Arkansas will have a few more bullets this week against Louisiana-Monroe with Walner Leandre, Jerrell Norton and Wendel Davis all on the list of available players on the defensive side. Michael Smith returns to the offense. That was the big news after Wednesday's workout in Walker Pavilion.
Norton and Davis are returning from offseason surgeries. Leandre missed last week because of what defensive coordinator Willy Robinson called an "in-house deal." Smith served a one-game suspension because he sold a scholarship school book. Robinson said Norton was available this week "in some of our packages. He's had two hard days of practice and now we'll see how sore he is tomorrow."
Leandre will be available to help at jack linebacker, a spot that true freshman Jerico Nelson handled every snap in last week's victory over Western Illinois. Norton, who played last year as a corner and nickel back, will be available in some packages this week. Davis will backup middle linebacker Jerry Franklin. Franklin played every snap last week.
Norton said he's still working himself into shape after undergoing hernia surgery in early August. He also had surgery for a hamstring tear after missing almost all of spring drills.
"I've got some rust and I've got a lot of learning to do," Norton said after Wednesday's workout. "Maybe I can help keep some of our guys fresh. Maybe I can roll in and out and help that way. I know our team and these freshmen are ready. I'm still trying to get ready and learn all that we do. To be honest, I've had no real opportunity to learn everything. It will be good to get back out there and just to go through pre-game and maybe get a few snaps. I need it, personally.
"I've got a lot of cob webs to knock off. I don't know exactly what all I can do just yet."
Rust was a problem for defensive tackle Ernest Mitchell, another Razorback who missed all of spring drills after knee surgery and was limited in some of the work in preseason. He said he's still just 95 percent full speed on his leg.
"Yeah, I had some rust," Mitchell said. "No question about that. I missed the spring. I'm just getting it all back. But it's coming around."
Defensive line play was not up to expectations in the opener, according to head coach Bobby Petrino. Mitchell said his group tried to accept the challenge this week.
"That's all you can do, take it and come back out here and try to work and do the things that you didn't do in the game," Mitchell said. "It was about playing proper technique and fundamentals. Some of it was just setting your feet right and not being in the proper gaps. There were times the gaps were too big. And, then there were times we didn't set our hands right, too. You have to play with your hands, get to the offensive linemen. We didn't do that."
Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson was asked if that was a point of emphasis this week.
"It is, but it's been an emphasis all along," he said. "Our gap control needs to be more sound in practice and in games. If the players are saying it's being emphasized now, then maybe they are finally listening. Maybe they heard it for the first time. Because we've been working on that every day.
"In the game, they seemed to abandon technique. When that happens, and the offense on the other side keeps their technique, then they are going to hurt you. They are going to win the battles 100 percent of the time when that happens.
"I thought today's practice in individual work was better, but I'm not sure that it carried over into team. That's what you want, to get better in individual and see it take hold in the team aspect of the practice. We got better today, I think. I'm anxious to see the film of today's practice."
Robinson praised some aspects of the defense in the opener. He liked the tackling of the linebackers and secondary, particularly the safeties. He liked the work of Jelani Smith, Matt Harris, Jerry Franklin and Elton Ford in particular.
"As the game went along, we got stronger, incuding the freshmen," he said. "In the line, I thought Lavunce Askew and Zach Stadther got better. Askew in particular looked like he can be a very nice player. He did better in the run game. We've known he has some ability in the pass rush. Standther is strong and dependable. He's an anchor in there. Those two could get more (snaps in games) if they are consistent. Who is to say they couldn't be starters if they can play with consistency. We may have some real competition there in the D-line."
It wasn't just about improving the defensive tackles from the opening week. Defensive ends coach Kirk Botkin wants to see improvement on the outside of the line, too.
"The biggest growth you have in a team is from that week one to week two," Botkin said. "I think they've come out here and had a good work ethic for the most part and concentrated a little more on their fundamentals.
"It's so big just the little things. Your alignment, your stance, your technique, where your eyes are. and defense is about doing your job. If 11 guys are doing their job, then we'll win. Some guys were getting cut and getting reached and it just can't happen. Then it makes it hard on the linebackers. It makes the safeties fits dirty. It all starts right up there in the trenches. That's where games are won and lost and everybody knows that. We've got to play better."
It's all about fundamentals.
"Whoever has their hands inside is going to win," Botkin said. "It's a battle of the hands the whole time. If you start off a play and you don't have your hands, if I leave my hands down and some guy gets in my chest, he's going to own me. It's about the little things. It's about shooting your hands and getting into guys chest and control and explode, lock out, separate from him, get him away from you so you can get off and make a play."
The Hogs faced a power-styled offense last week, but will have to change gears with ULM's zone blocking scheme and a slash and dash quarterback.
"We are going to see more speed this week," Robinson said. "They've got very good athletes, very good speed. The quarterback can make plays on the move. That will be a big part of what we have to contain."
The safeties will have a bigger job in that respect.
"That's what we are working against in the run game," Harris said. "They have good backs and a mobile quarterback. We need to tackle well."
Robinson said both Ford and Harris tackled well at safety.
"They (tackled) awfully well," Robinson said. "Overall at safety, I think we missed only two tackles. Dallas Washington played well in some of the packages and not as well in some others. We got great effort at safety. Harris did have a tendency to try to knock people out. He's got to be in better control."
Harris smiled about that.
"You have to pick your spots better," he said. "I'm guilty of that. The best chances to deliver a big hit is when they don't see you coming. Otherwise, I have to just make sure on the tackles. But boy was it fun to be back out there for a whole game. It was amazing. That's how good it felt. It was nice to be out there talking, making calls in the secondary, getting the feel of it again. I just have to play smart and make sure I don't try to do too much."
For Kirk Botkin, it's an interesting week. He came to the Arkansas staff -- to coach at his alma mater -- from Louisiana-Monroe and Charlie Weatherbie's staff.
"I wish all those guys the best of luck, but we want to win, definitley," Botkin said. "They had a good year last year. Coach weatherbie has done a good job there recruiting and getting those guys playing hard.
"I still know a bunch of those guys and a bunch of the coaches. it's a good place. Coach weatherbie has got them on the right track.
Arkansas coaches have picked Botkin's mind this week with ULM in mind.
"I know a bunch of the guys there," Botkin said. "So i know some of their strengths and some of their weaknesses. Hopefully that can help us. You spend two years with each other, 12 hours a day, long time during the day. You get a bond with those guys. Even if it is just for two years. they've got some great guys. They've got some really good coaches. Coach weatherbie, I can't say enough about him. He's a good christian man. He's done a great job there."
Wednesday Grid Update, 9/3
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