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Hogs' defense emerging from offensive shadow
Paul Haynes is entering his first season as Arkansas' defensive coordinator and has been pleased with his unit in the preseason.
FAYETTEVILLE Ross Rasner noticed a startling change early in preseason camp.
The Arkansas safety was accustomed to serving as a defense in name only during the skeleton scrimmage portion of practice, a time when the offense had its way under former coach Bobby Petrino.
Then one night during an early August practice, Rasner's instincts took over and he knocked the ball away from a receiver. Afterward, he paused and waited for criticism he had become used to in his three seasons under Petrino.
All he heard were cheers of support.
Times have changed around Arkansas under new coach John L. Smith and defensive coordinator Paul Haynes. The most telling difference is in practices, where defensive players are now encouraged to hold their own with the Razorbacks' high-powered offense. Over the weekend, the defense stopped the offense on five straight possessions at one point.
"The defensive guys aren't afraid to make plays out there, where in the past you might lay off a receiver and not break up a pass because ...," Rasner said, trailing off. "We were an offensive-minded team, there's no doubt about that, but with coach Smith coming in; he's a defensive coach, so there's a definite change already."
Arkansas has led the Southeastern Conference in passing for the last three seasons, a trademark of a Petrino-coached team. The Razorbacks led the conference in total offense and scoring last season, but they were ninth in total defense — another trademark of Petrino's time at Arkansas.
The Razorbacks finished in the bottom half of the conference in defense in three of Petrino's four seasons. They were last in each of his first two seasons before improving to fifth in 2010, with the lackluster defensive play often overshadowed by the offense and a win total that increased in each of his four seasons.
Last season's dropoff resulted in the departure of defensive coordinator Willy Robinson and the arrival of Haynes, who previously served as an assistant at Ohio State. The former Kent State linebacker guided Arkansas during a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State last season, a game in which the Razorbacks held the Wildcats to 260 total yards.
Haynes is hoping a simplified approach will help defense become a calling card for Arkansas as it is for fellow SEC West programs Alabama and LSU.
"What we do more is what we're going to do the best," Haynes said. "So, whatever we do the best, we'll become that team. I'm not all about, 'This is our scheme and this is what we do.' It's about what our guys do best, and that's what spring and fall camp are all about. Once it comes out, that's what we'll be."
He's also counting on a personal relationship with the players — one he helped develop throughout the spring and summer with weekly readings of "The Traveler's Gift" — to help speed up the transition.
It's a small touch but one that was noticed by Rasner, who called Haynes "a players' coach who's real easy to talk to."
"He wasn't one of those guys who came in and was like, 'You're going to do it my way or it's the highway,'" safety Eric Bennett said. "If you didn't think a technique was working, you could go talk to him and he would look at changing the technique so you could play comfortably. He always says he's not the one out there playing. We are, so he's going to do whatever is best for the defense."
Linebackers coach Taver Johnson knows Haynes as well as anyone on the staff, having worked with him at Ohio State since 2007. Johnson said the coaching staff worked throughout the offseason to "marry" the old Arkansas defensive system with the new one, rather than a complete takeover.
He's also well aware of the perception that the Razorbacks were an offense-first team under Petrino. It's a perception he's eager to change, one practice at a time.
"I think you have to, to be in this league and be successful," Johnson said. "They complement one another. That's the key, along with our special teams. That's the whole key to winning championships."