State of the Hogs: Press Coverage

Arkansas won't slip up on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs used an open date to get ready for what the Hogs do different from everyone else.

Before deer season opened a few weeks ago, you could come across a big buck walking nonchalant across the road. He knew he was safe.

Since it's legal to take a deer now, those same animals have made themselves scarce. Those big bucks know they are a hot target and wear a big bullseye.

This weekend we will see how Arkansas handles wearing a target. The nation's No. 5 team goes to Starkville where it will find a Mississippi State team with a stinger loaded with venom and ready for a tasty victory.

That hasn't happened lately. Arkansas has been the hunter instead of the hunted, even last week against Tennessee. The Vols, like so many others, had little to hate the Hogs about. I can't imagine that Auburn, with Florida up next, or South Carolina, with tastier foes sandwiched around the Hogs, had their stinger out for the Hogs.

Tennessee might have lost its stinger the previous week when it lost to LSU.

The Bulldogs will be ready. They caught Alabama by surprise two weeks ago, winning in Tuscaloosa, then had an open date to prepare for all the novel things the Hogs have in their arsenal.

Most probably think that has to do with Gus Malzahn's offense, particularly the "Wildcat" package with Darren McFadden at quarterback and the unbalanced offensive line scheme.

The Hogs are just as different on defense where they are one of the few teams in college football, and even the NFL, which plays true press coverage every snap in every game.

"I think in the NFL, you might see the corners line up tight like they are going to be in press, but at the snap, they are giving ground and backing up," said Louis Campbell, the Hogs' secondary coach. "That's not the way we've played it."

Bobby Allen, the Hogs' cornerback coach, hasn't seen anyone who plays press as aggressive as the Hogs have this season. It's been a change from the bump-and-run that defensive coordinator Reggie Herring had the Hogs in last year. Herring sent Allen and Campbell to a bunch of NFL camps last winter to learn a new technique.

"Most are playing a leverage technique," Campbell said. "They are giving you one release or the other and trying to provide help. That's not what Reggie wanted. He wanted us to play them straight up and play it every play."

The key is the Hogs have solid cornerbacks, perhaps three of the SEC's best in Chris Houston, Matterral "Red" Richardson and Darius Vinnett.

Early this season, Vinnett wasn't available because of injuries. But he's back now and it's helped the Hogs.

"We couldn't give Chris and Red any blows for awhile, but with Darius back, it's really helped," Allen said. "We've got some depth now and we've got three we can play together. It's helped to get John Johnson and Jerrell Norton back, too. We've got some depth now at corner."

Having a week to prepare for press coverage is essential. It disrupts most timing routes, the exact thing that has brought the passing game back to the college game with such force.

"When you play press the way we do, you are trying to stop the wideout at the line for a couple of seconds," Campbell said. "I mean grab them and not let them off the line. All routes are built on timing situations. If you stop the receiver at the line, it throws the timing off. Most quarterbacks want to throw against zones. They can time it. With press, you can't."

Many who watch Arkansas play defense will tell you that senior outside linebacker Sam Olajubutu is the heart and soul on that side of the ball. And, they are right. But the MVPs of the defense are probably Houston and Richardson.

"They are the strength of the defense," said Herring, who worried after the Louisiana-Monroe game at the end of October that both were wearing down.

Herring knew the Hogs were going to face better wideouts in November than they had seen since early in the season when Southern Cal brought two first rounders to the Ozarks. Would they hold up when the Hogs got to the toughies in November?

Except for about a quarter and a half when South Carolina hit a series of fades, the corners have done just fine with their press and the Hogs have begun to pile up some coverage sacks. Even against the Gamecocks, Allen thought the corners did OK.

"Our coverage was good in that game, we just didn't play the ball well in the third quarter and they made some great catches," Allen said. "We came back in the Tennessee game and played our press coverage very well. I'm proud of our guys."

The Hogs have another tough matchup this week at Starkville. The Bulldogs have made some strides in the passing game with quarterback Michael Henig throwing for 143 yards against Alabama. State has two flyers, led by 6-4, 214-pound Tony Burks.

"Burks scalded Alabama twice," Campbell said. "They are getting good play from their quarterback and they do have several good receivers. It's another good, tough bunch of wideouts and a tough matchup."

Top wideouts or not, don't expect the Hogs to back off from their press coverage. It's the battle I'll be watching this week.

Another key might be the opening coin flip. Mississippi State has only won two coin flips this year and is 2-0 in those games. Arkansas has won nine and is 8-0 the times it defers. It took the ball after winning the coin flip against Southern Cal and has decided to defer every time since.

I actually don't give a flip about all of that. Pressed to make a call, I'm going to list the play of the Arkansas corners against State's wideouts as the key to victory.

Mississippi State is going hunting and the Bulldogs are sure to have those Arkansas cornerbacks square in their sights.

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