State of the Hogs: Corners and DTs

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The rave of the summer has been Darren McFadden. He's on about every college football cover around these parts even if some of them are regionally marketed.

Those in other states who subscribe to Sports Illustrated found out what regional covers are all about last week when their copy of the national magazine had someone from Michigan, Oklahoma or Southern Cal on the front.

I took a few of the McFadden SI covers to Tulsa earlier this week for door prizes at a Razorback Club. It was a popular item.

It was fun to tell them that the August issue of Hawgs Illustrated had McFadden on the cover for every issue we printed no matter the destination.

However, I tend to take McFadden for granted these days. I don't worry about production at tailback or on offense with McFadden, Felix Jones, Michael Smith, Peyton Hillis, D. J. Williams and Crosby Tuck on that side of the ball. I know Marcus Monk isn't on the field just yet, but I think the Hogs have enough weapons to put around either Casey or Nathan Dick to score a lot of points.

Again, the side of the ball that has drawn my attention all August has been defense. I continue to like what I see on there. Championships are won with defense. That's why I think Reggie Herring, the UA defensive coordinator, is worth every penny of his multi-year contract.

There are some problems still on defense. But, that's the bad news and the good news at the same time.

For the first time in many years, I'm not concerned so much with the starters on defense. As one of the coaches hinted to me earlier this week, the biggest question marks right now on this team have to do with backup defensive tackles and backup cornerbacks.

To believe that the bad news is also the good news, go back a few years. Anyone remember those defenses that couldn't stop SMU just a few years ago. Anyone remember the first half of the Southern Cal game two years ago?

It wasn't long ago that we were lamenting the void at defensive tackle and cornerback, except we were not talking about backups. We were talking about not having any defensive tackles, period. We were talking about not having any corners, period.

I probably worry more about the cornerbacks than I do the defensive tackles. As I covered in this space last week, I like the future with the corners on campus now. They just need experience.

They need some game time.

The young defensive tackles need that, too. They also need every day they can get under Tracy Rocker, perhaps one of the SEC's best defensive line coaches. With Rocker, it's about getting it done on the practice field. He tries to make practices tougher than games.

Concerning the backup tackles, Rocker said this week, "Some days one of them looks good, another day it's someone else. We just need to keep working. That's the only way to get it done, come to work. If they will work each day, we'll get there."

Rocker's large presence gives me confidence in the defensive line. And, it doesn't hurt to see Marcus Harrison getting stronger each day. Harrison gives the Hogs an extra starter to swing between end and tackle. I like the reports on freshmen tackles Patrick Jones and Brandon Lampkin, too. They may provide the depth the Hogs need inside before this season's done.

What I also know about Herring is that he'll figure out schemes to get his best 11 on the field, although the lack of depth at cornerback could restrict some of his choices. There are times that he'd like to pull a defensive tackle, linebacker or safety and put two or three more corners on the field when the Hogs are facing spread formations or trying to stop a third-and-long.

What no one can measure on defense is the loss of Sam Olajubutu's leadership. The outside linebacker was the heart and soul of last year's team. Olajubutu was all about helping his teammates.

He'd help them get through drills and help them in their private lives in ways that some of us may never know. That is tough to replace.

Chemistry and unity are important in any team sport. Football is perhaps the ultimate team sport. There is no other sport where 105 players show up for opening day. Bad chemistry will ruin a football team quicker than anything.

It's too early to tell how the chemistry is going to be on this football team. I like it when Darren McFadden is doing a large media interview and players stop to mess with him. If they didn't like him, that wouldn't happen. In most cases, you don't tease and joke with someone you don't consider your friend.

I think John Pelphrey, the new basketball coach, was on target earlier this week when he pointed to chemistry as one of the most important things he can develop as his players prepare for their trip next week to Cancun, Mexico. Pelphrey said, "Unity is something that should be nurtured, then protected."

It's obvious Herring works hard in that regard, too. All summer and throughout August, Herring has praised Harrison's contributions in regards to chemistry for this year's defense. Herring also lauds the "yes, sir, can I have another" attitude Malcolm Sheppard put forth when he was asked to move from defensive end to tackle. Sheppard was giving up a fun spot to move inside where the double teams come in waves.

I don't know how much depth will be a factor on defense this season. I don't know if this defense will have to survive multiple knee surgeries like last year. It's hard to believe it played as well as it did with top-shelf players like Freddie Fairchild, Michael Grant, Darius Vinnett and Harrison all missing time with scars on their knees.

But I do know that this is a good-looking first defensive unit. That's a lot more than anyone could boast about Arkansas football in the not so distant past.




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