Red Swarm

FAYETTEVILLE — The green wristbands have quickly become the must-have fashion accessory for Arkansas' defensive coaches and players this fall.

For the past month, the wristbands have been worn at practice and around campus. And should a player forget what the Razorbacks' defensive motto is for the 2009 season, all he has to do is glance at his wrist.

Three words are scrolled across the wristbands in white lettering: "Tap the hat." The slogan is Arkansas' way of saying that all 11 players on defense should be running to the football and consistently smacking their opponents in the mouth.

It's a theme the Razorbacks have embraced since finishing last season with arguably one of the worst defenses in school history.

"Man, we got a chip on our shoulder. When we come out to play, that's all we're thinking about," Arkansas cornerback Ramon Broadway said. "We're thinking about how people are disrespecting us. We're thinking about how people don't respect us."

As they prepared for today's season opener against Missouri State in War Memorial Stadium, Arkansas' coaches and players insisted that the defense has made big strides in practice. They also gave themselves a nickname they hope they can live up to — "The Red Swarm."

At times, though, it's been hard to gauge just how much improvement the defense has made because of all the shuffling that's taken place on the depth chart since preseason camp opened in early August.

But the starting defensive line and linebacker corps remain the same, which should help with continuity and make things easier on a still unproven secondary.

"We've gotten better, there's no doubt about it," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "It's yet to be seen how much better."

Players insist they've seen signs of improvement over the past month. Outside linebacker Jerry Franklin said there haven't been nearly as many blown assignments as a year ago, when careless mistakes often led to easy touchdowns.

And defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard said his unit didn't allow as many long touchdowns runs in preseason scrimmages as it did last summer. How that will translate into an actual game remains to be seen, though.

"It's not really going to be until the first game or two or three games into the season that you're going to know really how good you are," Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said. "But we're very confident. We're miles ahead of where we were last year as a defense."

The Razorbacks finished last season with statistically the Southeastern Conference's worst defense, ranking 72nd nationally in total defense (375.2 yards per game) and 93rd in scoring defense (31.2 points per game).

Forced to start several true freshmen, the Hogs allowed 139 points during a brutal three-game stretch to Alabama, Texas and Florida — all top 10 teams. The defensive woes contributed to Arkansas finishing with a 5-7 record and Petrino recording his first losing season in five years as a head coach.

"I put a lot on (the defensive linemen's) shoulders because last year I felt that we let the safeties and cornerbacks down," said Sheppard, who has been named a preseason candidate for several individual awards. "They took a lot of bad press and a lot of (criticism) from the coaches, but I think we let them down."

Arkansas' linebacker corps, meanwhile, has looked like a game of musical chairs over the past few weeks. Starters have been demoted, newcomers have taken first-team reps and the depth chart has often changed on a daily basis.

But the Razorbacks head into today's opener with senior Wendel Davis scheduled to start at middle linebacker and Franklin and junior Freddy Burton at the outside linebacker spots.

"We're going to keep evaluating until the last possible minute," Arkansas inside linebackers coach Reggie Johnson said, "Until a guy says, ‘I want to be in this spot. I'm going to compete every day and earn the right to have the reps with the (starters).'"

And Johnson said the starting lineup could look different after today's game.

"We'll line up that first game," Johnson said. "After that first game, you may still see some changes."

Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson has been critical of his defense, at times questioning its toughness and ability to tackle.

But after spending a year in his system, Robinson said he believes his defensive players won't have nearly as many glaring mistakes as they did during a humbling 2008 season. At least that's his hope.

"The way you get better is through spaced repetition — repetition, repetition — and so it's only going to improve," Robinson said. "As long as they continue to get stronger and faster, we're going to get better."

And perhaps consistently tap the hat.

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