Jennings said. "I've talked to him during the season. He's a proud Razorback, excited with our progress."

In many ways Clay Jennings was prepared a long time ago for what he did with the Arkansas secondary this season. It's come full circle. I didn't know any of that when I predicted corners were going to be much improved. I like my prediction even more today.

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