State Of The Hogs: Hogs Lose A Good One

FAYETTEVILLE -- There isn't much culture in my life. Ever once in a while I break free from my rut of sports, sports and more sports. I took my wife to see Riverdance this week. It was an attempt to earn brownie points at the end of a long football season and rejoin the family.

My bride and I enjoyed an extraordinary performance. Even I came away pumped and that's something considering the strong medicine for the sinusitis that always hits me by the end of football season.

I was so lifted by the dancing that when I walked into our kitchen afterwards I broke into a little jig. Mind you, it wasn't anything with kicks or twists from the hips or knees. Just a few hops with the appropriate loud heel clicks on the tiled kitchen floor. Bad idea. I got a thumbs-down from the daughters. My sinus headache returned and I felt old.

That was the only light moment in my day Wednesday. Otherwise, it was a depressing day.

A fine coach and a good friend was terminated on the Arkansas football staff.

Dave Wommack received a double-thumbs down this week. Houston Nutt fired him Tuesday, with the announcement hitting Wednesday that Arkansas' defensive coordinator would be the main casualty of a 5-6 season.

Besides the musical, the only other thing that lessened my depression was the way Wommack handled his termination. Never have I seen a coach show such class. He asked if he could meet with the media, something that usually isn't arranged when assistant coaches are purged. It's a dangerous thing to allow, but Arkansas sports information director Kevin Trainor made arrangements for Wommack to visit with the media at the Bud Walton Arena interview room.

All the time thanking the media for what he perceived as kind treatment through the years, Wommack couldn't hide the disappointment. His eyes were red and he teared up several times during his group session and again in a one-on-one. But he never wavered from anything but intense respect for Nutt. He told a story about meeting Nutt's wife, Diana, after a junior high basketball game on Tuesday. Their daughters play on the same team. Knowing that Diana had to be uncomfortable, Wommack caught up to her to let her know that he still considered the Nutts to be their close friends and worked to put her at ease. He said he knew his termination was business and there were no hard feelings.

Thats Wommack. He's top shelf.

He wanted to be at Arkansas this year despite two job openings at similar schools last winter. It would have been a good time to bail considering the Hogs were headed for an off year.

"I am about challenges," he said. "I couldn't and wouldn't duck this year here. That would be with me forever. I believe in Houston and I was committed to him. I wasn't going to run from this no matter how bad it looked. I knew we lost a lot and it was going to be tough on defense this year, but I wanted it.

"These players are good people. This is a good staff with good people. I wasn't leaving them just because it looked tough."

What was the challenge? It was to put a defense together without much experience or a true difference-maker. Wommack asked me Wednesday to name the Hogs' best defender this season. I faltered, badly. I danced better in my kitchen than I did at answering his question.

Finally, I said perhaps Arrion Dixon, Jeb Huckeba or Darius Vinnett, noting that each of them were void in one area or another. No, there was not a clearly dominant or true difference-maker on this defense.

The strength of this defense was the line, but not because of ability. It was because there were numbers and a bit of experience. There were four seniors and an assortment of underclassmen. Two of the youngsters, sophomores Jeremy Harrell and Keith Jackson Jr., are undersized, both perhaps no better than 6-feet tall. Freshmen Marcus Harrison, Jamaal Anderson and Fred Bledsoe have all the right tools, but all learned new positions this year. However, they were good enough to take playing time away from the veterans and that tells you something about the veterans.

So the strength was really not a true strength. The defensive line never was good enough to protect an average set of linebackers and a terribly inexperienced secondary. There were no erasers like Caleb Miller, Ken Hamlin, Jimmy Beasley and Tony Bua.

So, a new scheme was created --the 4-2-5. It was born after assessing personnel with the knowledge that there was no one who could play the old wolf/outside linebacker slot, half linebacker and half safety. There were no small linebackers with great speed. And, there were not enough cornerbacks to play the "gator" defense that was the staple of both Wommack and his predecessor, John Thompson.

