Every summer story about Arkansas football in a preseason top 25 has the obligatory disclaimer about high hopes hinging on defensive improvement. It's a huge if to some.
It might be as big an if as estimating travel time on old Highway 23 between Ozark and Combs for our family. Don't you love that trek in summer when there is a solid canopy over the narrow road? Or, in the early spring when the dogwoods explode?
We often had delays, either to eat a picnic, or mark dogwoods. No one can get him now, so it's safe to reveal one of my father's tricks. He stole.
There's a house at 1821 Fair Park in the heart of Little Rock with massive white dogwoods that were pilfered from the Ozark National Forest. My father found small dogwoods well up in the forest in the spring when blooms gave them away. He used an arm of a worn-out T-shirt. We'd stop again in the fall when it's best to transplant small trees.
They would go in a coffee can, hauled back to our house in the back of the station wagon. Dogwoods need good drainage. My father would dig a deep hole, then fill the bottom with pea gravel and rocks.
Mind you, they weren't big dogwoods, maybe only three feet tall. Almost 50 years later, they are grand specimens.
This Arkansas defense has done some growing, but needs a nice spurt to be good this fall. There are signs -- not as obvious as a bloom or a piece of a t-shirt -- that is going to happen. Here are 10, listed in order of importance, that I see:
1, Rudell Crim's move to strong safety. The senior defensive back looks to be the perfect answer for what has been a void in the Arkansas secondary for several seasons. He gives coordinator Willy Robinson an anchor point in the secondary. Do not minimize Crim's value to this defense. He has speed, cover ability, can tackle and experience at safety. He's going to be free to make plays instead of locked down in man coverage at cornerback.
2, Speed, depth and experience at defensive end. The experience part should not be overlooked. There is leadership and know how in this bunch, headlined by Jake Bequette and Damario Ambrose. We didn't see Tenarius Wright with the defensive ends in the spring. He was in a boot after ankle surgery. He's getting bigger and faster this summer and will be a force.
3, Improved linebackers. No longer do the Hogs have to play a finesse scheme with a hybrid linebacker. They will be able to play a true 4-3 against smashmouth. One of the keys will be the freedom to leave both Jerry Franklin and Freddy Burton at the strongside linebacker slot. Jermaine Love, Turrell Williams and Austin Moss should give the Hogs what they need at middle linebacker.
4, Pursuit. That starts with knowledge of the scheme. It was a pleasure to watch the Hogs sit in base and play zone over the last two weeks of spring practice and not have to rely on calls. This defense ran to the ball with passion in the spring. That starts with the knowledge of the scheme and technique.
5, Depth and talent at cornerback. I'm excited to see how Darius Winston and Isaac Madison battle for the field cornerback slot. Winston is bigger and more confident heading into his second fall with the Hogs. Watch out.
6, Depth at defensive tackle. The Hogs may be three deep inside. I can remember when they couldn't find one defensive tackle.
7, Thickness inside. These are much bigger around than the little dogwoods taken by my father. There is some maturation here.
8, Jerico Nelson. He's the playmaker of the unit. But the good news is that he doesn't have to be on the field all the time. Look for Bret Harris and Ryan Powers to give him some rest and provide more bulk against the run game.
9, Steve Caldwell. The new defensive end coach has brings SEC experience and the respect of everyone on the defense. He put it on the defensive end group to get a higher commitment to detail from the moment he arrived.
10, Fighting Razorback spirit. It takes experience sometimes for the fight to happen on every play. Young guns sometimes are just trying to survive and keep their position. They don't understand the total value of defending beside a brother. The good Arkansas defenses started with that spirit. I believe it's back.
That is why I think this defense is going to be spiffy, not iffy.
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