David Gottschalk

State of the Hogs: Secondary Coach Paul Rhoads Knows Defending Spread is Big Part of New Challenge

Paul Rhoads has rolled up his sleeves to get at the big question: Can the new Arkansas secondary coach solve the spreads in the SEC West?

There have been two media chances to listen to Paul Rhoads in his first 48 hours on the job and defending the spread offenses in the SEC came up both times.

It's almost as if that's what Rhoads came to town to do as new secondary coach at Arkansas. Head coach Bret Bielema perhaps landed the perfect coach to replace Clay Jennings, now at Texas.

It reminds me of last year when Jemal Singleton arrived to coach the running backs. It was clear that what he did best was teach ball security. It was just what was needed for Alex Collins in his last season with the Arkansas football team. Collins was much better with ball security this past season after working through the innovative drills that Singleton brought to Arkansas. The Hogs shared the top spot in the nation in lost fumbles, with just three.

It's 12 months later and Rhoads is charged with tightening the coverage in the secondary against spread teams. SEC West foes Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn all utilize some form of the spread offense.

I posed the question to Rhoads on Monday in his introductory press conference. Could he help with the problems the Arkansas defense faced in stopping spread teams?

"There is knowledge of that," Rhoads said. "There is knowledge on how people hurt us and the steps that had to be taken over the last seven years (as ISU head coach). There is just some background. I might see some things and help address and fix them."

Would that mean a preference for press coverage at cornerback? Does Rhoads like press?

"I'm in favor of press if we have the people to play press," he said. "Against certain aspects of the spread, you have to be able to play press and have to play it well."

Rhoads said there needs to be variety in the coverages.
"There are times you want to be on the line," he said. "At times, you want to be loose and what they call here bait off. I'm sure I'll brought up to speed on the terminology."

Then there was a wonderful Rhoads interview Tuesday with Bo Mattingly on his Sports Talk network. Bo got to the spread question, too. Rhoads went more in depth. Has Rhoads begun to study with defensive coordinator Robb Smith the issues with the spread defense?

"Already starting to look at a little bit," Rhoads said. "Looking at film cut ups and the deficiencies against the growing number of spread teams in the SEC.

"I grew up coaching inside out. By that, I mean you start at the A gap and how to defend it, then go to the dive and then the quarterback option. You work your way out.

"Today against the spread and the run-pass options, you start at the outside and take away the easy throw and catch in space, then you work your way back and take away the run to the outside. Then, you work your way back to the center.

"As we get more into the cutups, we'll see how we can arrange the checkers and get more into defending the spread offense a little better."

Rhoads inherits a secondary that lost only one starter, safety Rohan Gaines. Rhoads has had a chance to work with the players in early morning agility and conditioning drills and also had players in the meeting room.

"I'm real excited about the veteran group," he said. "They are eager guys when I had my first opportunity with them. I've worked them in drills and watched them move. I've watched them bend. I feel there is no question they can be a better group.

"I know we need to get involved in the run game, but pass coverage is something we need to get shored up and we will do exactly that."

Rhoads will start with the basics. He said he's a fundamental coach who stresses technique first.

"We will start with stance," he said. "We will look at the little things, movement and where eyes are supposed to be."

There is no doubt that it's going to be a high octane approach to coaching.

"I'm energetic, enthusiastic," he said. "I'm loud, if you will."

And, he's going to know his players. The first thing he did was ask them to fill out a form.

"It's something I've tweaked through the years," he said. "I think you have to find out about them, show them you care. To do that, you have to know them.

"I find out their nicknames, who they are close to here, who they are close to at home. I want to know their major and what they plan to do with it. If I see them in the hallway, I want to be able to talk about those things.

"I want to be able to stop them and ask them why they played press on that third-and-8 the day before, but I want to be able to know them, too."

It's exciting to be back in a meeting room. As a head coach or a defensive coordinator the last 15 seasons, he didn't have his own room.

"The number one reason I'm here is because I missed teaching and coaching the kids," he said. "The last seven years as a head coach, there were a number of kids who came by in a five or 10 minute window. You could move the chairs around and show them something. By far those were the highlights of my day. The other 18 hours of the day, you are doing things that come across the desk of the head coach."

Rhoads was reminded of those hours as he walked into the office this week. He passed outside Bret Bielema's door and saw players waiting their turn to see the head coach.

"There were two on the couch, one outside his door," Rhoads said. "I went to my office and watched film."

There is a guess that it was film of an SEC spread offense against the Hogs. Paul Rhoads recognizes the little things that are needed in his new role as Arkansas secondary coach. But he sees the big thing, too.

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