Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Smith a perfect fit in Arkansas
Arkansas defensive assistant coach Mark Smith catches a football during warmups prior to the Razorbacks' game against Mississippi State on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Starkville, Miss.
Football is still the ultimate team sport ever invented. I’m talking about American football, not Fútbol, as in the world’s other great 11-on-11 game.
I can watch a 1-0 soccer game with enjoyment, but only because I followed my daughter’s games intently for about 15 years.
It’s not the same as the physical nature of real football, with the strategies and techniques that are required.
I’m a firm believer that the game has never changed. It’s still about blocking and tackling. The team with the best linemen is going to win most of the time.
But the game has been tweaked of late. The rules made it easier to pass block. With those subtle changes that allow holding, less and less is it about who is the best in the middle of the field, but more about who is best on the edges.
That was the beginning of a wonderful pure football discussion with Arkansas cornerbacks coach Mark Smith, a great recruiter on Chad Morris’ staff. Smith coaches corners for defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis.
“The game has reversed a little,” Smith said. “Defensively, you used to want to build your defense strong up the middle. Now, it’s on the edge.
“When I sit down with Chief, he talks about defensive ends and corners, the edge guys. If you are good there, things get really easier. That’s where the game has moved to, ends and corners.”
Smith’s ties with Morris go back to their days on the boards of Texas high school coaches associations. Smith was once president of the North Texas group, before serving on Bob Stoops’ staff at Oklahoma.
It was during that time at Oklahoma that things began to fall in place for Smith to eventually get a job with Morris at SMU. Smith was defensive quality control coach on the OU defensive staff with Brent Venables. That advanced Smith’s relationship with Morris.
“I was taking my high school coaches to Clemson to see what Brent was doing there, and got to be around Chad some more, so when he took the SMU job there was a good fit,” Smith said. “Also, Chad actually recruited my school at Hurst (near Fort Worth) when he was at Tulsa. We knew there was a fit.”
After spending an hour in Smith’s office, there is no question about the fit. It starts with the way Smith sells in recruiting. I felt like a recruit about halfway through the interview when Smith jumped out of seat and onto the white board in his office to draw a concept that is part of his recruiting pitch.
It started when I asked how he liked Fayetteville, a no brainer there is a love of the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. He was planning a spring break walleye fishing trip with in what amounts to his backyard in the Twin Bridges area of Goshen.
The beauty of Northwest Arkansas has become an integral selling point with recruits, along with the strong relationships the Morris staff continues to build.
“It’s the consistency of the relationship we build in recruiting,” Smith said. “We want to get our recruits on campus as many times as possible, so they can see the consistency in what we do, how we are and the relationships they are going to have on campus.
“So it can’t happen on one visit. We get them here early, get them back again and again. They are going to see that we never change. We are genuine.”
What’s required is an early evaluation and then a quick jump start to recruiting. It may be a two-year process.
“You develop trust over that time,” Smith said. “And, they find out if it’s some place they are going to enjoy, and not just for the games.
“We tell them, everywhere they go, they are going to like the games. They are going to have fun that day. Playing the game is fun and everyone has a great atmosphere.”
That’s when Smith went to his white board. He wrote that the four-year college experience is 1,460 days.
“If you play the maximum number of games, that’s 15 a year,” he said. “So that’s a max of 60 games you could play in a college career. So those are going to be fun days, 60 of them. No doubt about it, everyone is going to enjoy those 60 days no matter where they go.”
That’s where the sales pitch arrives. What will it be like for those other 1,400 days?
“Are those other 1,400 going to be great days?” Smith said. “That’s what really matters. That’s the bulk of your college experience. That’s really important.
“What’s study hall going to be like? What are all the other things we have for them going to be like?”
It’s easy to see that the relationships are what will make those other 1,400 days good or not so good. Smith said the job of the staff is to prove that it’s going to be really good at Arkansas because of the relationships.
“It’s a family thing,” he said. “Our wives are so important. Like a couple of weeks ago, our wives brought King Cake for the New Orleans kids. They miss that from home.
“We do those sort of things over and over and it’s genuine care. It’s little things, but they are the things that make a difference. It’s the things like Coach Morris praying before every meal. It’s who he is and it’s consistent.”
Smith is known as an ace on the recruiting trail, but he’s solid on the defensive side. He was out of coaching for three years at SMU, but only to a slight degree. He was a quality control assistant on both sides of the ball while heading up the recruiting.
“We just didn’t have the numbers in recruiting that we did here, or in quality control,” he said. “So I helped on both sides of the ball and wore a lot of hats at SMU. But my background was always defense.”
As a high school head coach, Smith always called the defensive signals and coached a position.
Smith works closely with veteran Ron Cooper in the secondary. Cooper focuses on the safeties.
“I’ve learned so much from Ron and from Chief,” he said. “They both just have so much experience and it’s in all areas, especially in recruiting.”
Smith has learned tricks in evaluations as they pick out the difference makers for the Chavis defense.
“Coop and Chief recognize almost immediately if they have what we need to play this defense or they don’t,” Smith said. “It has made us much more efficient in our recruiting. You fast forward after a year of working together, I know what they want and again that makes us more efficient.”
What they are looking for at corner is the ability to play press coverages.
“We want to play man free coverages,” Smith said. “If we are not, then we are at least showing it.
“It’s about stopping the (run-pass option) game. If you don’t have the ability to cover down, there is something there for the RPO. The quarterback is looking for that position that’s in run-pass conflict. So if you can play man free, you take away that conflict spot.”
The first seven days of spring drills, now complete, were all about fundamentals. The teaching of the man-to-man principles were heavy.
“You start there,” Smith said. “You want to be great at getting in the face of the receiver. Our guys know that’s where everything starts.”
Well, it starts in recruiting. And, Smith is all over that. Targets were listed on the board where he was breaking down days in the year.
“There’s 35 to 40 there, my position guys or my area guys for 2020 and 2021,” he said. “That’s a good group and you don’t get those guys on campus except with a relationship.
“When we get them here, our recruiting experience is foremost about driving home a relationship so that they have a strong desire to come back.”
Then, it’s getting them to come back again and again. Hopefully, they are difference makers on the edge.
The look on Smith’s face when I said that told me they are going to be just that.
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