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.
UA getting more from 3 after season of learning
Arkansas' Carroll Washington celebrates breaking up a pass Oct. 12, 2013, during the first quarter of the game against South Carolina at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas needed help from junior college defenders Martrell Spaight, Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington in its thin ranks last season, so all three saw moderate playing time while still learning to adjust to major college football.
Now they are all seniors and Coach Bret Bielema wishes he could get another couple of seasons out of the three, who combined for 42 tackles last year. Coleman, Spaight and Washington are all having productive springs, and all three project as key contributors this fall.
“Everybody expected so much out of those guys,” linebackers coach Randy Shannon said of their arrivals last year. “They just got here. They had to learn a whole new system. … It takes a year.
“Those guys have really responded this spring in picking up a lot of things and learning the new defense.”
Washington has held on as a starting cornerback opposite Tevin Mitchel for most of the spring, and he delivered a pair of takeaways - an interception and a fumble recovery - in last week’s scrimmage.
“He had some breakups, had a pick, graded out very high,” defensive backs coach Clay Jennings said. “The one thing Carroll is doing is playing a very smart football game right now. He doesn’t have a lot of mental busts out there.”
Washington said he’s much more comfortable in the system now.
“I think I have to put that on behalf of watching more film, just being a student of the game,” he said.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith said Washington’s attitude and off-field study have been strong since his arrival.
“Carroll is a guy who has really embraced what we’re trying to do defensively,” he said.
“Carroll Washington is making play after play every day,” safety Rohan Gaines said. “He’s one of the most improved players I’ve seen out here.”
Spaight is starting at weak side linebacker and playing much faster than he did last season.
“Spaight made some plays, really down on the goal line, red zone area and also out on the field,” Bielema said of last week’s scrimmage. “He’s very quick and athletic.
“There’s a great example of you [wish you] had that kid for a redshirt year and you have him for a little bit of time. He’s really making some huge strides right now.”
Spaight wound up playing in 9 games, making 2 starts and posting 22 tackles, 1 sack and 1 hurry last year.
“I feel comfortable with the scheme that we’re running right now,” Spaight said. “It’s just that I can fly around and make plays.”
Coleman received significant reps in camp last year as the second-team strong safety, but he hardly hit the field in the secondary. Now, he’s morphed into a hybrid nickel back/linebacker role, with an emphasis on defending the underneath routes.
“He’s working as a nickelbacker, when people line up [in] three-, four- or five-receiver sets,” Shannon said. “We’re getting some long term work for him because we’re trying to use the guys that are going to help us out the whole season. That’s really going to help us as far as building depth when we play teams like Texas A&M and Auburn, teams that have three, four and five receivers on the field all the time.”
Smith said he had a long conversation with Coleman recently about moving to the hybrid role.
“He’s a safety, and when we get teams with three or four wide receivers he’ll play part of our under coverage,” Smith said.
“I’ve known this since we recruited him: TQ loves contact,” Bielema said. “He’s a playmaker-type guy.”
Coleman had an interception along the sideline last week, which thrilled and frustrated the defensive staff because he flipped the ball away after he was forced out of bounds, which would have drawn a penalty during a game.
“I jumped his tail because he threw the ball in the air,” Bielema said. “But he made a great break, a great read.”
Sports, Pages 24 on 04/18/2014