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.
Jackson, Capps in middle of Razorbacks' 3-4 transition
Arkansas defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson goes through warmups prior to a scrimmage Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The hands of Austin Capps and the feet of Bijhon Jackson are the best traits of the Arkansas Razorbacks' nose.
In the new 3-4 defensive scheme for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, the coaches want a nose guard with sudden, slippery hands to pair with a strong lower body anchored by agile feet.
Combining Capps and Jackson, who have split practice work with the starting defense this spring, gives the Razorbacks a pair of big guys in the middle from which to build the new schemes around their strengths.
Capps, a 6-4, 304-pound sophomore from Star City, earned valuable playing time last year behind Taiwan Johnson. He edged ahead of the senior Jackson for scrimmage work, and both got solid evaluations from Coach Bret Bielema, who said each of the players "took a big jump" in the Saturday scrimmage.
"Working with him in the drills, you can see how quick his hands are," new defensive line coach John Scott said. "The one thing that we've been working on with Capps is to try and speed up his feet a little bit. But he's done a better job with that this spring. He's doing a nice job."
Jackson ended Arkansas' first scrimmage of spring with a tipped-ball interception, after which he began high-stepping for the end zone as the whistles blew.
"Ideally, you'd like that nose guard to be the size that Bijhon is," defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads said of the 6-3, 335-pounder from El Dorado. "What Bijhon did on [April 8], the later the scrimmage went, the more he really, really ran his feet well.
"And if you're 335 pounds and you're running your feet, you're probably going to do pretty well at that position. He ended the game with an interception and his version of high-stepping it toward the goal. It wasn't pretty. Don't mistake it for pretty, but it was a pretty play."
Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson watches Capps match up against centers Frank Ragnow, Zach Rogers and Dylan Hays.
"I thought he was obviously a very strong player last year for his size, but I think the move to the 3-4 fits his build and his style of play for him to be able to get after centers," Anderson said. "The reality is, just like our offensive line last spring had to go against guys that are going to be in this draft coming up, those nose guards get an opportunity to go against Frank Ragnow, who's probably the best center in the country.
"So if Austin can compete with Frank Ragnow on a daily basis, he's going to be hard-pressed to find anybody in the country, when he gets out there on Saturdays, that's going to be a tougher matchup. So he shows you he's doing some really good things this spring."
Capps said facing Ragnow last season and during the spring has been tough.
"Obviously, the best guy in the nation," Capps said. "I try to keep up with him. I think it's helped me become better as practices have gone on."
Scott said "surprised" wouldn't accurately describe what he's seen of Capps since January, noting he was impressed by Capps' ability in winter workouts.
"When I got here, I didn't watch a whole lot of tape of these guys, because I wanted to come in with a clear mind," the first-year Arkansas coach said. "I wanted to see it for myself. I don't really know a whole lot about how he played last year.
"I wanted to come in and make my own assessment of it. But when I saw how he got better from the first week I was here in the workouts to week two and week three, I'm not really surprised."
Capps posted 12 tackles, including 1.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, in 12 games last season.
On a defensive front that sported four seniors with plenty of experience, plus the junior Jackson, Capps' playing time as a true freshman spoke to the coaching staff's belief in his ability.
"It was a little surprising when they told me I was going to go with the twos and all that," Capps said. "It was a pleasant surprise, I guess."
Capps gave himself a tough evaluation for his work in 2016.
"I left a lot of room for improvement," he said. "I think I should have made a few more plays. I think anybody could say that.
"I'm glad I had that experience and don't have to go through the same growing pains this year that I had last year. I learned how to travel and all the other stuff."
Capps had the wind knocked out of him early in last week's scrimmage, but he rebounded to have a solid day.
"I think he's a tough kid," Scott said.
Capps and the entire defense understand stopping the run is the top priority in 2017 after struggling in that area last year.
"We've been working on that pretty hard," he said. "New schemes and new possibilities on how we can do it. We have to get people in the right spots."
Sports on 04/19/2017
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