State of the Hogs: Defensive Line

It's usually about defensive line play in the SEC. With Deatrich Wise emerging as a leader to replace Trey Flowers, Arkansas is going to keep pace up front.

Arkansas begins spring football Monday. Many are focused on the defensive players departing, notably Martrell Spaight, Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Alan Turner and Tevin Mitchel.

As head coach Bret Bielema said Wednesday, that's a “huge deal.” But it is not a deal breaker because the cupboard is not bare and the culture is rock solid. And, the Arkansas defense is not broke or broken.

Coordinator Robb Smith has the same smile that I remember after the LSU, Ole Miss and LSU games when the Hogs rolled, 78-7. I have dubbed it his “shutout smile.” Nothing is automatic and everything will have to be earned in the SEC West, but these Razorbacks understand why they were rolling at season's end. But he likes his players, including the replacements from the stars of the 2014 defense.

More importantly, both Bielema and Smith like the way this team works.

“During my first year, hey, we were there knocking on the door and we couldn't win any games,” Bielema said. “Now we beat the daylights out of Texas. They know that's a big deal. It really wasn't even a competitive game. I think the part that our kids understand is that happened, well, why did it happen? It's because you worked really hard. You did what we asked you to do. You handled yourself in a certain manner and good things will happen. Just to keep that same mentality going is easier said than done.”

So far so good. Bielema loved the attitude and work rate in the winter program.

“We had NFL guys come in during that Pro Day time and some of them came in at different times to watch our guys work out, different things,” Bielema said. “It's stuff I began to hear at my last place when we were really rolling.

“Just your kids, they work. There's conformity. There's no loose ends. Guys are starting behind the line, and they're finishing through the line. They're communicating with verbiage and language.”

There was a recent recruiting weekend when Bielema stumbled upon a voluntary workout.

“I didn't even know they were doing it, they had a skelly drill going on,” Bielema said. “Then they went in and watched film of last year. All on their own. It's just that kind of stuff is contagious.”

There is no defensive line components to pass skeleton, but that's why I have such high hopes for the 2015 Razorbacks, even without Flowers and Philon. Bielema does, too. He thinks his defense is two deep (and maybe three) at the four slots.

I'm fascinated by the possibilities at defensive end with JaMichael Winston and Deatrich Wise. Bielema sees ability, plus leadership skills. Wise will play the slot where Flowers sparkled, next to the three technique where Taiwan Johnson and Jeremiah Ledbetter will battle. Hjalte Froholdt also will get a quick look there and at nose.

Don't be surprised if Wise blossoms. Smith had that shutout smile when he talked about the 6-5, 270-pound junior with strong, long arms.

“He just looks like an NFL defensive linemen,” Smith said. “He looks very good right now. He's finally healthy and he wasn't last year.”

Wise had a knee scope in August, then two sprained ankles just about the time things began to click in November. But the outlook for Wise is good as much about his focus as his health. Bielema helped the focus.

“When I got here he was track, he was in his fraternity,” Bielema said. “He was kind of all over the place. We had a talk about everybody has a plate. On that plate you can put as much food as you want, but at some point if you put too much food on there everything starts falling off. And you never know what's going to fall off. It might be the peas, carrots, steak, potatoes. Whatever it is, it's going to fall.

“You start putting too much on your plate, things begin to fall off. That's kind of what we had going. We took away track, tried to calm down the fraternity environment. Let's concentrate on football and school and he's gotten better at both of them.

“He's at an all-time high, man. He's doing everything we ask him to do. He's trying to take on a leadership role, him and JaMichael, I think especially. They've got their plates in order. I think they have stepped up to the challenge of what's in front of them right now and I'm really excited to to see Deatrich play.”

Nose tackle has Bijohn Jackson and LaMarcus Hodge. Jackson is lighter, quicker and ready to blossom as a true sophomore. Froholdt, the Danish giant, has raised eyebrows, too.

“It’s virtually going to be impossible to keep Hjalte off the field,” Bielema said. “I mean, he went head-to-head competition yesterday with Frank Ragnow, who’s maybe our most athletic offensive lineman. We were in running drills and Hjalte beat him head to head. Frank’s gonna protest that call, but he lost. Hjalte, he’s kind of freaky.” What separates the SEC from every other league is the defensive line play. The Hogs look like an SEC team there now. Line coach Rory Segrest might get to rotate four-man units, like Mississippi State did last year.

“We might even get in a situation where we kind of steal little bit of Mississippi State philosophy of 1A, 1B,” Bielema said. “Last year you had Trey who was so special you couldn't really sub in a second D-line and say hey, these guys are just as good.

“But I think with what we've got going D-line wise, we might be able to have eight guys that are pretty similar and be able to play them in two sets. I think that's real.”

Jackson's emergence at nose allows Johnson to move to the “three” technique where Philon flourished. Ledbetter, cat quick at 280 just like Philon, has the ability to play all four slots. Tevin Beanum, disciplined for off the field issues in February, is another with pass rush skills and a legitimate weapon behind Wise.

I wouldn't be stunned if Beanum comes out of his issues the same way Sam Olajubutu did about a decade ago. Beanum dazzled at times last spring, but was slowed by a knee injury in the fall.

“I really expect him to grow,” Bielema said. “He's been great. He's handled everything I've thrown at him very, very well. I think any time you go through something like that personally it can have an astounding affect overall.”

This defensive line is still growing. Just like last year when everyone began to realize what was going on with the offensive line under Bret Bielema, Arkansas should turn heads with its 2015 defensive line. It's why Robb Smith still has that shutout smile. It's much easier to play defense with a solid front.

It gives me a great feeling about 2015, almost as much as hearing Bret Bielema talk about beating the daylights out of Texas.

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