So can Smith's secondary improve on last year when it learned to limit big plays and make a few for themselves? I think it might cornerback and safety will both be solid positions on this defense, perhaps a team strength.
At cornerback both head coach Bret Bielema and Smith rave about D.J. Dean, Jared Collins and Henre' Toliver from last year's secondary. And, there is great fascination with redshirt freshman Santos Rameriz, the star of bowl practices. There may finally be some depth developing at safety, especially since Ramirez can move to the back at the turn of an ankle. Rohan Gaines, De'Andre Coley and Josh Liddell have all impressed their coaches. Davyon McKinney and Kevin Richardson are two more safeties that are rehabbing from surgery and will be available to help in the fall.
Bielema didn't have to be prompted to rave about the specifics in the secondary.
“In the back end, I think we’ve got three corners that are very, very impressiv,” he said after two days of spring drills. “DJ Dean has been explosive, dynamic and engaged. Jared Collins and then obviously Henre Tolliver, we’ve been playing Santos at corner and looked very, very good there as well.
“At safety, I’d say the continued growth of D’Andre Coley has been impressive, working with Rohan and 28 ... Josh Liddell has been very, very ... I think he’s just grown. I met with Josh two days before spring ball, and I think ... I said, ‘Think about what you know now going into your first practice of the spring versus what you knew going into your first practice of the fall.’ And he just started laughing, I think that kid’s going to be a very, very, very gifted player.”
Liddell got two different turns at stepping in for Gaines, all with solid play. Gaines was ejected in the LSU game, meaning he missed two halves, one against LSU and the other against Ole Miss. Liddell didn't miss a beat and he was solid again for the Texas Bowl with Gaines suspended.
“I thought he was good in the bowl,” Smith said. “They tried to take advantage of him with some of their calls, but he was solid. He tackled well.”
Smith sees advances in the way Liddell sees the defense and makes calls, a huge plus for such a young player. Remember, this is his first spring.
“I tell you what he has been a great communicator for us,” Smith said. “You need somebody back there that can direct traffic and with different things we do within our package there is a lot of stress we put on our safeties of getting us in the right coverage at the right time and getting guys aligned and he has really kind of embraced that role back there being a leader and a communicator.”
There's an edge to Liddell as far as mental preparation. Smith can also tell there's been development in the winter program with Ben Herbert's staff.
“It's very, very important to him,” Smith said. “And he has got a great body. He's a longer guy. He moves really well. He's another guy that shows up well when the pads are on. He has got a physical presence to him and we are going to need a lot from Josh Liddell for us to get where we want to go.”
The cornerback play was terrible at Arkansas as recently as two years ago. With Jennings working with the coverage and teaching press techniques, things turned around there last year. Smith is pleased with the starting point for the spring with four players in the mix. More impressive corners arrive in the summer from the Class of 2015. Jennings brought confidence and the entire defense tackled well with Smith teaching fundamentals in his own list of tackling drills.
“Really excited about our guys on the perimeter,” Smith said. “I think we have got three guys there that are really, really competing at a high level right now. D.J. Dean has jumped out at us. Jared Collins and Henre Toliver, all three of those guys played a lot of snaps for us last year at corner and to get what we need to get done in the Southeastern Conference we need great play on the perimeter. And Santos Ramirez, too, has jumped in there a little bit at corner. So that has been a big, big boost for us this spring and it's got to continue that way to be to be successful.”
Smith isn't declaring a spot for Ramirez yet. It could be that he's in the slot against an offense that might spread the field but wants to run the ball. Auburn comes to mind.
“He is a guy that gives us great flexibility,” Smith said. “He almost will have to prove to us that he can't play corner. By the same token when we get further down the road in game-plan situations and you get personnel match-ups he is a guy that you don't have any issue sliding inside whether it be at a safety position or matching up on a slot. He has really picked up things really well and the better that he learns the more flexible he will be.”
But the nickel isn't the focus right now. Just to help the offense, the coverages have been simple. That will change after spring break when the Hogs come back after one week off.
“We really haven't done much with our sub-packages,” Smith said. “We have kind of made a decision here that we were going to evaluate the guys the first three days and have some comfort level in that area. I think when we get back from spring break that will start to iron itself out. We will try to rep multiple guys there to give us flexibility during the season as well.”