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.
ARKANSAS SPRING FOOTBALL POSITION ANALYSIS Defensive backs:
Secondary needs to limit big plays
Arkansas defensive back Montaric Brown goes through warmups prior to practice Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Playing with confidence is a key component to strong play in the defensive backfield, and the young Arkansas Razorbacks look to be trending upward in that department this spring.
There is evidence to back that up.
Defensive backs glance
Returning starters SS Kamren Curl (11 starts in 2018), CB Jarques McClellion (9), NB D’Vone McClure (6)
Losses FS Santos Ramirez (12), CB Ryan Pulley (11), NB Kevin Richardson (4), CB Chevin Calloway (2)
Who’s back CB Montaric Brown (1), FS Joe Foucha (1), S Myles Mason, CB LaDarrius Bishop, S Micahh Smith, CB Britto Tutt
Who’s new Greg Brooks Jr., Devin Bush
Walk ons Matt Berry, Simeon Blair, Nathan Parodi, Cameron Vail, Brenden Young
The losses of Ramirez, Pulley and Richardson look like significant blows for the combined 76 career starts from the trio. However, the handful of returning veterans populate the corner, safety and nickel spots to provide a level of continuity at all three positions. Clearly some talented players from previous classes, such as Brown, Foucha, Mason and Bishop, must start performing at SEC levels to give the secondary a shot at advancing from last year, when they faced significant pressure and gave up too many big plays. Corner Britto Tutt is rehabbing from another surgery. He was in the rotation from time to time the last couple of years, so his return at full strength would be gravy for that position. Safety Micahh Smith missed much of spring with a wrist injury and could also factor in during the summer.
Cornerback Jarques McClellion proudly carried the new Razorbacks' championship belt into media interviews just before the team went on spring break.
Cornerback Montaric Brown had an interception of quarterback Ben Hicks during a team period last week. Word around the team is Brown, a prime recruit out of Ashdown two years ago, has made a number of interceptions in team, seven on seven, and other drills this spring.
While the Razorbacks lost one veteran player from each personnel group -- free safety Santos Ramirez, cornerback Ryan Pulley and nickel back Kevin Richardson -- a core of key contributors returns at each position.
McClellion was forced into action after Chevin Calloway dropped out two games into the 2018 season and got on-the-job training while starting the final nine games. Safety Kamren Curl has spent most of his two seasons as a starter, first as a true freshman cornerback, then as the strong safety. Nickel back D'Vone McClure, the team's oldest player and a former Razorbacks baseball commitment, is making the most of his college experience as a 25-year-old after a run in the Cleveland Indians organization.
"It's crazy," said Curl, now a junior. "It's just like, I've got to step up. I just turned 20 and I'm the most experienced guy, so I've got to grow up.
"That's what I've been doing since I got here. My first game when Pulley got hurt [in the season opener against Florida A&M in 2017] I had to step up, so it's nothing new."
Coach Chad Morris said the trial by fire that sophomores McClellion and Brown, nicknamed Buster, endured last season has made them stronger.
"Buster and Jarques at corner ... we talked over the last few days about the value of the experience they got last year, when they were forced into some action that maybe they weren't ready for," Morris said Saturday. "But that experience has provided so much benefit to them for spring. They're playing with great confidence, which is good."
McClure, who was in concussion protocol late last week, talked about the attitude that is brewing on the back end earlier in the week.
"It's more so the players who played a little bit last year ... just confidence and knowing the scheme a little bit more," McClure said when asked about the most vocal players in the secondary. "I would say Kam, me, Buster Brown and Jarques McClellion. Guys are flying around and bringing the energy and that's expected."
As is the case every season, defensive coordinator John "Chief" Chavis, safeties coach Ron Cooper and cornerbacks coach Mark Smith are trying to identify a quality two-deep and possibly even greater numbers to prepare for the annual SEC onslaught of heady quarterbacks and speedy receivers.
"I think we've grown a lot," Chavis said of the defensive backs prior to spring break. "Our big focus was getting better fundamentally. ... We've got less scheme in right now than we did this time last year. We've got to become the best fundamental team on the field. If we're going to get better, that's where it is."
The defensive coaches are going to be counting on some recent signees to become key contributors in the secondary.
Among them are safeties Joe Foucha and Myles Mason, 2018 signees who earned limited playing time a year ago, and early enrollees Greg Brooks Jr. and Devin Bush. Foucha is currently running at first-team free safety, while Mason and Brenden Young, a walk-on who transferred from Ouachita Baptist, are second-team safeties.
Foucha got a start in the season finale at Missouri after Pulley and Curl were disciplined.
"That was a big opportunity for me, just to see the speed of the game," Foucha said. "My freshman year I was a student of the game. I didn't play that much, but I didn't hang my head down, because I had a veteran in Santos Ramirez in front of me. I learned a lot from him."
Brooks has gotten first-team reps at nickel back in McClure's absence, while Bush is one of the aspiring contributors among the younger players at corner back.
"I feel like Greg is going to be a good guy," McClure said. "He's coming along and he's learning. He's looking pretty natural."
Young has earned reviews from his teammates for his willingness to lower a shoulder and deliver a hit.
"He comes down and hits you," defensive end Gabe Richardson said Saturday. "He's fearless."
Richardson also praised other youngsters in the secondary.
"Myles Mason, that guy has balled out all spring," he said. "Joe Foucha ... he's a banger and he's gonna play physical. Kam Curl, hey the man's everywhere. He's gonna hit you."
The Razorbacks allowed 26 pass plays of 30 or more yards last season, an average of 2.2 per game, which ranked among the most allowed in the nation, and 12th in the SEC ahead of Texas A&M and Missouri. That number must go down for Arkansas to markedly improve its standing on defense.
Chavis said understanding the concepts has been the largest emphasis for the secondary this spring.
"We're putting a lot on them from a fundamental standpoint in terms of what we're asking them to do," Chavis said. "I think they're responding. I think right now, other than depth there, I'm pretty excited about what's going on. What we've got to do is learn to be consistent and learn to play the concept. We've got to keep growing in that direction, but I'm excited about what's going on in the secondary."
Sports on 04/03/2019
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