State of the Hogs: Growing Up

The Arkansas defense is older and better for the 2010 season. Jake Bequette is the perfect example of what has transpired over the last three seasons.

The conversation took place about 24 months ago. It was just a few days away from the first game of the Bobby Petrino era at Arkansas. How would he compare his players to what he'd seen on film around the SEC as he studied summer tape?

Not surprisingly, the coach sidetracked the question. Petrino probably knew the answer. He was getting 16 freshmen ready to play. There was no comparison, but he didn't want to dash any hopes of his players. Better to leave that one unanswered.

Actually, Petrino did answer. He said it was too difficult to compare what he'd seen live on the hoof with what he'd seen on tape. No way to compare the two.

The one thing he did say, it's tough on young players to maintain technique. When they don't have experience, when pressure hits, technique falls to the side. Perhaps that's what he's banking on most as he heads into this season, technique holding solid.

After two years of playing in the SEC and two years of developing his program, it's obvious that Petrino is more comfortable with the challenge of the nation's toughest league. You can see it in everything he does. You see the ease at which he answers questions with the media or the way he took all questions at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club meeting on Monday.

His players see it, too. Kind of like a Navy Seal training course, there are no real easy days with Petrino. But it's been different this August. There are smiles, jokes and even laughter around Petrino. Not all the time. Not in all situations. But there's a change in what players saw two years ago.

I see that as confidence. There is praise for players. There was plenty of that Monday at the TD club. You heard it when Petrino began to talk about leadership and the role junior defensive end Jake Bequette has played this summer and August workouts.

Bequette is one of the key leaders with this team and perhaps the most talented player on the defensive side of the ball. Petrino is not real comfortable talking about who is the best or making comparisons, but he did heap some kind words on Bequette.

Petrino noted that there aren't many defensive ends around the country that measure 6-5, 270 and can beat 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. That's Bequette. But that's not what Petrino is excited about.

It's the way Bequette has blossomed as a leader. Petrino said he's provided guidance in the weight room, meeting room and practice room over the past few months.

"I was probably hard on Bequette two years ago," he said. "He'd been here in the spring and we had 16 true freshmen out there playing and we probably expected a lot from him because he had been around. But you tend to forget that he was just a redshirt freshman then."

Now, he's a junior. His technique has improved. His knowledge of fronts and tendencies have improved. He's become a much better pass rusher.

I see the difference. Two years ago and even some last year, Bequette could beat his man, but he sometimes didn't find the ball. He does now. He's going to make more big plays and wreak more havoc on offenses. He should make it easier for the tackle inside of him. He should make it easier for the linebacker on his hip.

I've heard some downplay the improvement they expect from this defense. They say, "It's the same players from a bad defense."

I beg to differ. They aren't the same players. Rudell Crim is a safety now, his natural spot. Andru Stewart is a safety, now, also in his natural spot. The cornerbacks are more talented.

It was a huge blow last year when Isaac Madison went down with a knee injury in August practices. That forced Crim to play field corner, instead of safety. Now there is both Madison and Darius Winston at field corner. That's the natural spots for both.

This is the third year for most of these defenders. They do look like SEC players now. No longer does Bobby Petrino have to dodge that question.

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