What the Hogs had was a bunch of strong safety types. Wommack decided to coach them into a new hybrid back he called the Husky. Still in the dog family (wolf, rover, etc.), the Husky would be a blitzer and a run-stopper with enough speed to cover in the flats and to chase mobile quarterbacks. John Jackson was the man thought best equipped to play that spot, a big safety with speed. The problem there was that he was being disciplined and had missed spring drills for an alcohol-related offense. They added Kevin Woods and John Johnson with Jackson in the fall and began the experiment.

In some ways it worked, and in some ways it failed miserably. Tackling was never solid at Husky all season. Wommack's scheme and blitz calls put them in position to make plays, but they weren't consistent. Mobile quarterbacks did in the Husky every time they met. Vincent Young dodged and spun off of Jackson twice to complete the hully-gully pass to Cedric Benson that would provide the winning points in the Texas game. Jackson and Woods fell off of quarterbacks on other blitzes when they came free on the edge. South Carolina's quarterbacks were successful scrambling. LSU quarterback Marcus Randall's rushing total was more than 130 yards before four sacks were subtracted.

But despite giving up the second-most yards (397 per game) in school history, the Hogs did improve in one area. They did apply more pressure. They went from 11 sacks to 16. That's still a paltry number, but if the tackling on blitzes had been better that number might have gone to 25 sacks, a huge improvement.

Stopping a mobile quarterback in the red zone was the real problem this year. Wommack pointed back to the Georgia game as an illustration.

"David Greene wasn't a problem for our defense in the red zone," Wommack said. "We knew where he'd be and how to get to him. Yes, we gave up yards, but when you get in the red zone, you don't have to defend the field and we didn't have to account for him. A mobile quarterback was different and very difficult for our defense."

Why? The Hogs don't have speed at linebacker. That's the difference. How many times do you remember a linebacker diving at the feet of a scrambling quarterback, or just getting a piece of him or not being able to get there period? That's not a knock on effort. That's an ability issue.

Hence, I don't blame the scheme. It was probably the right thing at the right time, but just not enough talent to make it work. Would the Hogs have been better defensively in something else? Not in my mind.

What does Wommack think? He didn't second-guess any of his strategy on Wednesday. He didn't want to make excuses either. He took the blame and the heat.

But I know what happened. The Hogs don't have any bell cows. In the SEC, you are doomed if you don't have two or three defensive linemen to anchor the defense. I haven't seen anyone like that for a number of years here. I don't see a Melvin Bradley, a Ryan Hale or a D. J. Cooper.

So how did that happen?

Recruiting failed.

Wommack didn't go into details, but he said the NCAA sanctions killed the Hogs over a two-year period ending with this past class that gave the Hogs the likes of Harrison, Anderson, Bledsoe, Michael Tate and Ernest Mitchell. They are the kind of defensive linemen that the Hogs have targeted for three years, but failed to land in the two previous classes.

"We got the right people to campus in each of those two years," Wommack said. "We knew what we needed and got them to visit. We didn't sign them. We were leaking oil because of the investigation. Other schools said don't go there. They aren't going to be eligible for a bowl. They won't be on TV."

Will things be better next year because of Wommack's dismissal? More tickets will be sold this spring and summer. There will be excitement no matter who is named as his replacement. There will be hope and promise of a new defense. Do not minimize the importance of that in this decision. That will happen no matter if it's Charlie Strong or anyone else. So that will be good.

And one more year might be all that is needed to get to the point where Arkansas does have the talent and experience in the line to anchor a defense. It will be a little better next year after all of those freshmen spend a year in the weight room. It might be a little better at linebacker if the right junior college player signs at mid-term. It should be better in the secondary after some intensive hitting this spring for all of the first-team Division I players.

What I long for is a big ugly in the middle of this defense, someone to make the other team play left-handed on offense, require double-team attention and call plays away from its strength because they can't block him. When that happens, we'll quit worrying about the man calling the schemes. We'll start looking at the records for turnovers and sacks.

Until then, it's going to be great for the arm-chair coordinators, the folks who like to talk about 4-3-4s, 5-2-4s and 5-3-3s.

Dave Wommack knows that is the nature of the business. He'll face that at his next stop. My fear is that it will be someplace where we'll see him on the other sideline. I'll know we will be facing a good coach.

And I'm not dancing on that one.


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