At the end of his interview session after spring practice on Thursday, Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith was asked if he had listened to any of the music of Prince, the innovative artist who died earlier in the day at age 57.
“I did,” Smith said of a guy who once changed his name to a symbol. “Phenomenal artist, phenomenal artist. Sorry to see his passing.”
That being said, Smith would just as soon as his defense get away from being the artists formerly known as those who gave up big plays in 2015 and get back to the shutdown group it was especially at the end of 2014.
He has seen much growth in his secondary and his linebackers this spring and that should go along way in accomplishing that goal.
“I tell you what, I am very pleased with where they (the defensive backs) are at this time,” Smith said. “One of the things that we really stressed with our defense, we talked about aligning correctly on every play and then our eyes and our progression. I think that is one group that has really made a stride forward.
“I think the linebackers have done well with that and I think the defensive line has also done a good job. That has been a big emphasis for us. Hopefully that continues through Saturday.”
The Razorbacks’ spring practice will close with Saturday’s Red-White game that is scheduled for noon at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“Basically our three keys this spring were we wanted to make sure we aligned correctly on every play, we want to continue to have our eyes and our progression the right way and then we have to finish.
“We have got to play with fanatical effort, we have got to finish around the football, we have got to tackle well. If we do those things, we will chalk it up as a good day on Saturday.”
Those have certainly been the characteristics of defensive end Deatrich Wise and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter, who have played alongside each other on the number one defense.
That duo has been so dominant against a young offensive line that they have been pulled halfway during scrimmages the past few Saturdays.
“I think those guys have had good springs,” Smiths said. “We have to speed through tomorrow with our personnel and get the reps where we need it, but we are excited about the spring that they have had, but it has to continue through the summer and into fall camp.”
One of the big differences in the 2016 season should be the depth at linebacker, where junior Brooks Ellis and true freshman Dre Greenlaw were forced to play far too much last season.
“It is the third spring of the package so everybody has heard it,” Smith said. “We are a little bit more veteran in that group than we were are year ago and I think there has been a bigger commitment to it this offseason in terms of eyes and progression.
“It has got to continue that way through the summer and into fall camp as well.”
Smith mentioned juniors Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene and sophomore Randy Ramsey - back as a walk on after missing a year - as those who have stood out in the spring behind the starting duo.
“Khalia Hackett, the last couple of Saturdays, has really played his best football since he has been here,” Smith said. “That makes us feel better.
“Randy Ramsey is back around and doing things the way we ask him to do. Dwayne Eugene is getting better. We have four freshmen coming in that we are excited about as well.
“So as long as we can stay on that track, I think we can have a rested Dre Greenlaw and Brooks Ellis this fall.”
Hackett was praised as a standout by the coaches in the spring last season, but didn’t get on the field as much once the games came around in the fall.
“I think it has been consistency,” Smith said of Hackett’s improvement. “There have been spurts where he has done some really good things here, but I think he has been able to go out and go through 14 practices, well 13 now, and hopefully that continues through 14 and 15, but it has been a consistent 13 for him.”
Greenlaw and Ellis are splitting time as the lone linebacker on the field when Arkansas goes to its cash package with more defensive backs on the field.
“We have done some things there with Dre and Brooks and that is another way we can keep Brooks fresh if we kind of split the reps there,” Smith said. “He is a lot better player as a sophomore than he was a freshman and that gives us a little bit more freedom to free Brooks up a little bit.”