Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith would love to be watching his Pittsburgh Pirates challenge the St. Louis Cardinals - who have the best record in the majors - in an important mid-week series.
But the Razorback football practice and meeting schedules just don’t allow that with just over three weeks left until the season opener against visiting UTEP on Sept. 5.
“I’ll start by saying I will not answer any questions from anybody wearing a Cardinals jersey,” Smith joked during his Wednesday media briefing.
Told it was T-shirt by a reporter, Smith said “you got me on a technicality.”
Seriously, Smith is trying to repeat the success of his rookie season at the helm of the Razorback defense, who finished 10th nationally overall in defense last season.
Wednesday was the first time Arkansas went through two-a-days, just 24 hours after its first pad in full pads. Technically, it was just one practice since the early session was a walk through.
“Today was a really heavy day mentally,” Smith said. “This morning we really focused on a lot of things, walk-through tempo wise, a little bit more installation in terms of our critical area. We'll go out there underneath the lights and fly around and be a little more physical tonight.
“I thought we were off to a great start to the day with our mental portion of it and it's really got to pick up in terms of physical intensity.”
Arkansas is headed toward a Saturday scrimmage that will tell Smith and his defensive assistants more about where the defense is and where it is headed.
The physicality - something that Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema stresses to his team - has certainly been there through early practices.
“We've been very, very pleased,” Smith said. “I think our guys are off to a great start. Coach B does a great job of just kind of setting the standard and the expectation level of how we're going to play. I think our guys have embraced that.
“Now what we've got to do is get better on a daily basis. We got another opportunity tonight. A little bit different conditions, we get to go out under the lights, hopefully a chance to go in the stadium. Should be a lot of fun.”
Getting the full pads on the last two days has added a new element to practice.
“It's an opportunity now really to stress pad level,” Smith said. “When you don't have pads on and you're doing things against each other, you really try to be smart about keeping your face out of guys' shoulders and things of that nature.
“Now, with shoulder pads on and thigh boards on, we can get in there and really stress pad level. We can increase our physicality and those are all good things we need to do to help us be successful.”
He’s certainly getting that out of nose guards DeMarcus Hodge and Hjalte Froholdt, a true freshman.
“Those two guys, we talk about dictating daylight on the interior of our defense and Hodge has done a great job working with Herb transforming his body,” Smith said. “He knows the importance of keeping that same structure throughout the season.
“When he can do what he's doing and we've got a young guy like Hjalte, who's really come on, he's a strong, powerful guy. He gives us a great opportunity to dictate daylight and force and direct the ball where we need to on the interior of our defense.”
He thinks the youngsters on defense are following the leadership and example set by the veterans.
“I think our new guys have come in and kind of embraced what the older guys have brought to the table from last year,” Smith said. “We want to play physical football, that's a programmatic deal. That's not just offense or defense. That's special teams and everybody combined.
“We do a lot of things in practice to stress the physicality and I think the young guys and some of the new pieces of the puzzle, whether it's a corner or a nose guard, have really embraced that. We've got a long ways to go to play a football game, but we're on track.”
Smith believes that the defensive line, the linebackers and the secondary have all been solid so far this camp.
“I think all three groups have made progress,” Smith said. “I think there are particular individuals we've been really pleased with. I think JaMichael Winston, Taiwan Johnson up front, Tevin Beanum had a big play yesterday with an interception, which was excellent to see just by playing smart swarm, running to the football. Those things created opportunities for us.
“Brooks (Ellis) has done a nice job at the will linebacker. Khalia (Hackett) is still getting adjusted to that role at the Mike, but very pleased with what he's done so far.
“I think our crop of corners, between Jared (Collins), D.J. (Dean) and Henre’ (Toliver), we've put in our sub packages already to get all three of those guys on the field at the same time, and I think Josh Liddell has really done a nice job at free safety.
“As long as we continue to improve and make that our mantra here in camp -- get better each day -- I'll pick a skill and get better at that -- then I think we'll like where this football team is come Sept. 5.”
One of the biggest surprises in camp has been the emergence of freshman cornerback Ryan Pulley, who is already up to a second-team depth chart.
“I'll tell you we have high expectations and standards for everybody,” Smith said. “He's striving to meet those right now. He's worked extremely hard.
“The thing he's kind of impressed the coaches with is how quickly he's picked up our system. He's a physical corner. He loves playing the game. Those guys usually trend well on this defense.
Smith has a pair of freshmen linebackers in Dre Greenlaw (6-2, 229) and Jamario Bell (6-6, 255) making steps forward in practice.
Greenlaw is working at the second-team Will linebacker spot behind Ellis, his fellow former Fayetteville High star.
“Dre's been a guy through the first few days of camp that has really progressed,” Smith said. “He's caught on to what we're trying to do defensively. We've always been really impressed with his athletic ability and now we're getting a chance to see him do it against some really good competition. Excited to see that role expand as camp goes on.”
Bell has made a move to linebacker from defensive end, a spot he still could line up some at this season.
“There's a guy whose athleticism has jumped out at us,” Smith said. “You know we've kind of tinkered with him a little bit at OLB. We haven't lost sight of the fact that we think he can help us as a pass rusher.
“Based on where - as he progresses and learns our system, we'll find a role for him within that system. It might be rushing the passer. It might be at outside linebacker. But we like what we've seen so far.”
Robb Smith: Defense Is Stressing Physicality
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