State Of The Hogs: Offseason Football

It's business as usual at voluntary offseason conditioning workouts with the Arkansas football team, with one notable exception.

The defensive tackles are shedding pounds like Jermain Taylor trying to make his middleweight limit.

Per the request of defensive coordinator Reggie Herring in May, tackles Keith Jackson, Ernest Mitchell, Marcus Harrison and Jeremy Harrell have made big moves down, while ends Anthony Brown, Zach Snider and Desmond Sims are adding weight.

"It's been a good summer," said Don Decker, the Hogs' strength and conditioning head coach. "As far as team unity, it's been real good. Our seniors have gotten a great response from the team. This is a voluntary period, so it falls on the seniors to get this thing going right. Pierre Brown, Brandon Kennedy, Vickiel Vaughn and Kyle Roper have been excellent leaders."

Decker can sing the praises of a large number of players as far as summer work ethic, but our questions Thursday centered on the progress made by the defensive linemen this summer.

Herring, along with head coach Houston Nutt, challenged most of the defensive tackles to lose weight in the offseason. Many have responded.

Keith Jackson, who weighed 302 pounds at the end of spring drills, tips the scales at 281 this week.

"He's had a great attitude and is leading the pack," Decker said. "He's been great every single day this summer. He's a lot lighter and much more flexible. I'm proud and excited for him."

Decker said most of the other defensive linemen have had a phenomenal summer, too. Ernest Mitchell has dropped from 293 to 281. Marcus Harrison went from 305 to 292. Jeremy Harrell, once close to 300, is down to 280.

Asked about Fred Bledsoe, Decker would only say, "He's headed in the right direction. He's down to 310 with a goal of 300. He'll get there."

Converted end Anthony Brown finished spring at 223, but was 215 when he reported for the first semester of summer school. He's up to 230 now and still quick and fast. Desmond Sims is at 233.

Zach Snider, another converted end, is up to 244 after what Decker termed "a really good summer."

That is close to the goal Herring had for both players. Jamal Anderson, another end, is still at his spring weight of 260, but seems to be carrying it better.

"Jamal had added a bunch when he moved from wide receiver," Decker said. "I think it was just a matter of adjusting to that new weight. He's done that now and you can see he is moving better. Ultimately, that was the goal with him and I think he can play fast at 260.

"He's had a good summer as far as conditioning. He's been at 260 now for six or seven months and can handle it now."

The Hogs have conditioned (run and lift weights) for the same number of days as in the past, but the focus put on running for the defensive linemen is a bit different.

"We haven't added days, but we did things just a little different for those linemen that Coach Herring wanted to drop weight," Decker said. "We did a little more running with that group early this summer in the first semester of summer school."

Those defensive tackles ran four days a week instead of focusing on weightlifting and just agility drills.

"So when we started the heavy running the second semester for the entire team, those guys were a little ahead the first few days," Decker said. "But the other guys caught up pretty quickly because they have the body types that are used to running."

Jackson went from a player who struggled to bend into a three-point stance in the spring to the leader of the sprints for the linemen.

"You see the difference," Decker said. "He wins every race. He used to struggle with his flexibility. What he's done will jump off the page as far as improvements. He and those other linemen rose to the challenge."

The squad has another week of hard work before getting one week off before the start of two-a-days. Decker has been working them five days a week, three days of running and three days of lifting.

"We run and lift both on Friday," he said. "I think we saw our O-line bond with some 6 a.m. lifting the last couple of summers and we've seen the same bonding with the extra running the D-line has done this summer. It's been very good."

It's not as if the team has embarked on a new conditioning program, because Arkansas teams under Nutt (and Decker) have always been trim and conditioned for the long haul.

"We've seen that we are good in the fourth quarter and our record in overtime games tells you that we've done the right things in our conditioning," Decker said.

"So we aren't doing a lot different for the bulk of the team, just mainly the defensive linemen.

"I think what we have seen this summer is the challenge and emphasis placed by Coach Herring and Coach Nutt heading into the program and that has helped create an emphasis on urgency. I appreciate the help Coach Herring has given us there.

"I know we've had a strong summer. What I see is the same sense of pride that I usually see in the weight room with our lifting become very visible in our conditioning."

Decker is always tweaking his summer program. He added some measurements for the D-line this year to try to add to their focus and sense of urgency. He's done that with a daily test for the linemen in the 10-yard dash.

"The OL and the DL make a living with a 10-yard burst," he said. "So we time our linemen over 10 yards eight times each day."

Why eight times?

"An average series in a football game lasts seven plays," Decker said. "There is 45 seconds between plays, so we time them with a 45-second recovery each time.

"We find out what a personal best for 10 yards is and then ask our linemen to get that personal best eight times in a row. We challenge them to sustain that burst over and over.

"We've found a way to evaluate them in what they are asked to do in a game. It's created some great competition and we've learned that they can sustain their top level. We'll have a lot get 8 out of 8s. All of them are getting 6 out of 8. If they miss one, they are upset and want to find out why they missed. They are electronic times, so they are accurate on a consistent basis."

The good news is that many of the players have created new personal bests on an almost weekly basis.

"That means our goals are changing and that's good," Decker said. "It's been great because it proves to these guys that they are at a good weight. If they weren't at a good weight, they wouldn't be hitting their times over and over like they've done this summer.

"It's a measurement that shows desire and mental toughness beyond just conditioning. I like it. And, it is specific to what they do."

Hopefully, it leads to more sacks.

"The difference between pressuring the quarterback and getting there is very small," Decker said. "This is something that should mean we get there on a more consistent basis."

It's almost time for Decker to give those defensive linemen back to Herring. It's a good bet that Herring likes what he sees.

CLAY HENRY IS PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICTION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY.

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