The ability to cover in space is so important, cornerback is the one position that coaches perhaps will sacrifice a little size for ability. Ask an SEC defensive coordinator what he worries about at night, it might be their ability to limit big plays at cornerback.
That has been a nightmare for most of the last decade at Arkansas as a string of defensive coordinators failed to find the answer at cornerback. Willy Robinson, Paul Haynes and Chris Ash came up short and the Hogs gave up too many big plays.
That changed last year as defensive coordinator Robb Smith and secondary coach Clay Jennings trained what they had inherited into top SEC corners by season's end. The big plays went away and all of a sudden the Razorbacks were coming up with shutouts. They allowed just one touchdown combined against LSU, Ole Miss and Texas.
That's one of the reasons I think this Arkansas defense can be as good in 2015. Most of those cornerbacks are back. And, there are some good young ones on the way in the new recruiting class. It's similar to last year when Henre' Toliver arrived with Santos Ramirez and Cornelius Floyd. Toliver made an impact and much is expected from Ramirez and Floyd.
Smith is excited about his options at cornerback. He speaks in confident tones when starters Jared Collins, Toliver and D.J. Dean are mentioned.
It's both ability and football intelligence that led Smith to put Collins at the field corner spot, the toughest of the positions played by corners in the nickel defense.
“He’s a very smart guy.,” Smith said of Collins. “He knows our defense and routes. He’s really smooth and athletic. He’s got good cover skills, especially in space. We don’t worry about putting him in space to the field side. He’s a circle-the-wagon guy. He’s not vocal, but he’s gotten better in that area. Clay Jennings did a really good job with Jared and our corners as the year progressed.”
Toliver can play field or boundary, but he's likely going to be leaned on to play the nickel spot held by Tevin Mitchel last year. “He’s a really good player.,” Smith said. “He can be one of the corners if you are playing with two, but he embraced the nickel spot and that’s not an easy place to play. Against a slot guy, there are more routes. It’s not like you have a sideline to help you. The outside receivers are limited in what they can do, but a slot guy has some routes to put pressure on the nickel. Henre’ is good in that spot.”
Smith calls Dean “a fun player to be around. He works hard and tries to do all the little things. He’s tough and physical. He disrupts what the receivers are trying to do. He plays with his hands. Both D.J. Dean and Jared Collins both play with a lot of confidence. They got better during the season, week in and week out. They understand what we want them to do at cornerback. I think they both matured and that helped their focus.”
Ramirez is listed in the depth chart as a safety, but he's a security blanket at cornerback, too. He could be a nickel or dime back in special packages and is really good at tackling in space. It's easy to imagine his skills being needed against Auburn, a spread team with a desire to run.
“He’s just scratching the surface,” Smith said of Ramirez “He’s rangy and physical. He’s got very good cover skills and can help at corner. He can move down and help in man coverage as a safety when we see teams with multiple wide receivers. He’s good against the run.”
Nate Dalton and Ryan Pulley will get early looks at corner in the fall. Both have SEC speed. Dalton, at 6-3, has rare height for the cornerback position.
“We just kept getting better last year,” Smith said. “I thought we picked up where we left off in the spring. Clay has done a great job with our corners. What we saw as the year progressed, our communication kept getting better. We didn't make mistakes and the big plays went down. That's the key in this defense and the ability to communicate in the back end was a big part of that.”
It's allowed Robb Smith to get a little more sleep this summer.