Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Return of the Defensive Triangle

Robb Smith's weakside triangle looks to be back with Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Dre Greenlaw anchoring the defensive scheme. It's one of the big highlights for the 2016 Razorbacks as summer approaches.

As summer approaches, those following Arkansas football closely might be gnashing their teeth over the development of the offensive line. And, it’s always OK to worry about the offensive line. As that unit goes, so goes the rest of the team.

So until all of the pieces fall in place up front for new line coach Kurt Anderson, it’s fair that there should be some consternation.

But that does not seem to be shared by head coach Bret Bielema. He’s replaced multiple spots in the offensive line year after year and always fielded a solid unit. He’s confident in the direction of the O-line, so I am, too.

It’s the one thing Bielema seems most equipped to get done, along with Anderson. They will get a big helping hand in the offseason from Ben Herbert, one of the nation’s best strength and conditioning coaches. I credit Herbert for developing linemen as much as anyone on the staff.

I just get a comfortable feeling about the way things always work out with both the offensive and defensive lines under Bielema. It’s his style of play that helps turn out productive linemen.

But I would feel a little more comfortable had Denver Kirkland stayed another year. As the draft finishes Saturday and Kirkland’s name is not called, you realize more and more that Kirkland made a mistake by not returning for his senior season. Even if he’s a throw away pick at the end late Saturday, it was an error in judgment by the Miami, Fla., product.

Clearly, Kirkland made a miscalculation by not staying with Bielema one more year. That brings up another topic, why the NCAA doesn’t allow underclassmen to declare for the NFL but retain the option to return for another year if they don’t make a favorable impression at the combine? Kirkland might have really taken advantage of that situation. He’d be coming back, most likely.

Kirkland fired his agent this week. He realized that he made a mistake by signing with an agent in the first place. Get this, the name of the agent: Finger Licking Good. Not so good.

I’d really love this team if it had Dan Skipper and Kirkland at tackle again. You’d have seniors at the key line positions on both sides of the ball. I might declare the 2016 Hogs ready for a serious run at the SEC West.

And, there are some great seniors in the defensive line, especially the front of that weakside triangle that defensive coordinator Robb Smith made sing two years ago with Trey Flowers and Darius Philon. The 2016 version has Deatrich Wise at end, Jeremiah Ledbetter at tackle. They are poised for great senior seasons. It's a big highlight for the coming season.

I’m not sure sophomore Dre Greenlaw can play the weakside linebacker spot the way Martrell Spaight worked it two years ago. But he’s getting better, much better.

In many ways Greenlaw is ahead of where Spaight was two years ago. Spaight had only limited experience at the weakside spot as a junior. Remember, the junior college transfer did not arrive on campus until the summer, not having enough math credits to enroll at midterm.

Greenlaw has come light years in his 12 months at the position. He was solid this spring and should be even better in the fall with a summer of tape study with Brooks Ellis, the senior middle linebacker. I tend to defer to Ellis on judgment on player development.

Ellis was in the process of giving Greenlaw a thumbs up on maturity late in spring when the younger linebacker stepped behind Ellis to mock his fellow Fayetteville product.

“Well, he’s come a long way, but he still has a long way to go,” Ellis said, rolling his eyes at some knucklehead comments coming from Greenlaw.

It was all in fun. Ellis and Greenlaw seem to be working in tandem on the field. It’s fun to watch them read their keys together. No longer does Ellis have to point out a shift or alignment error.

They both have improved their pass coverage skills and seem to get their hands on tight ends and receivers that come across the middle to make their routes tougher.

“I’ve got some work still to do,” Ellis said. “You can always get better, but I think I have improved my (pass coverage). I think Dre had a great spring. He’s not the same player. He’s worked hard. He’s studied.”

Greenlaw should have some fun playing behind Wise and Ledbetter. Those are standout linemen. There are usually good ends in the SEC, so to say Wise is the best would be a mouthful. But he’s capable of being just that. Ledbetter might be better at the “three technique” than Philon. He appeared polished and perfect for that spot in the spring. He’s going to be a load for SEC offensive guards.

The key will be the other end spot, just because Wise is that good. There will be a tendency to run away from Wise. But that’s the over side to the defense – the strong side – and there will be help there. Smith’s scheme funnels things to the weakside, right into the lap of that triangle.

The strong side ends are capable, too. It could be handled by committee with Karl Roesler, McTelvin Agim, JaMichael Winston and Tevin Beanum all getting a shot. Remember, there is more help on the way in the defensive front with end Jonathan Marshall, Briston Guidry and tackle Austin Capps to arrive this summer. Like Agim, they are big and athletic.

Oh, and that reminds me of the offensive line. There is help on the way there, too. Juco transfer Paul Ramirez and Iowa blue chipper Jake Heinrich might fit nicely in that puzzle. Oh, and it might not be much of a puzzle if Kirkland was still around.

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