State of the Hogs: Defense improved despite big plays

By: Clay Henry
Published: Monday, September 25, 2017
Arkansas cornerback Kamren Curl reacts during a game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, during the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas cornerback Kamren Curl reacts during a game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, during the Southwest Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

— Giving up 50 points and losing is the bottom line. Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads knows that.

But when asked to present the details of the tape review to Arkansas coach Bret Bielema on Sunday after the overtime loss to Texas A&M, Rhoads saw mostly bright spots.

The Razorbacks reduced their mental busts from 14 to seven from the TCU game after a bye week to prepare for A&M. There were only two missed tackles against the Aggies.

Rhoads said the real number that jumps off the page is that the Aggies totaled 223 yards on four plays.

“You don’t give yourself a chance because of that,” Rhoads said. “We are not happy with those four plays.”

The biggest play of the game was one that Rhoads was happy with how it was played. The Hogs thought they had a stop on third-and-8 to start the overtime, but true freshman cornerback Kamren Curl was flagged for pass interference.

“If you are doing things right, you encourage them to keep doing it that way,” Rhoads said, being careful not to criticize the call by the SEC officials.

Asked specifically if Curl’s coverage on that play was one of the seven busts, Rhoads said, “There were no busts on that play. It was a great play by the defensive back.”

That’s clear enough. Bielema was more than careful when he had a chance to talk about that critical play about 45 minutes earlier.

“Our players were angry after the game because they thought they had a third down stop,” Bielema said.

I gave Bielema a chance to talk about that play more specifically. I asked about players being angry at the call. He backedtracked just a little.

“I don’t want to say our players were angry at the officials,” he said. “It was a flag that gave them the first down. That’s all I’m saying.”

Rhoads thought Curl did well in his second start after taking the place of the injured Ryan Pulley. The Aggies went after Curl much more than did the Horned Frogs did in his first start two weeks earlier.

“They went after him on the first play and they did on a lot of first down calls,” Rhoads said. “He gave up the 50-yard catch, but he was in position to compete for that one.”

Rhoads said the staff was surprised that TCU didn’t go after Curl more in his first start and not surprised that the Aggies did.

“I thought he gave a stellar effort,” Rhoads said. “He was targeted by A&M but it won’t be the end of it.”

Rhoads said there are three key points as he grades tape. He wants to see if the defense plays smart and that goes back to preparation, too. Also, he wants to see if defenders play hard and tackle great.

"First, I thought they prepared and practiced smart," he said. "Second, I thought they played fast and strained to the finish and we have a formula to determine that. Third, how many busts do they have? They had only seven."

Unfortunately for Arkansas, the Aggies capitalized on the seven busts with the big plays.

"Only two missed tackles is great," he said. "But we did give up (501) yards."

There was also a critical mistake in the kicking game. Christian Kirk's 100-yard kickoff return with 5:10 left was a topic Monday.

"We did great on our first four or five kickoffs," Bielema said. "The last time we had some guys who didn't do some of the same things they had been doing."

By then, there had also been "four or five" changes in personnel on the kickoff unit. Both Grant Morgan and Kevin Richardson were pulled from that unit because of injuries. Bielema said he and kickoff unit coach John Scott had made substitutions.

The kickoff cover unit uses most defensive personnel, but Rhoads maintains that he doesn't mind if starters are used.

"I believe in that - and so does the head coach - you play starters if you need them in there," Rhoads said. "If you are going to take them off of something, I'd say it would be offense or defense and keep them on special teams.

"I do think we have more bodies available for special teams this year. Overall, the kickoff team had done well which makes the (touchdown return) such a shame."

Rhoads indicated that Richardson's high ankle sprain sustained against TCU was a problem during preparations leading up the the A&M game. He watched the nickel back in warmups and informed Bielema that the senior cover man would not be available for every-down duty.

"We knew he was going to be limited going into the game and Paul watched him in pregame," Bielema said. "He said the (high ankle injury) was good, but not great."

Richardson's assignment was going to be covering Kirk, A&M's speedy slot receiver. Richardson just didn't have the top end speed for that matchup because of the sore ankle.

"I think Kevin played three snaps," Rhoads said. "Josh Liddell got kicked in the stomach on the long quarterback run. So Kevin went in for those three plays on the goal line when we got the stop."

Rhoads thought inside linebackers Dre Greenlaw and De'Jon Harris both handled the assignments in the zone read option game in decent fashion. Both finished with 14 tackles.

"The one play where we had a bust was on the long quarterback run," he said. "That play should have been a 2-yard loss. We didn't execute the check."

Rhoads said both coaches and players on defense "were angry on Sunday" because they gave up so many points despite just two missed tackles.

"You see those big plays; that's what makes you angry," he said.

Rhoads said the transition to the 3-4 scheme is progressing.

"Every week, you tweak things," he said. "But if you ask the kids, they are quite confident in what they are doing. That's why they are playing so hard. I do think you will see improvement, too."

Asked about calling more blitzes, Rhoads said the nature of the quarterback the last two weeks has reduced that temptation. Texas A&M's Kellen Mond and TCU's Kenny Hill both presented run threats.

"As far as blitzes, I guess you could talk about bringing five or six," he said. "But that decision has been affected by the quarterback running. You don't want to put your football team in a bad position."

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