Arkansas Defensive Backs Preparing For First Test

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' defensive backs proved to be an opportunistic bunch during the 49-17 season-opening win against Missouri State last Saturday.

Darius Vinnett scooped up a fumble and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. Vickiel Vaughn forced a fumble and recovered one. John Johnson also fell on a loose ball. And Michael Coe and Michael Grant each snagged interceptions.

On the surface, it looked like a promising debut for a group that struggled throughout the 2004 season. Five turnovers were great. But when Vinnett was asked about the secondary's performance in the season opener, he wasn't satisfied.

"I would probably say, on the scale of 1 to 10, maybe a 3 or a 4," Vinnett said.

Is Arkansas being a little too hard on itself after the opener?

Or is there something to Vinnett's less-than-glowing review?

The secondary will find out when Arkansas opens Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt, which is led by senior quarterback Jay Cutler, on Saturday night in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It will be the first of a three-week stretch in which the Razorbacks will match wits against offenses guided by veteran quarterbacks.

Southern Cal, led by 2004 Heisman Trophy winner and senior Matt Leinart, is up after the Commodores. Then there's an important SEC Western Division date against Alabama and senior quarterback Brodie Croyle.

Arkansas has nothing but Vanderbilt -- and Cutler -- on its mind right now.

"We've got to be on our toes," said defensive coordinator Reggie Herring. "It's going to be a challenge to the front four. It's going to be a challenge to our coverage guys. We're playing an NFL quarterback. And I mean a first-rounder.

"So, that says enough right there."

The 6-foot-4, 228-pounder from Santa Claus, Ind., is a dual threat, passing for 5,900 yards and rushing for 1,130 more in his career. Cutler, a fourth-year starter, showcased those skills during the Commodores' season-opening, 24-20 win against Wake Forest last weekend.

He completed 25 of 36 passes for 276 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. He also led the Commodores in rushing, gaining 89 yards on 10 attempts. Cutler also proved his poise, leading Vanderbilt to the game-winning touchdown with 1:48 left.

"Any quarterback who has the option to run, who has good legs and can use their feet, it's that much harder to account for them," Vinnett said. "You've got a guy who can scramble. He can take a play that's busted and turn that into something."

Cutler's ability to stretch the field, thread passes to receivers and make plays on the run will be a difficult test for a secondary that had little success last season.

The Razorbacks surrendered 322, 297 and 382 passing yards during consecutive SEC games last October. Two quarterbacks -- Georgia's David Greene and Auburn's Jason Campbell -- were seniors. Florida's Chris Leak was a second-year starter.

But Arkansas' predominantly young group believes it matured with the experiences.

And the Razorbacks have much higher expectations this season.

"We were happy about (last Saturday's) win," Vaughn said. "But we weren't happy about the way we played. We just felt like we could play so much better.

"Now we're starting out in the SEC. Things are getting faster and better. Teams are going to get a lot tougher. We've got to go out and do what we're supposed to do."

One step is correcting mistakes from the opener.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt noticed occasions where defensive backs watched Missouri State quarterbacks scrambling and lost track of receivers. Vinnett and Vaughn called them "eye violations" and said some were noticeable when the Hogs broke down film of Saturday's game.

Coe said Herring wants his cornerbacks to concentrate on coverage all week.

"We've got to make sure that we stick on our receivers," Coe said. "It's a must. Cutler likes to scramble. He's real mobile and he can put it in there. If you think a ball is not coming, he'll put it right there so the receiver can catch it.

"Coach Herring told us right now, this whole week, he's not even worried about any of the corners getting any tackles. He said, 'Just stay on your man.'"

Of course, defensive backs must get a helping hand from linebackers, which were victimized in the passing game on several occasions last season. In addition, the front seven must do a better job of getting pressure on the quarterback.

Arkansas recorded one sack (linebacker Weston Dacus) against the Bears. Missouri State quarterbacks were hurried just three times.

"We have to get a pass rush," said linebacker Pierre Brown, who recorded seven tackles against Missouri State. "The linebackers have to get in their zones to make throws a little harder. It's a group effort.

"It's going to take all 11 of us to slow this guy down."

"We've got a big quarterback that likes to scramble and he can put it in there," Coe said. "If you give him an inch, he'll take that inch and squeeze it in there.

"We've got to be more focused this week. I think we'll be fine if we do that."

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