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:
Defensive coaches get jump on spring
Arkansas football defensive coordinator and secondary coach Robb Smith speaks at a press conference Monday morning Feb. 10, 2014 at the Fred W. Smith Football Center.
FAYETTEVILLE - Robb Smith isn’t leaving town during Arkansas’ spring break this week.
Arkansas’ new defensive coordinator plans to immerse himself in more scheme study and personnel evaluation and brush up on his “Hog-a-nese” as the Razorbacks take a week long hiatus before resuming spring drills April 1.
“I’m going to sit in here and look back through the tape and kind of fine-tune and get to know them that much better so we can get a jump on things when we get back,” Smith said after Thursday’s third practice.
Arkansas has essentially hit the reset button again onits defense, which ranked No. 76 in the nation last season - higher than the Hogs’ offense (No. 99) - and was always viewed as the weak link during the Bobby Petrino years.
Arkansas has a high-quality holdover from the previous staff - linebackers coach and senior associate head coach Randy Shannon - to pair with Smith and the other new guys, defensive backs coach Clay Jennings and defensive line coach Rory Segrest.
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said the defensive staff spent a lot of its spring preparation on getting its new language together with the players.
“What we did before we got on the field this year is take advantage of more learning time,” Bielema said. “The NCAA allows us a certain amount of hours that we delegated towards football IQ. We called it ‘Hog-a-nese.’ We sat down and visited with kids about the communication we share as a football team unique to us, and I think it has really paid off.”
Shannon said last year’s trials should toughen this year’s defense, which brings back eight full or part-time starters in end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Philon, linebackers Braylon Mitchell and Brooks Ellis, and backs Tevin Mitchel, Will Hines, Rohan Gaines and Alan Turner.
Shannon said the first week of spring drills has gone a lot better than the 2013 version.
“They’re a year older,” Shannon said. “The group that I had last year was the first time those guys had ever played. … It was a learning point, and now those guys have played football.”
Jennings said his goals this spring are to gain the players’ trust and to get them to line up properly and know the schemes so they can play fast.
“Any time you go into a situation where the scheme was new to everybody, it takes a little bit of time to get your feet wet,” Jennings said of last year’s struggles against the pass. “Coach Smith is a great coach, a great teacher. I’m really enjoying learning his system.”
Smith said the staff has meshed well.
“It’s been great,” he said. “Randy’s kind of the elder statesman of our defensive staff. He’s been here. He has a great feel for our personnel, and that’s been very helpful. Rory’s really doing a great job with our guys up front, and I think they’ve really made a lot of strides. … Clay’s doing a phenomenal job holding the back end together.
“It’s exciting for us. I wish we weren’t going on break.”
Shannon said the transition has been helped by intertwined relationships over the years.
“Coach Smith, we have some of the same terminology things because our backgrounds are similar and we coached with some of the same coaches over the years, so it’s been awesome,” he said. “Myself and Coach Jennings coached together at TCU, so it’s been great. It’s been fun. We work hard. We have fun together.”
Bielema said the performances of cornerbacks Tevin Mitchel, Jared Collins and Carroll Washington have been some of the early highlights this spring.
Mitchel, who struggled as a junior last season, has led the cornerbacks in independent tape study as a unit.
“It’s our second spring with Coach B, and we’re all used to the way he teaches and the way he lays things out,” Mitchel said. “Coach Jennings and Coach Smith, they’re real great coaches. They sit back and teach us over and over what we need to know, what we need to continue to learn and to come watch film on our own.”
Jennings and Smith are working together with the secondary. After full group meetings, the safeties split off and study with Jennings while the cornerbacks convene with Smith.
The defensive lingo is different, players said, but the transition hasn’t been drastic.
“The terminology changed, but it’s like the same defense as last year,” redshirt freshman safety De’Andre Coley said.
Smith’s style has a new school feel based on his actions in Thursday’s open practice, with more positive encouragement and teaching than harsh criticism.
“As coaches, it’s our job to bring energy to practice, bring energy to games, and the players usually follow suit with that,” Smith said. “Sometimes they give you a push, and sometimes you give them a push.”
Arkansas is breaking in three new defensive coaches this spring while implementing its fourth set of defensive calls in four seasons:
Robb Smith Coordinator/DBs
Randy Shannon Linebackers
Clay Jennings Secondary
Rory Segrest Linemen
NOTE Randy Shannon is in his 23rd season as a coach and his second season at Arkansas.
Robb Smith is in his 15th season as a coach and his first at Arkansas.
Clay Jennings and Rory Segrest are in their 17th seasons as coaches and their first season at Arkansas.
Sports, Pages 23 on 03/23/2014