Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
UA defensive staff look to turn page
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 - The bliss probably won’t last beyond reigning SEC champion Auburn’s first points on Arkansas during the Aug. 30 season-opener in Auburn, Ala., but the Razorbacks’ spring practices in general and the Red-White spring game in particular extended the Arkansas honeymoon for new defensive coordinator Robb Smith and a nearly all new defensive staff.
Linebackers coach Randy Shannon, now with the additional title of assistant head coach, is the lone 2013 returnee on Coach Bret Bielema’s Arkansas defensive staff. The staff includes Smith, the former Rutgers defensive coordinator who coached last year for Tampa Bay in the NFL, secondary coach Clay Jennings, hired from TCU, and defensive line coach Rory Segrest, hired from Samford but with a Philadelphia Eagles NFL defensive coaching pedigree.
They assume a defense in an Arkansas program traditionally rich defensively but not lately.
Bobby Petrino’s 2008-2011 Arkansas era was decidedly offensive. Former Petrino defensive coordinator Willy Robinson caught heat regardless the Razorbacks’ record. Robinson was November fired with Petrino’s 2011 Hogs 10-2 and headed to the Cotton Bowl.
Paul Haynes, hired in December, 2011, assumed a defense playing its best game stifling Kansas State and noted K-State quarterback Collin Klein 29-18 in Dallas.
Haynes’ acclaim didn’t last. A victim of the 4-8 collapse in 2012following Petrino’s firing and John L. Smith’s hiring, Haynes was fortunate his alma mater, Kent State, summoned him as head coach as Arkansas changed coaches.
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash arrived with Bielema from Wisconsin.
The chemistry and success Bielema and Ash enjoyed up north didn’t mesh in last year’s 3-9 season gone south.
Ash jumped to Ohio State as a co-coordinator.
Robb Smith arrived with a style far more upbeat and aggressive, and in the spring game mostly effective even with the second defense vs. the first offense for a half.
Starting quarterback Brandon Allen took the talk show heat for the first-team offense’s first-half Red-White struggles but Bielema imparted that Smith’s defense played a big part.
“Some of the offensive struggles, in particular in the spring game, were directly attributable to those [defensive] guys playing better,” Bielema said.
Shannon’s return “with a nice say,” Bielema said, because of Shannon’s knowledge of the Hogs’ recent defensive past to go with the infusion of Smith, Jennings and Segrest has bonded a better defense, Bielema asserts.
The D-line front four was by far Arkansas’ strongest defensive asset last year. It appears so again though Smith, Jennings and Shannon aggressively push the back seven closing the gap aggressively.
“Robb probably takes an offensive approach to defense as much as you can,” Bielema said. “He really tries to set the tone defensively of what you are allowed to do offensively by the way they align and make the offense play a little bit left-handed. He really believes in challenging wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and he always says being able to dictate the daylight.”
With the 3 p.m. kickoff at Auburn, that would mean dictating the daylight through twilight.
Sports, Pages 16 on 05/05/2014