Defensive coordinator Robb Smith loves the encouraging signs at almost the halfway point of spring ball. The Arkansas football team completed its seventh workout with two hours plus in Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Tuesday.
Junior college transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter, showing great versatility in the defensive line, is everything Smith had hoped. Coaches feel that he can excel at the three technique, but also think he can play rush end, too. Ledbetter tried end Tuesday after working at tackle for the first six days of spring.
"We just want to get him exposed to a lot of things this spring, then in the fall, we'll look for matchups," Smith said of Ledbetter. "He did some really good things in the scrimmage, yes he did. I saw good things today at end. He's got explosiveness."
Brooks Ellis and Khalia Hackett were mentioned as "encouraging" developments at the two linebacker slots. Smith also likes the progress of Josh Williams. All three of those can play multiple positions. Both Williams and Hackett will get work at all three linebacker positions the rest of the spring.
"Josh Williams definitely has given us what we want as a run stopper," Smith said. "And, we see some things he can do as far as rushing the passer. He can help us in some of our pressures."
Interestingly, Williams was a rush end and weakside linebacker in high school before moving to inside linebacker in junior college.
"I had never played mike until junior college," Williams said. "I was more of a rush guy on the outside in high school. Coach Smith came to me yesterday about learning the other positions at linebacker, Sam and Will. That's really natural to me."
Smith said it's just about creating depth and versatility within the linebacker group. He said the same things are happening elsewhere in the line and secondary, noting the shuffle with Jeremiah Ledbetter between tackle and end and Santos Ramirez between corner and safety.
"Santos is playing strong safety right now and we are seeing great competition at the two safety spots," Smith said. "We like what we have with three of the corners with D.J. Dean, Henre' Toliver and Jared Collins. Santos has the ability to play corner, too. When we get some looks with extra guys in the slot, Santos can move up and cover a number one. We are building versatility."
The competition at safety is intense with sophomore Josh Liddell getting most of the first team work at free safety. Rohan Gaines has moved between free and strong, opening Tuesday's practice as the top strong safety.
"Competition brings out the best in everyone," Smith said. "I like the way we are communicating and the way guys can play different spots. Liddell has done a great job there. He's done a great job of learning our defense and he can get our guys lined up."
Liddell is former quarterback. That skill of communicating and recognizing fronts may go back to his days on offense.
"I think so," Smith said. "I hadn't thought about his background at quarterback, but that certainly helps him and you can see that. When you are a quarterback, the communication part comes natural. You see that with Josh right now.
"I'm pleased with all of those guys back there. It's clear we have more depth."
Depth is still a work in progress at linebacker and might not be totally solved until fall.
"We know we've got some freshmen coming that will help that group," Smith said. "You are never where you want to be everywhere. We need more guys at that position but we know they are coming."
The top end at linebacker is to shelf. Randy Ramsey impressed in Saturday's scrimmage.
"I'm a Randy Ramsey fan," Smith said. "He made plays. He flashed. The thing you see is that he knows the scheme. He's learning and getting better.
"You saw us make some plays that encourage you. Hackett, for sure. Ellis, he made some plays in run fits that really encourage you, two plays where there were tackles for losses. He recognizes the play, fits it and he's in there for a loss."
The defensive line depth encourages Smith, too.
"You see the way we played Saturday, you see that we can do it by committee there," he said. "Tevin Beanum has made plays. Deatrich Wise, too. We've rotated those two guys there. We really look the part in the line now, with a lot of guys."
Defensive line coach Rory Segrest was pleased of the Saturday scrimmage work with Beanum, too.
"Tevin has really performed well," Segrest said. "He actually graded out the highest of all the D-linemen in the scrimmage on Saturday. He was productive. He is doing things the way we are asking him to do it so I am trying to give him a shot at it."
On the Ledbetter move, Segrest said, "Just trying to give him a look right there. He's a talented guy that can do a lot of different things for us. We tried him inside last week and it looks like we are going to have some pretty good depth there so we are going to try him outside. He is versatile enough to where he can give us that probably wherever we need him to tell you the truth."
As far as overall progress in the spring, Smith seemed pleased.
"I think it's been constant improvement," he said. "We're certainly not where we need to be, but I think the guys have really come on in terms of learning the details of the system and now we've really got to refine it and polish it up the last half, the last portion of spring football.
On specifics from the scrimmage, he said, "I thought we flew around pretty well. I thought our guys played with great effort. I thought we got off to a little bit of a slow start defensively. I thought we got better as the day went on, especially in terms of tackling. I thought our offense did a really nice job taking care of the football, which is a positive for our football team. We've just got to continue to get better."
There has been carry over from last year.
"Without question," Smith said. "Starting with our Hoganese prior to spring football, I thought our guys had great recall of the things we did in the fall, and we've really been able to kind of push forward and get into step X and step Y and step Z and really be detailed in our approach this spring and we've got to continue to do that for the remainder of spring."
Smith Encouraged by Progress
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