State of the Hogs: Defensive Help

The Arkansas defense did exciting things in the spring, but coordinator Robb Smith thinks more great things are on the way with summer arrivals from the 2015 recruiting class. It's only going to get better for the Razorbacks under Smith.

There is going to be a time when Jeff Long has to leave the room. It's going to happen sooner, rather than later after what I saw in April on the practice field with the Arkansas football team.

Long is the athletic director who hired Bret Bielema as head coach, and soon afterwards was named to chair the College Football Playoff. I wondered how long it would take before Long had to recuse himself because his coach put the Razorbacks in the playoff picture.

It may have actually happened last year because the Hogs were on the verge of bouncing into the rankings with back-to-back shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss.

The rebuilding job has taken place almost exactly the way Long set it up in a one-on-one discussion I had with the athletic director the day Bielema was introduced in the Broyles Center's Miller Room.

Long said he liked Bielema's leadership skills first, but also thought style of play was a strength. Long noted that there are a lot of good ways to play football, but Bielema's thoughts about a great offensive line would help produce what Arkansas lacked, a great defense.

I see all of that taking place. The most exciting part is the defensive improvement last year. It will not be a one-year deal. What you saw last year with Robb Smith's defense was just the start of what will be one of the better defenses in the SEC this season. Smith is a great defensive coordinator, not just a good one.

It's exciting to see depth begin to show up on the defensive side. There is depth in the front and in the secondary. The last piece to the puzzle is depth at linebacker. It was actually better in the spring than some believed, compared to previous seasons. But it's about to improve.

In the next few weeks, the next wave of the 2015 class arrives on campus, most notably some great help for the defense. Smith is drooling over the additions of linebackers Derrick Graham and Kendrick Jackson along with swing man Dre Greenlaw, possibly a linebacker or a safety. There's also a big boost in the secondary with Willie Sykes, Ryan Pulley and Nate Dalton.

Will all of these play in 2015? Indeed, some will redshirt, but all possess ability to help in special teams as coverage specialists. And, they could become backups quickly. There is a lot of quality there and it's going to be fun to watch.

“I love these guys,” Smith said. “We got some help in this class last spring with the defensive front in the mid-term guys, but I think there is just as much help in the guys that will get here this summer.”

Smith knows it's tough to count on freshmen in the SEC, but it's hard to contain himself when he thinks about what Graham, Jackson and Greenlaw can mean at linebacker.

Graham can be a monster at strongside linebacker. He's 6-4, 220 and will probably explode in Ben Herbert's strength and conditioning program. He's got unbelievable speed for his size. Smith made him a big item in recruiting.

“He's excited about getting here,” Smith said. “I'm as excited as he is to get him here. Training camp will be important for him. He's learning a new system, but I think he's going to be a special player.”

It's the same kind of excitement when Smith talks about Jackson, most assuredly a middle linebacker in the Arkansas system. He's 6-0 by 240 but runs extremely well.

“I think he's got a chance to be really good,” Smith said. “I loved him, everything about him. He's got all of the intangibles. He was a point guard on the basketball team, quarterback and linebacker in football and shortstop and pitcher in baseball. The leadership and communication skills are outstanding and I think he's got all of the athletic ability, too.”

Greenlaw will begin in the secondary, but he looks like the perfect combination of playmaking ability and size to play Smith's weakside linebacker spot. When I saw him play at Fayetteville High School the last two years, his nose for the football reminded me of Martrell Spaight.

As much as those three guys can help at linebacker, the news is just as good in the secondary.

“Dalton can be that long corner that makes your defense special,” Smith said. “Pulley has great ball skills. Sykes is one of those unique safeties who also has the speed and ability to cover someone in the slot. All of those guys should help us in the kicking game.”

There's more help in the defensive front. Daytrieon Dean was a mid-term arrival that was slowed by shoulder surgery. Smith saw enough late in the spring to get excited but knows he'll be a different player in the fall after more work with Herbert.

“Then, you add T. J. Smith and Jamario Bell to that group of Dean, Ledbetter and Froholdt, I think you see why we are excited about the future of our defensive front,” Smith said. “It's just a good group in all three areas.”

I've felt for several months that the 2015 defense is going to be better than last year when the Hogs finished the year as one of the nation's best units. There were two shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss and almost a third against Texas in the bowl game.

“I love this group,” Smith said. “Maybe we don't have a big-time stars like Trey Flowers going into the season, but I think some guys will emerge.

“It's a fun group to be around. It's a group of tough guys. We've got a lot of them, too. They like to play football.”

Smith thinks the front can play his kind of football, making it easy for the linebackers to make plays. He saw it in the spring. It's the kind of domination up front that led to the Hogs leading the nation in fourth-down conversion defense, allowing just 4 of 18.

“We've got nose tackles who can dictate daylight, even against our good offensive interior,” he said. “That helps your mike. The nose squeezes the A gap. That makes it easier for the three technique and that's going to free the will to make plays. Our nose can dominate the center and it all goes right from there.

“I saw Taiwan Johnson do the same things at the three technique that Darius Philon did for us last year. Bijhon Jackson can be explosive at nose or the three and do some great things as a pass rusher. I like Hjalte Froholdt inside, too. I call him the Great Dane because he is that.”

It's the kind of stuff Jeff Long dreamed about as he introduced Bret Bielema. Some didn't get it. They should now. It's fantastic stuff.

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