State of the Hogs: Secondary Improvement Big Focus in Spring at Arkansas

Bret Bielema is ready to see improvement in the secondary this spring with the addition of Paul Rhoads as new coach for corners and safeties.

Quarterback play will be a big deal this spring after Brandon Allen finished his eligibility. And what new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson does with three openings up front is a must watch item, too.

But in the personal view, it's the defensive secondary with new coach Paul Rhoads that has to make the biggest improvement over the past season when Arkansas begins spring drills on Tuesday.

It's the fourth spring for Bret Bielema as head coach at Arkansas and it will be the third new coach to tackle the secondary issues. Rhoads follows Chris Ash and Clay Jennings in the defensive backfield. Rhoads comes to Arkansas after serving as head coach at Iowa State the last seven seasons.

Bielema addressed that topic and more in his pre-spring media conference on Monday at the Fred Smith Center. As he was leaving, I wanted to know two things: Has Rhoads ridden his motorcycle to work and will there be a noticeable difference in technique with Rhoads in charge of the secondary?

"Yes, on the technique," Bielema said. "Noticeable. And, you'll be able to notice a much different level of aggressive play from there."

Bielema hesitated on the motorcycle question, asking for help from Pat Pierson, director of UAcommunications. Finally, Bielema said there was something that told him Rhoads had hauled at least one of his three Harley Davidson bikes from Ames, Iowa to Fayetteville.

"I just haven't seen one here yet," Bielema said. "But I think maybe he has one here now."

The second question was just asked for fun. There was nothing funny about the way the Arkansas secondary played last season.

Bielema is excited about watching Rhoads coach the Arkansas secondary in his first full blown spring practice Tuesday. But he's seen enough of Rhoads -- and his other two new coaches, Reggie Mitchell with the running backs and Anderson with the offensive line -- to know good things are ahead for the Razorbacks. The last few weeks of offseason workouts have included drill work without the football that would suggest technique has changed.

There just are so many positives with all three, Bielema said on Monday as he went through spring drills with the media. He said Rhoads offers a different perspective as a former head coach and also has meshed with defensive coordinator Robb Smith.

"Paul and Robb have come together," Bielema said. "Paul is a teacher. He's loud out there. He's energetic and enthusiastic."

As far as a veteran group in the secondary, Bielema said, "They know they are being taught. The feed back I've gotten there has all been positive. I expect that we will have a lot better technique."

Just in general, Bielema said there are some clear goals for the defense. He said when he first arrived there was a simple goal, to be on time. Now, in his fourth spring that's no longer a major problem.

"As far as meetings and workouts, there were 1,683 chances to be late and we had only four that were late," he said. "So I'm no longer worried about that.

"Now, it's about detail. So our goals for defense this spring are to be properly align, have the right eye progression and to respect the finish."

In particular, that middle goal was the problem area for the secondary last year.

"When you look at the big plays last year, so many of them the eyes were not right," he said. "So the progression of the eyes is extremely important. We have to finish the play."

Oh, there are still some who haven't gotten the on time part. Two tight ends are going to get some extra conditioning after practice Tuesday. Austin Cantrell got caught in traffic coming home from spring break. CJ O'Grady went to a basketball game in Oklahoma City on Saturday and was late returning home. Both of those redshirt freshman tight ends were mentioned by Bielema.

"We had a 15-minute meeting on Sunday night," Bielema said. "Yes, it was only 15 minutes. I call it on Sunday night just to go over our plans for Monday and the first week of spring."

Bielema said it was also a chance for him to talk about the meaning of Easter.

"I talked about Faith and how it applies to your short term and long term," he said. "We were out of there by 8:18, counting some time I had with seniors. They still weren't there when I left.

"I know (tight ends coach) Barry Lunney was in a bad mood all day. The only two guys who missed were his guys. I think they will have something extra after practice, although I'm not sure what. I won't punish them during practice because they need to be out there. But they won't be with the first team."

As far as the secondary starters, there will be one watching. Corner D.J. Dean, perhaps the leader of the group, is out this spring after foot surgery in January. He is available only for limited work. Sophomore Cornelius Floyd is out, too. He's academically ineligible, although Bielema said some on-line work done over spring break might put him back with the squad in May.

Josh Liddell and Santos Ramiez will begin work as the safeties on the first team. Jared Collins and Henre' Toliver are the first teamers at corner.

Willie Sykes moves from safety to corner. Nate Dalton moves from corner to safety. Kevin Richardson, who has gained "five to six" pounds, will work primarily at corner in the spring, but is considered a backup at all four slots. Ryan Pulley was praised for solid offseason workouts.

Bielema said he spent his spring break speaking at coaching clinics at Baylor and Clemson. He noticed similarities in the Clemson program and where the Hogs are now.

"I know that from A to Z, we have a lot of the same things going here," he said. "If we keep going in a positive direction, I think we will be on pace to win an SEC championship."

That would be true if the secondary makes improvement against up-tempo spread teams. There will be plenty of work against that type of system, including against a UA offense that is going to go no-huddle and with two groups in rapid fashion at times during the spring.

"We are going to practice at tempo," he said. "We've got two teams early who play that way in Louisiana Tech and TCU, so we'll have to get ready. We'll have two huddles going at the same time."

That will help get more reps for the four quarterbacks battling to replace Brandon Allen. Bielema made it clear that Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey would get more reps early. If Ty Storey and Ricky Town make an early move, that could change. Bielema will be listening for a cue from quarterbacks coach Dan Enos for that decision.

"If Dan thinks one of those two younger guys, Ty or Ricky, is making a move early, then we'd give one of those a lot more," Bielema said. "And, of course, we expect Cole Kelley to be ready to challenge in the fall."

Bielema said Austin Allen has shown leadership characteristics needed at the position. But he wants to see more accuracy.

"I want him to be more concerned with where the ball is," Bielema said. "He threw an interception in bowl practices and he came to the sideline non-chalant. I got on him about that. I told him, 'Bro, that's not how we roll.' I think he understood."

The secondary is starting to understand how Paul Rhoads rolls. It might be loud and it might be on a Harley. It's going to produce energy in the back end of the Arkansas defense.

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