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. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
UA POSITION ANALYSIS SAFETIES:
Razorback safety Josh Liddell skips sulk, strives to improve
Arkansas defensive back Josh Liddell makes a catch Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, prior to the start of a scrimmage in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Things could have turned bad for Josh Liddell when he found himself behind classmate De'Andre Coley at free safety to open training camp this summer.
Liddell, a 13-game starter in 2016 and a hero in the Arkansas Razorbacks' four-overtime victory over Auburn in 2015, could have moped and instigated team dissension.
Safeties at a glance
RETURNING STARTERS FS Josh Liddell (13 starts in 2016), SS Santos Ramirez (7)
LOSSES De’Andre Coley (6)
WHO’S BACK Reid Miller, Kevin Richardson (also a CB), Deon Edwards, Michahh Smith
WHO’S NEW Montaric Brown
ANALYSIS Safety and cornerback are two of the team’s most experienced positions. The coaching staff believes a year of experience will decrease the mistakes for safeties this fall. Ramirez’s work led to his selection as a defensive captain, while Coley and Liddell have pushed each other to improve. Developing depth at the position is a must as Coley and Liddell are finishing their careers.
Instead, the senior from Pine Bluff Dollarway, took the demotion as incentive.
Liddell, the team's top returning tackler with 63, turned in what University of Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema called the best three weeks of his career, sliding back ahead of Coley in the Arkansas secondary headed into Thursday's 7 p.m. season opener against Florida A&M (1-0) in Little Rock.
First-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who continues to coach the defensive backs in his second season at Arkansas, said Liddell handled the depth-chart drop "like a young man of high morals and high character, which he is."
Rhoads also turned the situation into a positive for Liddell.
"With Josh's intelligence, we're able to play him at both spots now," Rhoads said, referring to free and strong safety. "There's not a bat of an eye of how he's reacted any way other than positive."
Liddell didn't make a big deal out of his return to the top spot a couple of weeks ago.
Liddell said he was focused on improving as an individual as well as helping the defense get up to speed in its shift to a base 3-4 front.
"We have to keep on improving on our knowledge of the scheme and being able to trust each other more and play faster and get better in all the areas, eliminating the big plays and eliminating missed tackles," Liddell said.
Liddell's rise has restoked Coley, one of the team's hardest hitters.
The two seniors, combined with junior strong safety Santos Ramirez, who was elected a defensive captain along with defensive back Kevin Richardson, hope to elevate the play on the Razorbacks' last line of defense.
Too often last year, the safeties took a bad angle, didn't arrive with force or simply missed a tackle, symptomatic of an Arkansas defense that took a step back in 2016, the final season under coordinator Robb Smith.
Liddell, Ramirez and Coley, who played essentially every meaningful snap in 2016, look to do pretty much the same thing this year, only better.
The faces are the same, but the game has changed for the upperclassmen.
Ramirez, a junior, was selected as captain because of the maturity he had shown and his commitment to improvement.
Liddell's big camp has increased Bielema's confidence in the safeties.
"Josh Liddell has played as good of football as he's played, this fall," Bielema said. "Dre Coley has played very, very well as well. And Santos is playing at a high level."
Junior Reid Miller, redshirt freshmen Deon Edwards and Micahh Smith and true freshman Montaric "Buster" Brown from Ashdown, will back up the starters.
Brown, a blue-chip signee, joined the roster at the end of camp due to a delay in the confirmation of his eligibility.
Bielema and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads say Miller would probably be the next guy in behind the three veterans, or possibly Richardson, who plays corner, nickel and safety.
Liddell said the change to a mostly three-man front has helped increase the defense's energy.
"This defense allows us to be more aggressive, especially in the secondary with our runs fits and everything," Liddell said. "We're playing faster and we're playing aggressive, kind of with that savage mentality."
Coley forced a couple of fumbles last season, including a key turnover at the goal line against Alabama, but he was also ejected twice for targeting fouls, most notably after an incomplete pass on third and 10 against Texas A&M.
Coley got caught on a couple of bad angles in the Razorbacks' first scrimmage and dropped back to second team at free safety. The senior from Miami can play both spots and said he expects all the defensive backs to be big contributors.
"The DB group, we have the most guys who are coming back," he said. "We're just ready. We're the older guys now so they feed off of us. ... We're ready to see what happens in the first game."
Ramirez's devotion to learning included postpractice film study with Rhoads throughout the spring, an exercise his teammates noted when electing Ramirez and Richardson defensive captains.
"Everybody saw a guy that had a great demeanor every day on the practice field," Rhoads said. "Everybody saw a guy that was chattering on the field, communication wise, and talking to his teammates in the locker room and in the meeting room. Those are the things that ... I mean you're very aware of that. They don't go away.
"And when it comes time to casting a vote, you want a true leader that's going to be in front, representing your football team and they knew that about him."
Ramirez said he was not mature enough to be consistent his first couple of seasons, but is determined to be a difference maker and a leader on the unit.
"Every day, my focus is to make sure that I'm the field general out there," he said. "I get everybody lined up. I get the call.
"I'm playing with discipline and making the plays that come my way as a result. That's just me going and having fun, playing the game. I'm not trying to put too much stress on myself out there, trying to go force some stuff. I'm just going out there playing my best game."
Sports on 08/28/2017
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