State of the Hogs: Defense

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There was talk late last fall about the proper nominee off this Arkansas coaching staff for the Broyles-Matthews Award as the nation's top assistant coach. I never doubted it should be Reggie Herring.

Now in his third spring as the Arkansas defensive coordinator, it's now obvious that Herring is the most valuable assistant on this football staff. He knows how to build a defense and motivate players. I know most think about football in terms of offense, but defense — or lack of — is what will get you beat the quickest in the SEC.

With the loss of defensive tackle Marcus Harrison to probable ACL reconstructive surgery, it's now obvious that Herring faces a formidable challenge in retooling a unit that was solid for the bulk of last season. Losing Jamaal Anderson, Keith Jackson, Sam Olajubutu and Chris Houston (along with several others) makes his job tough.

Anderson and Houston could have come back for their senior seasons and no one would have listened if Herring was poor mouthing his chances. But when he says this year's defense is "a work in progress" after five spring workouts, I give him the benefit of the doubt.

However, I like Herring's chances once again. I'm a believer. Yes, there is work to do, but I think he'll get it done sooner or later.

I see players like cornerback Jerrell Norton, Ryan Powers, Malcolm Sheppard, Chris Wade, Wendell Davis, Chip Gregory and Adrian Davis from last year's recruiting and it's clear there is plenty of talent left. It's just that Herring is going to need some time to get them doing their jobs on a consistent basis.

Norton, who starred as a prep quarterback and wideout, is among the candidates to replace Houston at left corner, perhaps the strength of last season's defense. Norton intercepted two passes in tight, press coverage Thursday. He was just as good Monday. He's got a huge upside.

"Yes, he's made some plays already," Herring said. "But he is not consistent yet. He has to do it play after play. Guys like Norton can make plays, but they can also relax sometimes and give up a big play. They aren't there yet. They'll get there. I believe that. We just don't know when it's going to happen. Will it be this spring? Will it be in the fall? When are they going to become consistent play after play."

It's the same for Powers. He was more heralded for his plays at tailback than linebacker, but Herring convinced him that the lines were too long on offense at Arkansas where Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Michael Smith were ahead of him. Powers is now running first team at weakside linebacker, Olajubutu's old spot.

"He's got big-play ability, he sure does," Herring said of Powers. "But he's still learning to get lined up right. You can see him make a play here and there. We just need to see it consistently.

You see those flashes and then he misses an assignment. He's got tons of ability. He has special talents, but he's a long ways away."

Norton nods his head when asked about becoming more consistent. He knows the challenge and he knows he's got big shoes to fill at left corner.

"I know I've got room to improve," he said. "But the good thing is that I'm finally healthy. I sprained that ankle just when I got going last year and it bothered me the rest of the year. Really, it wasn't right until the end of winter conditioning. I had to work hard to strengthen it. Now it's stronger than it was before I hurt it. I feel good about it.

"I couldn't plant and change directions last fall. I can do that now. I'm back to 100 percent. No, I'm above what I was before."

Will Norton or one of the other young ones be the Ernest Mitchell of next season? Or will it be a real surprise, like a comethrough from Fred Bledsoe? Coaches are careful not to heap too much praise on Bledsoe even as he strings together a series of solid workouts in the early days of spring.

Coach Houston Nutt said he was "cautiously optimistic" over Bledsoe's results this spring and winter, but line coach Tracy Rocker didn't want to be pinned down just yet.

"Fred Bledsoe is day to day," Rocker said. "What does that mean? Day to day is day to day. That's all I'm going to say. He is trying. That's what I'll say. So far, he's trying. Every day is one day. With Fred, it's day to day."

Nutt provided a little more insight.

"What we've seen from him so far is that he's put two or three plays together in a row," Nutt said. "He hasn't done that before. What we saw is that he made it through the entire winter offseason program and that's the first time he's done that. He's got a beautiful body. He's what we play against. We just have to wait to see if he takes a couple of plays off. So far, so good."

What we do know is that taking plays off won't work with Reggie Herring. He'll find someone who will play hard every down. That's why I think this Arkansas defense will be good in time. Just give Reggie Herring some time and get out of his way.

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