Former AU Coach Rebuilding Razorbacks' Defense

This football preview features the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team looking to bounce back from a disappoinint 2004 season.

Hoover, Ala.--Razorback star quarterback Matt Jones is gone and Coach Houston Nutt hopes he can say the same thing about a porous defense, which was the major problem in a down year for Arkansas football.

The Razorbacks were dangerous on offense with Jones leading the way, but a defense that wasn't very good against the run really struggled vs. the pass. That led to a 5-6 record, which included a 3-5 mark in the Southeastern Conference.

Former Auburn linebacker coach Reggie Herring has been given the assignment of fixing the leaks on defense that gave up an average of 36.2 points per game in the five SEC losses.

"I am excited about Reggie Herring, who brings a lot of passion to the game," Nutt says. "We both started together on the same roof. We believe in the same things. We started in 1981 under Jimmy Johnson. He was the defensive GA (graduate assistant at Oklahoma State). I was the offensive (graduate assistant). And he just knows how to get them going full speed."

Herring was brought in from North Carolina State, where the Wolfpack led the nation's defense in yards allowed per game last season at 221.6.

Nutt says another assistant with an Auburn connection, former Tiger star defensive tackle Tracy Rocker, is doing a good job up front. "After being in this league, he's a year older and a year smarter. I just think we have good chemistry and it starts with those players."

Herring has nine returning starters to work with, but only six are first string on the depth chart going into preseason practice.

Vickiel Vaughn

Vickiel Vaughn is back to lead the defense. He played both free safety and strong safety last year, but the 6-0, 204 senior is expected to be a strong safety this year. He led the Razorbacks in tackles with 66 in 2004. Senior strongside linebacker Pierre Brown returns after making 60 stops last season.

Nutt says he will be counting on sophomore Marcus Harrison to be a key man in the middle as he makes the move to right tackle from end. The 6-3, 300-pounder was the first true freshman to start on defense for the Razorbacks in 22 seasons last year.

New defensive coordinator Reggie Herring coached under Pat Dye at Auburn from 1987-91.

Herring made another move that could help the defensive front, sending 6-3, 228 junior Desmond Sims from outside linebacker to end.

Offensively, Nutt still has not resolved the quarterback question. The head coach contends it is still a three-way race with 6-2, 212-pound sophomore Robert Johnson holding an edge on 6-2, 212 redshirt freshman Alex Mortensen and 22-year-old, 6-2, 205 true freshman Cole Barthel of Decatur, Ala., High School. Barthel spent four seasons playing minor league baseball for the Atlanta Braves before deciding to head to college to play for the Razorbacks, who signed him in 2001.

Whoever emerges as the quarterback would be wise to look for 6-6, 227 sophomore split end Marcus Monk He set a school record for receptions by a freshman with 37 and scored six times while totaling 569 yards.

The Razorbacks traditionally have talented running backs and that should be the case again with 6-0, 236 senior De'Arrius Howard and 6-2, 240 sophomore Peyton Hillis. Playing as a reserve for three years, Howard has rushed for 1,391 yards and 19 touchdowns on 350 carries.

De'Arrius Howard has an opportunity to be the main man in the backfield as a senior.

Nutt is particularly high on Hillis. "Boy, if he hadn't gotten hurt last year in the Florida game, I feel like he was getting ready to take off," the coach says. "Peyton has been a guy I really feel like we can move around from fullback to tailback, and he can even play receiver. He has tremendous hands. He's a physical guy and has a great nose for goal line offense...He has a great nose for scoring."

Nutt says the key for Howard is to stay healthy, which has been a problem for the big back. "He's coming off shoulder surgery from this winter," says Nutt, who notes that Howard has been very good at times when not injured.

Arkansas had been to six straight bowl games under Nutt until last season. "It is a terrible feeling," Nutt says. "Our players felt it. Our coaches felt it. We had every intention of being the only staff, the only team at Arkansas, to go to seven straight and we were so close. That's what makes you sick. It's a great teacher. It's a fine line between winning and losing.

"If you go back and watch the season, you are three to four plays away from being 7-4, possibly 8-3. Boy, it's just a fine, fine line."

Looking at the 2005 schedule, it shouldn't take the Razorbacks long to get back on the winning track with an opening game vs. Southwest Missouri State, a Division I-AA opponent from the Gateway Conference, followed by the conference opener at home vs. Vanderbilt. After that it gets tougher with road trips to Southern Cal and Alabama before the last non-conference game on Oct. 8th vs. Louisiana-Monroe. A week later Auburn will be in Fayetteville as the Tigers make the long road trip to the far western outpost of SEC football.

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