Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
Defense no longer playing second banana
Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith directs his players as linebacker Alex Brignoni (45) listens during practice Thursday, March 20, 2014, at the UA practice field in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Alan Turner’s loud, lengthy laugh said it all.
Could he imagine, Arkansas’ fifth-year senior free safety from Junction City was asked, former coach Bobby Petrino ending a scrimmage whooping it up after the defense splattered a ball carrier with a fumble-causing hit?
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema pointedly concluded last Saturday’s scrimmage with redshirt freshman safety De’Andre Coley’s bone-jarring, fumble-flying belt.
“I did like that scrimmage ending with a defensive play with Coley making a big hit and a fumble,” Turner said, still chuckling. “I am glad it ended like that.”
Obviously Bielema was glad, too. Apparently he long sought concluding something with a big bang defensively.
Back in January, reviewing the struggling 3-9 2013 season but noting the positives that were taking shape, Bielema discussed the defensive culture change he is emphasizing with the Razorbacks.
Petrino is his own play-calling offensive coordinator, like many head coaches, but he is decidedly more offensive about it than most.
“We” meant offense and “they” meant defense when Petrino discussed a practice. Everyone knew it.
He made it work too, given the 8-5, 10-3 and 11-2 records he produced in his final three seasons at Arkansas.
But without Petrino calling the shots, little worked under interim coach John L. Smith as Arkansas finished the 2012 season 4-8 with a team that still had some semblance of an offensive identity but whose defense was a nonentity.
Without 2012 senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, Bielema inherited a team in 2013 with an identity crisis.
“When I first got here, I can’t tell you how many kids asked me if we were still going to be an offensive team or what was going to be our identity, which kind of blew my mind,” Bielema said last January. “It had been ingrained in them that defensive players didn’t get to celebrate, because in the past when they did something good they got yelled at or thrown out of a practice. It takes awhile to change that mentality.”
Bielema, a defensive player and a defensive coach before becoming a head coach in 2006 at Wisconsin, explained last January the team mentality that he craves.
“We want our offensive guys to have just as much excitement for our defensive success,” Bielema said. “We want our defensive guys to have just as much excitement for our offensive success. And obviously special teams is a combination of both.
“It’s been a really big hurdle to overcome here, that offensive, defensive and special teams work together.”
It’s a hurdle that senior defensive end Trey Flowers, a second-team All-SEC selection last year, sees these Hogs clearing.
“Obviously Coach Petrino was an offensive guy,” Flowers said. “I spent one year with him, but I didn’t really interact with him because he was on the offensive side of the ball. Having Coach Bielema as a more defensive-minded coach, he understands that passion and enthusiasm on the defensive side is stuff you have got to have.
“He allowed those things to happen.”
Sports, Pages 22 on 04/12/2014