Don't put too much in what you saw Saturday night at the Red-White game. There is a tendency to stretch things too far in your imagination.
For example, there were estimates that 30,000 attended the game. I don't think so.
There is also the perception that Arkansas got better in the running game on offense. And that the pressure from the defensive ends is greater. There is also the thought that Rudell Crim's move to safety helps the overall speed of the defense.
I buy into all of those thoughts. This Arkansas football team left spring drills with a better running game, more speed coming off the edge and Crim can play strong safety.
But don't think for a minute that what you saw in the Red-White game is what you are going to get in the fall. That was about as vanilla as it gets, offensively and defensively. Or, you could just say, the Red-White game was White.
Translation: The White team won on a night where the offense kept certain things under wraps against a defense playing it straight. The White won because it won the turnover battle on a wet night in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The White won the fourth quarter, 10-0, in a 31-21 victory.
"No blitzes were called today so it was all work on technique," said defensive end Jake Bequette.
"Yeah, I think what you have to think about the offense is that there are a whole lot more plays we've got that weren't called," wide receiver Jarius Wright said. "It was just our basic stuff."
Still, without calling any pressure situations, the defense combined to make 11 sacks, forced three turnovers and didn't bust assignments or give up many big plays in situations involving front-line players.
"We did try to keep it vanilla," said Willy Robinson, defensive coordinator. "We just tried to sit in our base and play technique and keep with our fundamentals.
"I thought some guys showed up with that. I thought Darius Winston showed up at cornerback. He sat in there and made some hits. He was the guy finishing off the plays at times.
"Crim looked good to me, from what I saw. I'd be interested to watch the tape and see if he came downhill and made tackles. I think he was solid in his coverage. What that young man has done in just one week is pretty amazing. He has been really excited and made that conversion with a lot of enthusiasm."
The big plays from the offense often came against backup cornerbacks Andru Stewart, Greg Gatson and Seth Armbrust. There was a thought early in the week that the defense would get a boost at that position in the game with the return of Isaac Madison. He did not play.
"That was a decision in pregame," Robinson said. "We wanted to get him in there, but we thought about it long and hard in warmups and (with the rain) we just decided it wasn't worth it and we'd hold him (out). It was a good decision."
The passing game was not sharp, perhaps because of the rush. Quarterbacks were not tackled if they were in the pocket, but that didn't keep the ends from getting there to make plays. With Ryan Mallett out all spring, the snaps were split four ways and none of the QBs sparkled.
White team backup signal caller Jacoby Walker had the best numbers, 6-for-11 for 183 yards. He threw for two touchdowns and had a 24-yard run in the clinching drive. He limped off the field with what was described as a tweaked hamstring.
Nick Petrino, the starter for the White squad, was 9-for-17 for 63 yards. He had a 3-yard TD run to finish the drive Walker started at the end.
For the Red squad, Tyler Wilson was 8-for-15 for 133 yards. Brandon Mitchell was just 2-for-5 for 80 yards, but he did have an 88-yard TD run on a bootleg.
It wasn't a sparkling display of throwing, but Petrino said protections probably took a step back when he split the starting offensive line apart in picking the teams. He also noted the emphasis on improving the run game might have allowed the passing game to slip out of rhythm.
"We took a step back in the passing game this spring," he said. "Maybe the emphasis on the run is part of it and the other would be trying to get reps for four quarterbacks with Ryan Mallett out. But we did a good job in our installations and we'll get our rhythm back this summer."
Wilson said the completion percentage was not up to the expectations with this staff.
"We can do better in the passing game," Wilson said. "Our goal is 75 to 80 percent. This spring we had around 65 to 70 completion percentage. So, we have to get better there."
Robinson was pleased with the progress of the defense throughout the spring. He especially liked the mesh between safeties and linebackers late in the spring.
"We had a drill for run fits yesterday in practice," Robinson said. "No errors. It was outstanding. When I see that happen, I start to think we are getting there. That's a great step.
"I think we are tackling better. I think we are more physical. The work we had this spring against our offense in the run game helped both sides of the ball. We run to the ball and we hit. I thought you saw that tonight. There were some big-time hits tonight.
"You saw Jermaine Love show up on the goal line. He's a physical player and we expect him to be like that in those situations.
"I think what you saw tonight at linebacker is interesting because the combinations really changed from what we've worked the last three weeks. You see Jermaine working with a different weakside linebacker and you saw Terrell Williams with a different set. All of that is good for evaluation."
And the middle linebacker job is still up in the air as the coaches head to study tape of the entire spring.
"We have to really look at the cutups," Petrino said. "Linebackers have had their ups and downs and we still have to figure that out."
Robinson added, "But I like where we are in the front. I think both Steve Caldwell and Bobby Allen have done a great job with our ends and tackles. We still need to see some young ones at linebacker when this class gets in there. We want to see Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell in that group."
Interestingly, Robinson was glad to see that his troops still remembered what to do to a quarterback most of the time Saturday night.
"We couldn't hit them in the pocket, but Coach (Petrino) told us when they busted out of there, we could nail them," Robinson said. "I didn't really know if we would do it every time. There was a two-point conversion where we did try to just touch them down. I thought that might happen a couple of times - we'd gone all spring without touching a quarterback at all.
"This was a very competitive, solid game tonight. I thought they were too even teams and I know that was the idea. I think Coach Petrino did a great job. I know he spent at least four hours dividing up the team."
Petrino said he wanted to make sure there were no huge mismatches.
"I knew the defensive line would have an advantage when we split the offensive line," he said. "But I worked to keep the matchups good. For instance, I wanted it to be Bequette and Love against each other. And I wanted our nose guards, Zack Stadther and Lavunce Askew, going against Seth Oxner at center. We had a backup strong guard in there, so we put thought into who was against him to balance that out."
When fall rolls around, they will be looking for mismatches - and nothing will be vanilla.
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