State of the Hogs: Defense

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Sometime in the last 24 months, Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring explained his philosophy on building a unit. I don't remember the exact date. It was perhaps after one of the three springs during his tenure.

There were lots of specifics on motivation techniques. He went through how he defined a loaf, one of the basic flaws in human nature. He explained that there have been really few changes in athletes -- they still will go at half speed if you let them and at their highest speed if you make them.

I listened closely as he talked about his current defense in several long, after-practice interviews since fall camp began. I nodded my head as he spoke on different players, always delivering a message -- often not for the media or the fans, but for the consumption and motivation of his players.

I watched as he moved Marcus Harrison from tackle to end, possibly to get Antwain Robinson's attention. Robinson, the returning starter at end, had been a spectator with what he thought was a sore knee. Robinson returned to practice the next day with some pep in his step, trying to get the attention of his coach.

I listened intently as Herring spoke of the solid appearance of the defensive ends after the emergence of Chris Wade. Wade has been so good that Malcolm Sheppard, the big find in last fall's recruiting class, could move to tackle.

Never mind that Sheppard might be only 265 pounds. He appears to be the best player on Herring's defense. He plays tackle like the position was designed for him. Yes, he might need 15 more pounds to look like the best SEC defensive tackles, but he's already right there with them.

As I wrote in June's Hawgs Illustrated, Sheppard might be my favorite player. Most forget that he started against Wisconsin in the bowl as an extra defensive tackle in Herring's five-man front and played well.

"Our offensive line rave about Sheppard," Herring said. "He's so quick and sheds blocks really well. He comes at you with that defensive tackle mentality, just a grrrrrrrrrr!"

Let's return to Herring's philosophy, something simple and concise. You force with good defensive end play, then you cover with your cornerbacks. Both are equally important. Then, you fill with the other seven players in the middle, disguising what you are doing as you go.

That's an oversimplification, I know. But it's the solid truth of what Herring is doing with this Arkansas defense, and doing it well.

The only concern lies at cornerback where Chris Houston departed a year early. If Houston was back right now, look out. This defense would probably be one of the nation's best. As it is, I'm not worried at all.

First, Houston's opposite number from last year, Matterral "Red" Richardson, is improved. He takes the more confident steps that come from becoming a senior. He's a solid SEC corner, better than last year.

After that, there are some young guys that have outstanding talent. Yes, they need experience. They still lack the consistency that comes from the toughness that comes from playing down after down in the SEC.

True sophomore Jerrell Norton isn't ready to make anyone forget Houston, but he has better ball skills and similar quickness and speed. He just isn't as strong as Houston. He isn't going to bench pres 450 pounds anytime soon, as Houston did his last two years on campus.

Shedrick Johnson and Jamar Love, returning lettermen with special teams experience, are starting to develop as solid backup corners.

Redshirt freshman Ramon Broadway isn't far behind. Then, there's Brandon Barnett, the juco transfer with three years of eligibility who arrived just a few days ago. Barnett may be better than all of them in time.

Barnett, the MVP of the high school all-star game as a tailback two summers back, might be the find of this year's class, the same way Sheppard was for last year's defense.

Barnett, like Norton, craves the football, but is happy on defense. Both seem to find the ball in the air better than the wideouts they are covering. And, with the ball tucked away, they quickly become offensive players, finding the end zone.

Barnett has shown enough in just the last week to make Herring think he can help, along with Johnson, in dime and nickel packages when the Hogs play with five, six and seven defensive backs.

UA assistant coach Bobby Allen, who tutors the corners, loves his group most days. He wasn't pleased Thursday when the corners gave up several deep passes in the team session. That isn't all bad. He'll use the film from that practice as a point of emphasis the next two weeks as the Hogs prepare for the opener with Troy.

Allen is especially fascinated with Barnett. The assistant coach doesn't fret about Barnett's stocky, thick build on a 5-10 frame.

"He does look thick, he really does," Allen said. "He looks more like a tailback than a corner. He came in here at 209. We'd like him more like 190 and he's working in that direction. But he has great hips and a very good change of direction. And, he wants to be on the field. He's really working hard.

"Brandon doesn't know it all yet, but he's trying to learn. He's doing the things we are asking him to do. He's going to help us.

"We've got to train his eyes some (not to look at the quarterback all the time), but he knows what to do when the ball comes his way. He gets his hands to it."

That's really the same with all of these young corners. The days of seeing eyes glued to the back of the wideout's helmet as passes come softly over their heads may be over.

Norton, already notorious in practice for his ball hawking plays, predicts the Hogs will lead the nation in interceptions before he's gone. Allen smiled when a reporter repeated that promise.

"That's great, and they do have great hands as a bunch," Allen said. "I just want them to be more consistent. We have preached to them about coming to each practice intent on improving their fundamentals and footwork. We tell them it's a craft and it needs to be perfected. I see them doing that.

"I want them with disciplined eyes. You can't take your eyes away from your man to peak (at the quarterback) too much.

"The thing I notice with this bunch (of cornerbacks), is that they are football smart. They've played a lot of football in key spots. They've been tailbacks, they've been quarterbacks. They've had the ball and been the center of what's going on. That helps them understand what we are trying to do and what the offense is trying to do to them."

Allen knows his group is not where it will be in another month. But he beams about the prospects.

"I'm proud of what they've done the last two weeks," he said. "They've got great ball skills starting with Jerrell Norton. And, they are learning how to work every day."

About two weeks ago, Herring was hinting that he might move Michael Grant, a former corner and starting nickel back, from free safety back to Allen's group. Even with the arrival of juco safety Walner Leandre, an exciting prospect at free safety, that doesn't seem likely now. And, it is not because anyone is disappointed with Leandre.

No, these young corners are blossoming on the practice field. Herring won't say too much about them because there's a difference between practices and SEC games.

Herring asked me how I'd do if I was required to pen my column with 72,000 watching each letter of each word appear on a big screen. Would stage fright get me?

I get the picture. We must wait until we see what these young corners do on the night of Sept. 1 when they are chasing someone wearing something different from a Razorback helmet, running different pass routes than the ones they've seen the last six months.

If they pass the test -- or test the pass, Herring is going to have another fine defense. I know it's probably not fair to Herring, but I already know what we are going to see. I think we'll all like it.

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