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.
GAME WEEK: ARKANSAS AT NO. 6 AUBURN:
Terminology tweaks aim for ‘smart swarm’
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 -- Arkansas' defensive players say they are going to play faster, more aggressively and with better ball-hawking sense this season.
They get their first chance to back up that talk Saturday in the season opener at No. 6 Auburn.
"The proof is going to be in the pudding on Saturday," said Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema, who has been vocal in touting a more aggressive defensive style.
The Razorbacks are referring to the approach as a "smart swarm," which was introduced by first-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith, the fourth man to hold that post in the past four years at Arkansas, following Willy Robinson, Paul Haynes and Chris Ash.
Smith, one of three new defensive coaches who joined second-year linebackers coach Randy Shannon, has worked to build more confidence into a defensive unit that has struggled in recent seasons both in stopping opponents and creating turnovers. He hopes to energize a unit that hasn't ranked in the top 25 nationally since 2000, when the Razorbacks were No. 16 in total defense, allowing 292.1 yards per game.
The Razorbacks are optimistic about their ability to show vast improvement. Senior end Trey Flowers said the unit is improved all around.
"We can stop the run better. We can play the pass better," Flowers said. "It's all really about making plays."
The summer sessions allowed by the NCAA gave Arkansas the chance to learn the terminology of the new defense and apply it more quickly when camp opened.
"I think we're a lot faster because we know it more," middle linebacker Brooks Ellis said. "We can react better, we can play the ball better. We're just a lot faster."
Junior safety Rohan Gaines took it to a different level.
"I think we have a chance to be a top-10 defense," Gaines said. "I think the way the schemes are rolling in, the way we're playing right now and the way we're running to the ball, I think we have the opportunity to be a top-10 defense."
Smith and defensive backs coach Clay Jennings have the cornerbacks playing tighter on receivers than what Ash directed last season. The goal is to re-route receivers and disrupt offensive timing. They hope the tactic leads to more incomplete passes and big plays on defense than it does over-the-top strikes for opponents.
Smith has harped on ball disruption since his arrival. The Razorbacks were last in the SEC and No. 112 in the nation with 14 turnovers gained -- six fumble recoveries and eight interceptions -- last season.
"We didn't do a lot of it last year," Gaines said. "But Coach Smith ... he does a great job of just drilling it into us and instilling it. We have to have a championship attitude. If we have a championship attitude, we have a smart swarm, we limit big plays, we ball disrupt, we're going to be a top-10 defense."
Cornerback Carroll Washington, who will play the lead role at nickel back against Auburn, has seen sustained growth from the defense throughout the offseason.
"It's been a long road, coming off the season we had last year," Washington said. "I just think it was a time where, as a team, we needed to sit back and see where we wanted to be this upcoming season and just to realize we don't want to have another season like we had last year.
"It was basically a hard-working, grinding type of off-season. They upped it in the weight room, and you could see it in these guys in the locker room. A lot of these guys have gotten stronger, me included, and have made great strides every day."
The Razorbacks have the beginnings of better depth on defense, an advantage the unit hasn't enjoyed in several seasons.
"There's not a price tag you can put on experience," Smith said. "Just the fact that you've been in the fire before, you've done it. It helps the younger guys. If you have nobody with experience, there's nobody to help the younger guys along."
Four seniors -- Braylon Mitchell, Martrell Spaight, Daunte Carr and TQ Coleman -- are expected to see playing time at linebacker, and the sophomore Ellis started the last four games last season. They are backed by a strong freshman class that includes Randy Ramsey, Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett and sophomore transfer Josh Williams.
Seniors Tevin Mitchel, who probably will be unavailable for the opener because of a hamstring injury, and Carroll Washington lead a five-man cornerback group that also includes Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Will Hines that combined for all 24 starts in 2013. Talented freshmen Henre Toliver, Cornelius Floyd and Santos Ramirez are also expected to pitch in at the position.
Flowers, a two-year starter, and Darius Philon, who started the final five games last season, lead a defensive line rotation that also includes tackles DeMarcus Hodge, Taiwan Johnson and freshman Bijhon Jackson, and ends Deatrich Wise Jr., JaMichael Winston, Brandon Lewis and Tevin Beanum.
Bielema said he thought last year's defense, which ranked ninth in the SEC and 76th nationally by allowing 413.4 yards per game, struggled with some of Ash's complicated schemes and terminology issues that resulted in poor communication and led to slower reaction times.
The Razorbacks devoted much of the new NCAA-allotted summer sessions getting the terminology together to play faster.
"We know how far we've come, and we know how far we still have to go," Flowers said midway through fall camp. "We've just got to tighten up on the little things and try to get over the hump."
Sports on 08/28/2014