Pressure Key For Defensive Perfection

FAYETTEVILLE -- First-year Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring demands perfection and has inched closer to getting it the last couple of weeks.

Since surrendering 736 yards in a 70-17 loss at No. 1 Southern California on Sept. 17, the Razorbacks have steadily improved. They've even allowed fewer rushing yards (107) than any Southeastern Conference team in the past three games.

However, Herring and his players are far from satisfied heading into Saturday's game against Mississippi State in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.

"There's a lot more to be had," Herring said. "We constantly are preaching perfection even though we know it's not a reality, but it is a concept. It's something that you're striving for every day out here in practice. We're putting pressure on them to be perfect.

"Every play, every day."

Herring has said all along it would be a growing process, meaning his defense would need time to mature. Growing pains early on included several of what Herring calls "bone-headed plays," partly because they came at crucial times in a game, but also because it would usually be something simple like a missed tackle or a blown assignment.

Save for those few plays, the defense has really grown as of late. Herring said they've learned how to practice and "look like a football team." He only hopes the consistency can continue.

"It's just that they're buying in to wanting to be a good team," Herring said. "Getting the maximum out of their ability, regardless of whether it's the best talent or not, they're maximizing their ability through great effort and consistency on the practice field.

"That's the only way to play this game and the only way to get better. You've got to live it day in and day out."

The reason for the improvement starts up front and trickles down to the rest of the defense in a kind of domino effect. The Hogs have 30 stops for 162 yards lost the last three games, which is more negative yards than opponents have gained on the ground. They had a season-high 12 stops for 60 yards lost while limiting Ole Miss to 10 yards rushing in last Saturday's 28-17 Arkansas win.

Herring said the defensive linemen are building more "tenacity and toughness" and have shown a lot of pride that he didn't know they possessed at the start of the season.

Players say it goes even beyond that.

"The d-line has gotten a lot closer," said defensive end Jamaal Anderson. "I can tell that we've bonded and that we're talking a lot more. It's something we realized we can do because we're all trying to get better on a week to week basis."

Common goals aren't the only thing going for them. Three of the four starters across the front are from Little Rock, where Saturday's game will be played. Anderson and defensive tackles Keith Jackson and Marcus Harrison are from the state's capital.

Jackson said it's been the defense, as a whole, buying into the system. They had a heart-to-heart talk after the USC game and have had only one setback (allowing 436 yards in a 34-17 loss against Auburn on Oct. 15) since the West Coast embarrassment on national television.

Instead of doubting Herring's new system, they truly began believing in it.

"We knew we were better than the way we played against USC," Jackson said. "The coaches came in the next day and told us just to put it behind us and that's exactly what we did. We went out there the next Saturday and executed our roles and played a great game against Alabama."

Against the Tide, the Hogs used a variety of linebacker and secondary blitzes to apply pressure to the backfield. But with the way the defensive line has come together, they've been backing off blitzes and still managed big stops behind the line of scrimmage.

"We really haven't had to (blitz)," said linebacker Pierre Brown. "The defensive line is getting such a great push, that by the time we get to the ball, we're usually in the backfield and it looks as if it is a blitz, but it's just our base defense.

"Good defenses are able to get penetration without blitzing."

Arkansas is starting to believe it has a good defense. Take away the USC and Auburn games and it has allowed 300.6 yards per game. That would be good enough for fifth in the SEC, a conference with six defenses in the top 15 nationally.

"If you look at every week, in some area, we're getting better," said safety Vickiel Vaughn. "We're just trying to put it all together to where we can say, not that it was the greatest game on defense, but we say that we actually contributed more than we ever have in the past."

It's that attitude which has Herring the most excited. In his scheme, every part of the defense has to be unselfish in executing roles and work as one. The line gets penetration, the linebackers fill gaps and the secondary is responsible for coverage.

Herring said the biggest weakness has been consistency in the secondary, but he said it's improving, too.

"It's been a gradual progression of our front and our coverage people," Herring said. "It all works together. When we pressure, we've got to have good, quick coverage. When we don't pressure, we've got to have coverage long enough for the pressure to get there. Everything works hand in hand.

"And the last couple of weeks, we've been able to cover better and pressure better."

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