The national analysts seem to project the Arkansas offense to be the driving force of the 2015 team. They speak of the losses of Trey Flowers, Martrell Spaight and Darius Philon in ominous tones. But if you listen to junior defensive end Jamichael Winston, there should be no slip on his side of the football.
Winston was one of the three defensive leaders in the interview room on Friday, the second day of fall camp for the Razorbacks. He was joined by cornerback Jared Collins and linebacker Brooks Ellis.
The 6-4, 262-pound Winston points to second-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith as the insurance that not much will change from a unit that became one of the nation's best in November.
“Coach Smith tells us every day we can get to Atlanta,” Winston said, a reference to the SEC title game in December. “I believe that. When he came in, no one talked about us.”
Head coach Bret Bielema has been calling the new defense without Flowers, Spaight and Philon a “Bad News Bears” unit that will come together as a solid team. There may not be known stars now, but together can match last year's production from those departed stars.
“We've heard the hype,” Winston said of the movie reference. “We just want to keep getting better collectively.
“Coach Smith brought quality defense to Arkansas. You guys have seen it. We expect to have low scoring SEC games, holding teams to 14 points.”
Winston is one of the bell cows for Smith. The defensive skipper likes to refer to his leaders as “circle the wagon” players. He mentions Winston every time. It's a matter of being accountable and able to lead when things slip.
“If it's not a good day, Coach Smith knows he can come to me and point out something that needs to be fixed or someone who needs to be lifted up,” Winston said. “I can get it right. If he lets me know, I'll get on it. If there is a problem, I'll get the right message across.
“So far, that's not been needed. It's early. We are not to the grind of camp, but I know that's coming. Right now, everyone is eager. We have had two really good days.”
Winston has been interested to watch the growth in practice of some of the more talented prospects on the defensive line. Jeremiah Ledbetter has been a standout at the defensive end slot opposite Winston.
“When he got here last spring, I knew he was fast but I didn't think he was moving so fast,” Winston said. “I asked him, 'What's wrong, you supposed to be fast?' He said he didn't know and maybe he was just learning. But he's moving now. The guy is freaky. I know he can play at end, or move in at tackle. He's capable of both.”
The depth in the defensive line is eye popping. Winston said Brandon Lewis and Mitchell Loewen, both held out by injuries in the spring, have exploded so far this summer and sparkled in camp.
“They are full throttle now,” Winston said.
There has been talk about the Hogs putting a solid two deep on the field in the defensive line, calling it 1A and 1B as far as the depth chart.
“It might be 1C, too,” Winston said. “I don't know how that will work, but we'll just keep putting defensive linemen out there to get after quarterbacks and running backs.”
There is plenty of experience in that group, too.
“We were in the meeting room and Coach (Bielema) asked us to raise our hands if we played a lot of football,” Winston said. “A lot of hands went up.
“When I went out today, I watched my position and it was crisp. Guys like Blew, Deatrich, Mitch, Ledbetter all did well.”
Winston called freshman defensive end Jamario Bell another freaky player.
"I watched him this summer and he led the defensive linemen in our runs," Winston said. "He is really fast. Today he was close to getting a sack. I told him, 'Don't reach over and put your hands on the quarterback. Don't grab them.' He was close."
So what's the depth like in the secondary? Can freshmen help? Collins, another Smith labels circle the wagon types, sees that as another strength.
"I think the secondary is a strength," he said. "Linebacker and defensive line is a strength, too."
The lead corners along with Collins would be D.J. Dean and Henre' Toliver. But Cornelius Floyd is joined by freshman Ryan Pulley and Nate Dalton in the battle to add to corner depth.
"I think we are doing good," Collins said. "We were rusty the first day, but we corrected things today. We did well.
"I think Pulley is doing good. Dalton, he might be having some growing pains and needs to learn to bend a little more. That will help him get in and out of breaks and stop."
It's early, but Pulley is probably the one battling Floyd for that fourth corner slot.
"Pulley has good feet and good break," Collins said.
Asked if Pulley could help this year, he said, "Yes, I think so."
Collins confirmed there had been only one turnover through two days, an interception by Santos Ramirez.
"No fumbles, but we put on the pads tomorrow," he said.
Collins said his tendency is to lead by example, but he's tried to be more vocal in his junior season as one of the defensive leaders. He understood the circle the wagon comment from Smith.
"I think he trust me as a guy who can make plays and be accountable," Collins said. "I feel like I can be a leader. I am working on the vocal part. I do think I can say something to a teammate, though, if it needs to be said."
Collins said there was a matchup with speedy junior college transfer Dominique Reed on Friday. It went the way of the defense.
"I went against him and I figured he was going to run a deep route," Collins said. "I feel like I can keep up with him though. He's fast, though. I think at least a 4.3 (in the 40)."
Has there been a race between Eric Hawkins and Reed? Most would rate Hawkins as the team's fastest. He ran on the track team's 4x100 relay.
"I haven't seen that yet," Collins said. "I think it would be a tight race. I'd like to see that."
No coaches have been to the interview room yet. That changes after Saturday's practice when head coach Bret Bielema is scheduled to speak.
Winston Sees Plenty of Line Depth
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