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.
Hogs defense tackles being better tacklers
Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith directs his players during practice Thursday, March 20, 2014, at the UA practice field in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Robb Smith understands what it means to be Arkansas' fourth defensive coordinator in four years.
While that revolving door approach gives rise to issues that can affect performance, Smith said he is confident that defense will be a strength with Bret Bielema as head coach.
"I know Bret's mentality," Smith said during a break in the spring evaluation period after the Razorbacks' Red-White game. "I know he believes in playing great defense, and we share a lot of the same visions there."
Smith said he saw no reason for concern when it came to following three coordinators in three years.
"When it all kind of unfolded that this was going to work out, I was excited about it and I'm excited to be here," said Smith, the former Rutgers defensive coordinator who coached linebackers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. "I think we're just kind of scratching the surface of what we can do."
Smith and Bielema wanted to employ some overriding themes in the spring. Chief among them were simplifying communications, playing faster and with more aggression and becoming more sound as tacklers.
Based on the Razorbacks' scrimmages and team periods in their open practices, they have made headway on those fronts with a more veteran roster that will return 13 players with starting experience.
Red team starters scored touchdowns on back-to-back plays in the spring finale, on Rohan Gaines' 31-yard interception return and Darius Philon's 19-yard fumble return after Deatrich Wise stripped the ball from quarterback Austin Allen. White team safeties De'Andre Coley and Davyon McKinney had interceptions against starting quarterback Brandon Allen in the spring game.
Smith said there were fewer missed tackles as the spring went on.
"Our mentality is to be more physical, which implies that we need to tackle better," Smith said. "Have we improved? I believe we have. Now, we have to make sure we keep improving to get where we want to be.
"When you play the teams with the talent that we play in this conference, especially now with the Spread, there's a lot of space out there. If you want to improve quickly on defense, you need to tackle better."
Bielema noted through the second half of spring drills that the veteran cornerbacks were pressing closer to receivers and being more aggressive.
"I thought our guys are playing a lot tighter in coverage and they're using their hands better," Bielema said. "One dramatic change that I thought we did out of season, just philosophy-wise on defense, was getting our hands on receivers and rerouting them and challenging them at the line of scrimmage, which is going to pay off."
Smith coached linebacker Khaseem Greene, now with the Chicago Bears, when Rutgers beat the Razorbacks 35-26 in 2012 at Razorback Stadium. He said he believes the current Arkansas team could have difference makers like Greene.
"The guy that comes to mind right away is a guy like Trey Flowers," Smith said. "He's played a lot of football here. He's got a lot of confidence in his abilities. The thing I don't think a lot of people see is Trey has really embraced what we're doing. He studies it. He lives it. He knows it inside and out."
Smith has embraced the challenge of turning the Arkansas defense into a weapon, but he sounded a note of caution much like his predecessor Chris Ash, saying the defense has a lot of work ahead.
" I think we're still in the process of establishing a physical mentality and running to the football, smart swarm, tackling and developing a mentality of taking the football away," he said. "Those things are still works in progress, but I thought we got off to a good start with that this spring."
Sports on 05/14/2014