State of the Hogs: Coaches see faster team

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Arkansas running back Devwah Whaley goes through practice Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas running back Devwah Whaley goes through practice Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Fayetteville.

— I tend to get carried away with thoughts of speed.

I ache for the kind of speed that I saw on the Arkansas defense with a secondary like Batman Carroll and Lawrence Richardson. Those were sprint champs and also great cornerbacks for the 2001-2003 Razorbacks.

That's not saying a wide receiver never got behind them. That's not saying they didn't pull someone down for a pass interference call. They did.

I just know that the SEC is the fastest league in college football. Arkansas needs speed at the skilled positions like wide receiver, running back, cornerback and at linebacker.

The 2017 Razorbacks are faster. That was the point of several questions I asked head coach Bret Bielema and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads on Wednesday. They seemed to agree that the Hogs are both faster and playing faster, especially on defense where the switch to the 3-4 has put more athletic players on the field.

“I think where you look at some of our regular wide receivers last year, talking about Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister, the group we have this year with Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones and LaMichael Pettway is faster,” Bielema said. “I see some of what you are saying especially at that position. I think at running back, Devwah Whaley is faster than Rawleigh Williams. Chase Hayden is faster than all of them.”

Bielema noted that there is plenty of speed in the tight end group. He said Cheyenne O'Grady, Grayson Gunter and Jeremy Patton “all can run really well.”

Rhoads thinks the Hogs have helped themselves in the secondary with the addition of some speed. Britto Tutt, out last year with August knee surgery, has displayed an SEC burst this fall. He's had trouble with his knee swelling, but that has gone away as camp has progressed.

“The days when he's fresh, he's shown that speed,” Rhoads said. “We know with the amount of reps we'll use him in games, he's going to have that burst.

“What we see with Britto, if you ask them to back peddle then turn and get back to the spot, he's going to be the second fastest in the group. Ryan Pulley would be the fastest.”

True freshmen Kamren Curl and Chevin Calloway, both corners, have given the Hogs a little more speed in the two-deep. Both will play this season.

The switch to the 3-4 is the most critical aspect of getting a faster team on the field. There is more quickness and speed on the edge with outside linebackers in what truly is a five-man front, than defensive linemen in a 4-3 front.

I see more speed at linebacker where De'Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw have jets. Their top backups – Grant Morgan, Giovanni LaFrance and Dee Walker – are also quick and fast. Morgan might not win any races on signal, but he seems to play faster than anyone because of recognition of keys.

If there is a blur in that group, it's redshirt freshman Walker, maybe a bit undersized at 6-2, 215 pounds. He's a true 4.4 man.

“You could see that Dee was fast in the first 14 practices,” Rhoads said. “But what I've seen in the last two is that the light has gone on. Now, you really see his speed the last two days. It was just a glimpse now and then in those first 14 practices.

“Giovanni missed some time in the spring (with an injury) and so he's just getting back up to speed as far as the physical aspect and speed, but you see his speed now, too.

“Grant is the smartest of that bunch. He would finish behind them in a race, but he's gifted in other ways and plays as fast as any of them.”

Junior college transfer Gabe Richardson adds speed at outside linebacker, as does true freshmen Hayden Henry. A converted safety in high school, Henry has the ability to recognize keys and react with a burst. He plays downhill and makes plays.

Rhoads said playing fast can be simpler than just the speed on the field. It can be about understanding and believing in the scheme. That goes back to the trust players have in what Rhoads and his assistants have taught in the switch to the 3-4.

“I like to hear what the kids are saying,” Rhoads said. “They say they enjoy the scheme. That's led to us playing faster as a defense.”

Excuse me if I sound carried away. I like speed. I like the sound of a defense that looked slow last year gaining a sudden nature all of a sudden. It could be the best thing happening on the Arkansas football team right now.

There were a lot of worries over the summer about how many points quarterback Austin Allen and a rebuilt offensive line could produce. Maybe they won't have to score 40 per game and if they do, the Hogs will be out running the competition in style.

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