Hogs Secondary Making Strides

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas cornerback Michael Grant heard nothing but praise about Ole Miss' receivers from defensive coordinator Reggie Herring last week.

Herring referred to them as the best group of wideouts in the Southeastern Conference. The Rebels receivers were athletic, fast, dangerous and determined to turn in big plays. So he thought Arkansas' ability -- or inability -- to slow them would have an enormous impact on the game.

"We took it as a challenge on us to go out there and do what we had to do," Grant said. "We did a good job."

Arkansas' secondary was picked apart by the likes of Alabama and Kentucky earlier this season, but flexed its muscles during the 44-8 win at Oxford last Saturday. Grant and cornerback Matterral Richardson led a defensive backfield that picked on Ole Miss' much-improved passing offense, something the Razorbacks (4-3) hope will continue against Florida International (0-7) in Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday.

The success was a nice change for a group that sustained massive wounds in its last SEC road game at Alabama, when quarterback John Parker Wilson and receiver DJ Hall beat them all day. The loss prompted the Hogs to slide Grant from free safety to cornerback, then insert Kevin Woods into the lineup.

But Arkansas coach Houston Nutt thinks the early frustrations were a turning point for the defense.

"The move we made with Michael Grant was a big move," he said. "The play of Kevin Woods and (Matt) Hewitt, they keep coming. Matterral Richardson and Grant, they give you two solid corners that are just playing the ball better and they're really doing a good job of gaining some respect."

Said Richardson: "We feel like we're a great secondary and can play with anybody in the country."

The shift has been noticeable statistically. Wilson and Kentucky's Andre Woodson combined to complete 53.6 percent of their passes and averaged 296 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions against Arkansas. Alabama and Kentucky also converted on third down 41.4 percent of the time.

In the past two SEC games, Auburn's Brandon Cox and Ole Miss' Seth Adams completed 47.4 percent for 141.5 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions. The Tigers and Rebels converted 22.2 percent on third down.

As a result, Arkansas now is second in the nation in pass efficiency defense (89.3 rating).

"We looked at the film after the Alabama game and obviously we saw some things that were glaring that needed to try to improve on," cornerbacks coach Bobby Allen said. "But our guys just try to put blinders on and just got to go on no matter who you're playing. You've got to get yourself prepared and come on out and play."

Allen said it's not always that easy. To him, the most gratifying aspect of the Ole Miss win was his group's ability to study film and digest the game plan, take what they learned to practice, then execute on game day.

Grant said continuity and experience have played a factor, too. The lineup consists of seniors Grant, Richardson, Woods and Hewitt. Sophomore Jerell Norton, who started early in the year, has learned his role in Arkansas' nickel packages. Jamar Love picked up two sacks against the Rebels.

"Even though we've got a lot of seniors in the secondary, they switched positions a lot, we moved around positions a lot," Grant said. "So it just took us a minute to play together."

Naturally, Grant envisions more challenges like Ole Miss before the season ends.

But he also believes the new and improved secondary will experience even more success.

"I know we haven't been playing good all year, but we always had confidence in ourselves," Grant said. "I don't think there is a receiving corps out there that can really just beat us."

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