Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Arkansas position glance: Defensive tackles:
Philon leads UA D-line by example
Rory Segrest, back, watches on as Darius Philon, left, tries to tackle Tevin Beanum, right, at spring football practice Tuesday, April 22, 2014, at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Defensive tackle Darius Philon said he's not just bigger, stronger, faster and quicker than when he arrived at Arkansas in 2012.
Philon said he's a smarter player, too.
UA position glance
RETURNING STARTER Darius Philon
KEY LOSSES Byran Jones, Robert Thomas, Horace Arkadie
WHO’S BACK DeMarcus Hodge, Taiwan Johnson, Ke’Tyrus Marks
WHO’S NEW Bijhon Jackson, Cordale Boyd, Grady Ollison, Armon Watts
ANALYSIS Philon is the only player with starting experience. Hodge, who played some key snaps as a reserve last season, came into fall camp as the No. 1 nose guard, but Johnson was promoted to that spot this week. Hodge can play tackle and nose guard. Jackson should be an impact freshman at nose guard and may challenge for a starting job. Boyd and Ollison have moved from the offensive line. The interior defense will get a major challenge in the season opener at Auburn, which figures to have one of the nation’s top rushing offenses.
"One of my bigger improvements is taking more coaching," said Philon, a third-year sophomore from Mobile, Ala. "Coming out of high school, you have the big head.
"Now I take criticism better and listen to what I need to do. I look at myself as being a leader and guiding the players that are coming up to make our team chemistry much better."
There's no question Philon, 6-3 and 287 pounds, is the leader among Arkansas' interior defensive linemen. He's the only defensive tackle or nose guard with starting experience with the losses of Byran Jones and Robert Thomas, who started a combined 54 games.
Philon started the final five games last season after Thomas suffered a broken leg against South Carolina to end his college career.
"I know I've got a bigger role than I did last year," Philon said. "That gives me a lot of motivation to play better than ever."
Philon played pretty well last season, when he led Arkansas' defensive linemen and ranked sixth on the team with 46 tackles, including 9 for losses totaling 38 yards, with 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.
"Darius has a lot of energy and focus and grit," said redshirt junior DeMarcus Hodge, who can play defensive tackle and nose guard. "He's got a set of moves he's going to bring, but if that doesn't work, he's got a backup plan.
"He's always got something. You can't really stop him. You just have to delay him as much as you can."
Rory Segrest became Arkansas' defensive line coach in January. While he's never coached Philon in a game, Segrest said it's evident in practice the improvement he's made since the spring
"He's got great athleticism and great quickness, and from a technical standpoint, he's come a long way since last spring, developing the habits he needs to be successful," Segrest said. "He showed up as a pass rusher last season, but he's really come along in the run game, being able to take on and get off blocks."
Hodge, who had 27 tackles in 11 games last season, opened fall camp as the starting nose guard, but now is backing up Philon. Redshirt sophomore Taiwan Johnson, who played in three games last season, is working as the starting nose guard backed up by freshman Bijhon Jackson.
Converted offensive linemen Cordale Boyd and Grady Ollison are working at third-team nose guard and tackle. Boyd, a redshirt sophomore, moved from guard after spring practice and Ollison, a redshirt junior, moved from offensive tackle this week.
"I'm excited to see this evolve over the course of this week," defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. "It's really going to help us from a depth standpoint."
The coaches like Johnson's quickness at the point of attack, and he earned a promotion to the first-team line with his consistency in practice.
"The thing that Taiwan has shown us -- and he showed it even in the spring -- is that he's quick, he's explosive and he makes plays," Segrest said. "From a productive standpoint, he's getting out there and doing what we ask him to do."
Hodge and Jackson shaped up over the summer, with Hodge losing 13 pounds to get to 335 and Jackson losing 30 to get to 316.
"DeMarcus' strength numbers have always been real good, and he continued to increase there," Segrest said. "But now he's done a great job with his weight in terms of managing that to give us as many snaps as he can."
Hodge said last season he became fatigued after playing two or three snaps, and now he feels he's ready to play as much as needed.
"I'm moving around better and making more plays on the ball," he said. "I feel great."
Jackson may be able to compete with Johnson for a starting job or should provide quality depth after transforming his body during a summer of workouts with strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert.
"Coach Herbert put us through a lot, and so did Coach Smith," Jackson said. "I've just got to get more adjusted to the game at this level."
Jackson said practices are intense.
"We just don't want to lose anymore," he said. "We know how serious this is, so we're grinding it out every day."
Philon said he doesn't have any doubts about Jackson's ability to play and contribute to victories after the Razorbacks went 0-8 in the SEC. They open at defending SEC champion Auburn on Aug. 30.
"Bijhon is doing a great job of learning the playbook and getting familiar with what he has to do on the field," Philon said. "He'll be ready to play at Auburn. We'll all be ready."
Sports on 08/13/2014