Newcomers Needed At Cornerback

Editor's Note: This is the third in a position-by-position series previewing the Razorbacks. Up next: Wide receivers.

FAYETTEVILLE — David Gordon is perhaps Arkansas' fastest player. Darius Winston is the team's most highly touted freshman.

And at 21, Rudell Crim is one of the oldest members of the Razorbacks' 2009 recruiting class.

Over the past two weeks, all three newcomers have tried to get adjusted to Arkansas' fast-paced practices and the shock that comes with playing cornerback in the Southeastern Conference.

Gordon has worked on his technique. Winston has tried to fit in. And Crim has gotten into better shape after cramping up early on in preseason camp.

But now that junior Isaac Madison will miss the entire season with a severe knee injury, the trio is facing the likelihood that one — if not all three cornerbacks — will be thrown into the secondary at some point in 2009.

"Honestly, when (Madison's injury) happened, the secondary, we spoke amongst ourselves and said, ‘Look, we need to step up,'" Gordon said. "The coaches didn't have to come (to us). They eventually did, but they didn't have to immediately.

"We already knew it's time to step up. Isaac's out."

Madison had been working opposite junior Ramon Broadway as Arkansas' first-team cornerbacks. But even before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Saturday's first full scrimmage, the Razorbacks had questions in the secondary.

Losing Madison has pushed sophomore Greg Gatson — who has played in only one game and recorded no tackles in two seasons — into Arkansas' first-team defense.

It has also forced Crim, Gordon and Winston to improve in a hurry because they'll likely be counted on for depth at cornerback. At least one of them could be asked to start before the season ends.

"We do need to compete a lot harder, so we got somebody that can step up and try to fill Isaac's shoes," said Crim, who signed with Arkansas out of Butler County (Kan.) Community College. "Those are some big shoes to fill.

"But the way that we compete with each other every day, we feel that whenever the right person steps up and makes the plays, they will be very comfortable in Isaac's spot."

Crim and Gordon are working with Arkansas' second-team defense, though Crim was unable to finish Wednesday's practice after appearing to suffer a minor neck injury. Winston has had a tougher time than the other two newcomers and is getting reps with the scout team.

"I think I'm adjusting to the pace," said Winston, a five-star recruit out of West Helena. "I just have to find my place in this defense."

Crim and Gordon admitted they each feel they've picked up Arkansas' defensive schemes over the past few weeks. But they continue to struggle with the little things.

In particular, Gordon — who was Oklahoma's top high school sprinter last season — has had problems with his technique at cornerback. He admitted he picked up some "bad habits" in high school that have shown up on Arkansas' practice field.

That was the case Wednesday when wide receiver Reggie Fish beat Gordon on a deep ball during the team portion of practice.

"Everybody tells me, ‘David, you have all the speed in the world.' And that's true, but it's nothing without technique," Gordon said. "If you don't have technique, you can get burned by a 4.6 (seconds 40-yard dash) guy."

Despite struggling with his conditioning at the start of camp, Crim has shown at times that he could be counted on at cornerback after making the move from safety. But can he contribute immediately?

"For him to come in so short of time and (be) where he is today, it's impressive to me," Broadway said. "I'm impressed with him."

Inside the ... Defensive Backs

Best of the Bunch: Free safety Matt Harris. The senior has game experience, and he finished fifth on the team last season with 57 tackles — including five for loss. Of course, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino would like to get more out of the returning starter.

Watch Out For: Safety Anthony Leon. He's big at 6-foot-4, 230-pounds. He's not afraid to lay a crushing hit. And he has some big-time college football experience after playing one season at Florida State in 2007.

Biggest Strength: Arkansas has plenty of depth in the secondary, especially after signing several cornerbacks in the 2009 recruiting class. But it could take a little while for some of the team's career backups and newcomers to make strides on the field.

Biggest Question: Can the secondary defend the deep ball? That was a problem last season, and the struggles have continued during preseason practices. Opposing quarterbacks will continue to test the defensive backs until they show they can hold their own.

Projected Starters: Cornerbacks — Ramon Broadway and Greg Gatson. Safeties — Matt Harris and Tramain Thomas

Key Contributors: Elton Ford, Jerico Nelson, Jerell Norton and Andru Stewart

That Figures: 204.4 — Number of passing yards per game given up by Arkansas' defense last season, which ranked 10th in the Southeastern Conference.

The Lingo: "I pretty much expected it'd be hard. It wasn't going to be easy. I have to work hard for everything." — Darius Winston on if the past few weeks of practice have gone as he expected.

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