Petrino Looking for Tougher Defense in 2009

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino didn't hesitate when asked what improvements he wants to see out of his defense next season.

"Personally, I would like us to be more physical throughout the entire year," Petrino said. "I thought there were a couple of games where we didn't play as physical as we need to play.

"Obviously, everybody understands that. The players did and the coaches did."

Arkansas' inability to stand toe-to-toe with offenses plagued the Razorbacks throughout the year. It was most evident down the stretch, when South Carolina and Mississippi State beat up the Hogs in losses that sealed the team's bowl hopes.

So toughening up is something Petrino said Arkansas' will concentrate on after one of the worst defensive seasons in school history.

The Razorbacks finished at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in six defensive statistical categories. Two of the most alarming numbers were the points allowed (31.2) and rushing yards (170.8) a game.

Six opponents scored 30 points or more against the Razorbacks in 2008. Four of them — Alabama, Florida, Texas and Mississippi State — did so by rushing for 200 yards or more.

But Petrino didn't point the finger at the defensive scheme or his coaches Wednesday.

In fact, he said coordinator Willy Robinson did a "very good job" with a group that was short on size and strength, suffered its share of injuries and lacked experience after losing seven starters.

"Someone told me one time we had four freshman and five sophomores out there on defense at the same time," Petrino said. "You know, we're very young. I thought we threw all the package at them in camp and then we found what it is we can do and what it is we can try to operate. We had some injuries that set us back a little bit at some points through the season."

Arkansas opened the season by starting three true freshmen — Jelani Smith, Jerico Nelson and Elton — in the opener against Western Illinois.

Redshirt freshmen Jake Bequette and Jerry Franklin also held down starting spots all year.

"It's challenging every week," Robinson said in an interview last month. "Not just with the offenses, but with our players. They're a young group of players. An awfully young group of players."

But Robinson added that the group should be much improved after a year of experience.

Arkansas' top nine tacklers are expected back in 2009. The status of 10th-leading tackler Elton Ford is unknown because of a neck injury.

In addition, Petrino said help should come from players that redshirted and others that sign with the Hogs in February. Defensive tackle Alfred Davis and linebacker Tenarius Wright could battle for starting spots next season. Newcomers will be given the chance to play all across the board.

It's no secret what the Razorbacks are looking for on defense after the up-and-down season.

"We have to get stronger," Petrino said. "We have to get bigger. We have to work extremely hard on our speed. It will be great for these young freshmen, the true freshmen and the redshirt freshmen to understand what they are facing each week — the size and the speed."

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