State of the Hogs: Defense

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Sorry, but I can't help but think back to the last Arkansas football game — that debacle in the Cotton Bowl — when I try to make predictions on the 2008 Razorbacks.

Put simply, until I see this team tackle well, I can't say they will win more than five or six games.

Maybe it was the all-red uniforms. Maybe it was the 38-7 on the scoreboard. Maybe it was giving up 385 rushing yards to Missouri.

I think back to the tackling in that Cotton Bowl.

Perhaps it was the scheme, putting too many cornerbacks on the field. On most Missouri snaps, the Hogs had only one linebacker on the field and no strong safeties.

Maybe that was the personnel that interim head coach Reggie Herring thought was the best way to hang with Missouri's spread offense. Make no mistake about it, Herring drew up that scheme.

It's defense I worry the most about for ‘08, but there are good vibes with the way this Arkansas team tackled in the spring. Safeties Matt Harris, Rashaad Johnson, Dallas Washington and Brett Harris tackled much better in April than any of the Hogs tackled in that Cotton Bowl.

Even the inexperienced linebackers tackled better in the spring than what I remember from the Cotton Bowl. I don't remember Weston Dacus or Freddie Fairchild ever getting to what I thought were average Missouri running backs.

Tackling is the most basic of football fundamentals. It is what will carry this defense if it is to survive in the SEC this season. What worries me is that the top six tacklers from that team are now gone. That would be Matt Hewitt (118 tackles in ‘07), Dacus (102), Fairchild (92), Kevin Woods (79), Marcus Harrison (76) and Michael Grant (75).

Some hinted to me that is the good news. They said these weren't really disciplined, solid playmakers and that the new crop will be in better position to make plays in the new zone schemes than in last year's 4-3 that featured almost all man-to-man. I don't know about that. I need to see results in SEC play to buy into that theory.

The real good news is that there was more scrimmage time in the spring than I can remember at Arkansas since the Ken Hatfield-Lou Holtz days.

Never mind that new coach Bobby Petrino inherited a thin team. The Hogs tackled and tackled some more in the spring. Every step was scrutinized on defense. Every defensive fundamental corrected over and over. Even the most minute of defensive details were covered and then re-emphasized by the head coach.

You don't hear any of the coaches complain about the returning talent of this defense. It's not their nature. When you ask about the defensive losses, suspensions or injured players, they have a simple answer. They will move on and get the next defender ready. There is no choice.

Fall camp is likely to be another dose of what took place in the spring. Tackling and scrimmage time will be heavy. Fundamentals will be covered and the new zone coverages and reads will be taught again and again. I'm told that the defense is just as complex as the offense.

There will be blitzes. There will be zone and man blitzes. But it won't be about the calls, according to Petrino. He said he wants a defense that rests on fundamentals and technique more than just trying to out number the blocking schemes.

I just don't know how well these defenders will hold up. I haven't seen enough of them to know who will hang tough when they are playing with a bruised hip, knee, turned ankle or all of the other bumps and bruises that pile up through an SEC campaign. That's what you worry about with inexperience.

Again, the theory is great. Toughness in practice and offseason workouts will cover that. They will be mentally tough and able to cope with any situation that presents itself in Austin, Auburn, Starkville, Columbia or Lexington.

I like all of that. I see what the future holds with this coaching staff. It's great. I just don't know how quickly the future is going to get here. Can freshmen linebackers handle SEC blockers? How soon will they have to play?

Will all of those solid defensive ends (Antwain Robinson, Jake Bequette, Adrian Davis and Damario Ambrose) give the Hogs a pass rush without needing much blitzes? That appears to be the strength of this defense. I just don't know how good that strength is going to be in the SEC.

I know coaching is highly important. It can offset some disadvantages. But I also know that experience and talent are what count most in the SEC. Tackling seems to improve with experience and talent, especially in the SEC.

I don't mind if someone tells me I'm wrong to remember anything about the Cotton Bowl. But for now, I am haunted by missed tackles.



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