Defense wins championships. To quote Danny Ford, it doesn't take a scientific rocket to figure it out, either.
So how can we expect this Arkansas defense to improve if the only all-conference performer (and perhaps the only real candidate) finishes eligibility with the Liberty Bowl?
Yes, Malcolm Sheppard is the best defender on this team. The good news is that his production went down this year as he learned to play more within the scheme and with more discipline.
That's the case of the entire defense. This unit was still short on talent or experience at cornerback and safety this season, the primary reason it gave up too many big plays in a 7-5 season that featured the league's top scoring offense.
I do have hope for better defense in 2010. Primarily, it centers around improved play in the secondary, primarily cornerback.
The defensive front is going to continue to improve, along with the linebackers. Another year in the weight room will make a significant difference up front. True freshmen Austin Moss and Terrell Williams are going to provide more options at linebacker.
But it's ability at cornerback that has me most excited. Darius Winston, David Gordon, Rudell Crim, Jerell Norton, Ramon Broadway and Isaac Madison could finally give the Hogs the cover corners they have lacked.
Winston's improved play in practice, as noted by defensive coordinator Willy Robinson on Tuesday, over the last two weeks. He made a bit of a splash with his cover skills in the first two bowl practices this week.
Robinson said Winston could log more playing time in the bowl if he continues at this rate. His cover skills have finally matched the billing he got as the blue-star prize in last year's recruiting class.
Unfortunately, Gordon won't be seen in these bowl practices. He is out with injuries to a foot tendon and a shoulder. Both could require surgery and that would be a disappointing development for a player who greatly needs the winter in the weight room.
The other tidbit gained from Robinson's briefing after the first two bowl workouts centered on Colton Nash. The freshman from Texas was billed as a superb defensive line prospect when he signed, but when Chris Gragg went down to an ankle dislocation in August, Nash quickly moved to tight end where and into the rotation.
Nash is back with the defensive line at least for a few practices ahead of the final installation of the bowl plan. Robinson would like to keep him on defense.
"When we are on the recruiting trail looking for defensive linemen, you have to say that there is help staring us right in the face right here in Nash," Robinson said. "We are going to give him a look in the next few practices and do what's best for the team with regard to his future."
Head coach Bobby Petrino said in late August that Nash's future was still in the defensive line. With two commitments at tight end in the next class, it would seem that Nash could return to defense.
Cornerback play may be the most important position on the field after quarterback and defensive tackle. If you watched Florida, Alabama, Texas and Nebraska over the weekend, they all had standout play at cornerback. The ability to play tight, bump and run coverage at cornerback changes the way your defenses can play and allows for blitzing at safety and linebacker.
The player I'd pick first out of those four teams last weekend would be Ndamukong Suh, the Nebraska defensive tackle who sat atop my Heisman ballot this week. I'd keep Ryan Mallett over Colt McCoy, Greg McElroy or Tim Tebow. Then, I'd take Suh next. After that, I'd begin selecting cornerbacks from Alabama or Florida.
But, Winston and Gordon might be as good as some of those by this time next year. If so, perhaps Crim and Gordon can play safety. I'd take that secondary, with Elton Ford thrown in as a run stopper strong safety, if his tackling can continue to improve.
I'm no scientific rocket, just someone expecting defensive improvement.
State of the Hogs: Cornerbacks
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