Hogs Cornerning The Market

FAYETTEVILLE -- Cornerback is a risky position. Constant twisting and turning coupled with the high-speed, high-flying contact with receivers make it necessary for college teams to have more than two ready to play.

Arkansas has seven with experience.

But will seven be enough? And more importantly, can coaches keep all of them happy while putting the best on the field?

Arkansas believes the answers are: Yes and yes.

"Everyone is going to get their chance if they keep competing," said cornerbacks coach Bobby Allen. "With the style of defense we're playing now with so much press man (coverage), we're going to have to spell some guys to stay fresh. And in some third-down situations, we'll get into a dime package that allows us to get another corner out there who can play.

"We're going to put the best guys out there that can help us win, but it will be the situation each week that will determine who those guys are."

Everyone has meaningful experience and speed, running a 4.4 second, 40-yard dash or better. There were some big plays given up last season, but with another year under their belt, the cornerbacks could be the strength of the defense because of depth and athleticism.

First-year defensive coordinator Reggie Herring believes it can be after more than a week of preseason practices.

"The secondary has been the surprise of the spring, the surprise of the fall -- everything," Herring said.

Senior Darius Vinnett has missed practice time in the preseason because of tendinitis in both knees. But the inflammation is under control and he's expected to start at right corner in the season opener.

A junior college transfer, Vinnett started 10 of 11 games as a junior and was fifth on the team with 53 tackles.

"We're all experienced," Vinnett said. "Everybody has speed and everybody worked hard on their techniques over the summer and everything, but it's the game experience that will make the difference because we all know what to expect."

Sophomore Chris Houston missed three games with injuries while showing signs of promise when he was healthy last season. He made 21 tackles and started the final four games. Houston has seen significant work with the first-team at right corner when he's been healthy during preseason camp.

"We've got a lot of playmakers," Houston said. "Because of the depth, it makes you want to step up and make plays because you want your name to be called, too. It's also going to allow us to be more aggressive and we're all capable of that."

A cornerback making plenty of plays through the preseason has been sophomore Matterral Richardson. He left the team prior to the LSU game for personal reasons, but finished with 21 tackles and came on strong in the spring.

"Just because of the experience, you're more confident," Richardson said. "Coming out of high school, you kind of played nervous. But now everything has slowed down because you know where everybody is going to be.

"And we don't worry about who' s No. 1 or who's No. 2 or who's No. 3 on the depth chart. We just try to get better to help us win."

Sophomore Michael Grant may be the fastest of the speedy group. As a sprinter on the Razorbacks track team, Grant missed spring practices. He's been out for the last week of the preseason with a broken pinkie finger, but is expected to be available for the season opener against Missouri State on Sept. 3.

Last season, Grant played in all 11 games and made 29 tackles, including 24 solo stops.

"He just needs reps," Allen said. "He made a great play in the scrimmage (on Saturday) and then broke his finger, but he's going to be OK. We think he can be really special and be able to step up and play at a high level."

John Johnson made the transition from outside linebacker in the spring and Herring said he's been the "big surprise" of the preseason. He started two games last season and saw action in all 11 games with 12 of his 13 tackles coming on special teams.

Another surprise, junior Michael Coe, isn't the fastest, but makes up for it with awareness and overall knowledge of the game. His father, Charlie Coe, is head coach at Alabama State.

Coe could be called on to start after having a solid summer and preseason. He started in six games and made 24 tackles with two interceptions before a severely bruised thigh caused a slip in playing time late in the season.

"He's doing things and covering better and had a tremendous summer," Herring said. "He's another guy (along with Johnson) that I thought was very average in the spring who has upped his level of play which has given us incredible depth at corner."

The wild card of the bunch could be senior Lerinezo Robinson, who moved to cornerback in the spring after appearing in all 38 games the past three seasons. He started the first eight games at free safety a year ago and was third on the team with 57 tackles.

"The pure competition level has raised everyone's expectation to go out and play harder," Allen said. "There's a lot of different roles to be played out there and if everybody accepts their role and plays to the best of their ability, they can help us win."

Having experienced guys who can be trusted has strong safety Vickiel Vaughn confident in the pass coverage.

In fact, Vaughn said he'd put Arkansas' corners up against any in the country.

"I trust all of them," Vaughn said. "Any of them can play, any of them can start and they're all great athletes. I would put out corner up against anybody's in the nation.

"If somebody gets burnt, you can blame the safeties."

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