Hogs' Defense Primed

FAYETTEVILLE - I'm trying to hit as many stops as possible this summer to talk with our subscribers about Arkansas football. It's taken me to the four corners of the state, and some other places outside of our borders.

It's been fun. I'll be in Texarkana today to talk to HawgsIllustrated.com subscribers and their friends.

It's interesting to hear the questions they ask. Almost every one of them concerns quarterback play, play-calling (Gus Malzahn or Houston Nutt), projected victory total or the summer workout program and who is healthy.

Almost never does someone inquire about our defense. Not once has someone mentioned Reggie Herring, the second-year defensive coordinator. I'm curious to that because the reason I'm excited about this year's Razorback team starts with defense.

I've been taught since grade school that defense wins football games. Any one who has paid close attention should be able to tell you that defense has been the chief problem with the football team at Arkansas over the past three to five seasons. To put it bluntly, the Hogs couldn't stop anyone.

I'm sure folks remember that Southern Cal put 70 points on the UA defense last year. They should also remember that the defense could not hold a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter last year against Vanderbilt. Yeah, I know that the UA offense left some points on the table in both of those games, too.

Still, it's the way the defense came together as the season progressed that has me excited about the coming season. Unless injuries hit at linebacker — the one place where there is no depth on this football team — I think this will be one of the better defensive units in the Southeastern Conference.

I've bemoaned the problems in the defensive line the past four years. Not once during that time did the Hogs have an end or a tackle that required special consideration when offensive coordinators were designing plays for the Hogs. To put it more simply, there wasn't anyone in the UA front who needed a double team.

I see what the Hogs have in the defensive front now as a huge improvement over the past several seasons. Add to that quality, depth and experience at cornerback (another weakness of late) and you have a defense that should be salty even early in the season.

Jamaal Anderson and Marcus Harrison, the left side of the defense, are as good as any tandem that you'll see in the SEC. Both will play in the NFL some day. The other side, Anthony Brown (or Antwain Robinson) and Keith Jackson, are solid SEC players, too.

The main thing about the defense, there is now some mental toughnes and swagger that has been missing over the past few seasons. Not only are they talented and experienced, they think they are good. They expect three and outs on every series.

It's now obvious that Herring is a special coach. He doesn't always speak in politically correct tones and he sometimes provides bulletin-board material for the opposition. But he can handle all the key elements required to be a defensive coordinator. He can coach, he can evaluate and he can motivate.

I thought Herring did a nice job of picking and chosing his spots for blitzes and gambles as the season went along last year. It was obvious that his linebackers and safeties were not able to handle the complexity of his "fire zone blitzes" early in the year.

But they showed in the spring that they could get the alignment and assignments just right in Herring's scheme. It gives me great hope for the coming season, especially with eight home games.

I know that you cannot minimize the importance of solid quarterback play. I know Casey Dick, Robert Johnson or Mitch Mustain are the three most important cogs in the machine right now. How they play will have a great deal to do with the success of this team.

But I'll go back to two years ago when everyone was so excited about the senior year of Matt Jones. He was asked to do too much because the defense couldn't stop anyone. He was put in an unfair situation. Not even Superman could have done what Jones was asked to do.

That's what I like about the coming season. Yes, quarterback is important, but the Hogs don't need a Superman to be able to make it to a bowl game.

It's a good feeling to head into a season knowing defense might be a stable force for the Hogs. Not many people are talking about it. I guess that's the clinching thought. We don't have to spend our summers wondering who is going to make the tackles any more. That's probably the main reason that I think Arkansas football is on the way back.


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