Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
ARKANSAS SPRING FOOTBALL:
UA secondary aims for improvement
Arkansas safety Alan Turner returns an interception during the third quarter of a game Friday, Nov. 29, 2013 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. LSU won 31-27.
FAYETTEVILLE - Alan Turner made a perfect read and had a great break on a midrange out route to pick off Brandon Allen’s last pass during Arkansas’ first spring scrimmage.
It gave Turner, who projects as a second-year starter at safety, something with which to gig the Razorbacks quarterback.
“I didn’t rub it in too much,” Turner said. “I had been messing with him because I’ve been telling him to throw me one, and he’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not going to throw you one.’ So I messed with him a little bit on that one.”
Arkansas could use more ball-hawking in its secondary after its defensive backs combined for six interceptions and just one forced fumble in 2013.
Turner and Tevin Mitchel, both seniors, are the elder statesmen in a Razorbacks secondary that has struggled to find consistency the past few years as it has worked under constantly changing coaches and schemes. The Razorbacks haven’t been tackling enforcers in run support and they’ve given up a chunk of momentum-changing big plays in the passing game.
Turner, the team leader with 97 tackles last season, said he envisions a much more productive secondary next season for Arkansas, which is coming off a 3-9 season.
“I just want to be one of those guys that comes out with confidence and tries to make the defense as a whole better,” Turner said. “Just do anything I can. I feel like we’re taking great strides and we’re going to get better.”
First-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith said he likes Turner’s traits.
“He’s a guy that when you’re around you can really sense he loves the game of football,” Smith said. “That energy really carries out throughout the defense and provides a leadership that we have there. … That’s how you have to play defensive football. You have to be a passionate guy. He’s really improving and we’re excited for big things for him.”
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said he’s seen an image change from Mitchel, who had a forgettable 2013 season. Mitchel returned an interception for a touchdown during a 28-24 loss at Rutgers, but he struggled throughout much of hte rest of the season, allowing several touchdowns.
“I can’t even tell you how excited I am about [Mitchel],” Bielema said. “He’s had, in my opinion, the most improvement through six practices as anybody on the football team. Just confidence, swagger, ability, toughness.
“He had a little bit of a contused shoulder issue the other day during practice. I know a Tevin Mitchel of the past who would have taken the rest of the day to himself.He was back in there as fast as he could get back in.”
Mitchel said he’s motivated by this being his last year on campus.
“It’s my last spring and I’m taking advantage of it,” Mitchel said. “I’m focused and I’m buying in with the coaches and I’m trying to become a better player and a better person, on and off the field. I believe it’s working and I’m just looking forward to the next day and getting better, being consistent.”
Smith and first-year defensive backs coach Clay Jennings are working together with the defensive backfield, and they won’t be lacking for players with game experience at cornerback.
Mitchel, a two-year starter, and junior Will Hines, a starter last year before breaking his arm at Florida, have combined for 39 career starts, with Mitchel accounting for 24 of those. Sophomores Jared Collins and D.J. Dean each started the final two games last season, and senior Carroll Washington, who has been running with the first unit along with Mitchel, had an interception and fumble recovery in last week’s scrimmage.
“The biggest thing those two guys have shown is they’ll be physical,” Jennings said of Mitchel and Washington. “Tevin has moved from the boundary and is playing a little bit more to the field. He’s moving his feet and he’s having a lot more fun playing, it seems like. He brings some enthusiasm and a physical nature over there. And Jared Collins has been playing pretty well, too.”
Bielema said Washington’s advancement has been noteworthy.
“Carroll loves to compete,” he said. “We brought him in as a junior college kid … and it took him awhile to learn how we want things done and he’s final getting it.
“If there’s a unit on our field that’s the most improved, it’s definitely the corners.”
At safety, junior Rohan Gaines, who played injured much of last year, sports 16 career starts to pair with the veteran Turner, as well as Davyon McKinney and hard-hitting redshirt freshman DeAndre Coley.
Sports, Pages 19 on 04/15/2014