Robinson Searches For Smart, Physical Safetie

FAYETTEVILLE — When it comes to evaluating his safeties, Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson looks for three qualities in particular.

He wants them to be physical, smart and tough.

He's adamant that his defensive backs run to the football, remember their assignments, and perhaps most importantly, make the tackle in the open field.

"We need physical people on the field," Robinson said. "But once again, it's not just the physical, it's the smart."

So far, Arkansas' safeties have shown some of the qualities that Robinson demands, but no one has displayed all three traits on the practice field.

Free safety Elton Ford is physical and tough, but he's also a freshman prone to making mistakes. Junior Matt Harris is a veteran whose father is a Dallas Cowboys legend, but sometimes his mind gets ahead of him in practice.

Senior Dallas Washington and junior Rashaad Johnson are also in the mix for the two starting safety jobs. But nothing has been resolved a little more than a week before Arkansas' season opener against Western Illinois.

"It's really a four-man rotation, four guys we feel like will all play. Who will start right now? I don't know that yet," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said Tuesday. "But they'll all four definitely play and rotate in and need to stay fresh really."

Ford has perhaps made the biggest impression on Arkansas' coaches over the first two weeks of fall camp. He's a 6-foot, 208-pound freshman who doesn't mind getting physical and hasn't had trouble keeping up with the speed of the college game.

But as with most freshman, Ford is going through growing pains on the practice field. He's still learning his assignments, which sometimes causes him to make mistakes.

Much of what Ford is doing in practice is new to him, even something as simple as taking a step forward at the start of a play. At Chattahoochee (Ga.) High, the free safety was accustomed to simply backpedalling in coverage.

"It's a big change some. When I first got here, I realized (coach Robinson) wanted us to take a read step, but usually I just straight backpedal," Ford said. "Now I take a read step up in some of the coverages."

Despite his inexperience, Ford has consistently worked with Arkansas' first-team defense, a clear sign that Robinson is seriously considering making the freshman the starting free safety.

"What Elton brings is a physical, tough part of the game. What he doesn't quite understand is the whole concept of the defense yet," Robinson said. "He's a very conscientious young man; it's not like he means to do things wrong. He's just got to learn certain things."

At one time, Ford and Harris were pushing each other for the starting free safety job. But Harris has been getting more work lately at strong safety, giving the two players a chance to be on the field together.

Harris covers one side of the field, and Ford lines up on the opposite end. And then there are times when Washington is out there working at the new Jack position, which is a combination of safety and linebacker.

"(Coach Robinson) wants to find the best three guys for the best three spots," said Harris, whose father is Cliff Harris, a former All-Pro free safety with the Cowboys.

"If that means me and Elton are on the field at the same time or I beat Elton out (for a starting job) or he beats me out, it's whoever is going to make the team better. And ultimately, that's what it's going to come down to."

Robinson said Harris has a tendency to think too much in practice. But Robinson has seen some improvement since he moved the junior to strong safety. All of a sudden, Harris seems to be pushing Washington for the starting strong safety job.

But for the time being, everything remains uncertain.

"We've got to find continuity back there in the back end," Robinson said.

Tale of the Tape

Dallas Washington

Class: Senior

Size: 6 foot, 210 pounds

Games started: 0

Career tackles: 47

Rashaad Johnson

Class: Junior

Size: 6-foot-1, 191 pounds

Games started: 4

Career tackles: 54

Matt Harris

Class: Junior

Size: 6-foot-2, 192 pounds

Games started: 0

Career tackles: 3

Elton Ford

Class: Freshman

Size: 6 foot, 208 pounds

Games started: 0

Career tackles: 0

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