Arkansas football defense earns praise after Thursday practice

Arkansas linebacker Brad Spence is shown during practice Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Andy Shupe/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas defense turned in a strong performance with lots of pressure on the quarterbacks, plenty of tipped and intercepted passes, a couple of interceptions and a pair of wins in the 2-minute drill during Thursday’s seventh practice of spring drills.

“Put three things on film: Takeaways, tackle, pursuit,” co-defensive coordinator Marcus Woodson shouted to the defensive unit during an early team period.

The Razorbacks continued to work a defensive front that puts starting defensive end Nico Davillier in a stand-up “Buck” role, with linebacker Brad Spence sometimes filling the same spot. Coach Sam Pittman said he has liked the results as well as some new stunts from the front and blitz packages.

“I felt like the defense played extremely fast today,” Pittman said. “Some tweaks that they did with some of their line movements, some of their twist movements I thought affected the offense a little bit today.”

A good example came from redshirt freshman defensive end Quincy Rhodes, who took advantage of some work with the starters opposite Landon Jackson.

Rhodes had a 10-yard “sack” on the first snap of the 2-minute drill and combined with Jackson and Keivie Rose on another pressure.

“Quincy’s a guy, he just needs more reps,” Pittman said. “Getting through the spring he gets a little better each day. … He’s ultra-talented with his skills and body size.”

The Razorbacks worked in shoulder pads and shorts on a crisp morning with the first five periods taking place inside the Walker Pavilion with temperatures hovering in the mid-to-high 30s. The rest of the workout, starting with a punting period, was conducted on the turf field outside and it included a punt block by redshirt freshman receiver Davion Dozier, who is making a play to stick in the upper parts of the receiver rotation.

Senior Andrew Armstrong, who is off to strong start as the top wideout for quarterback Taylen Green, pulled up on a deep route and wore an ice wrap on his left hamstring for the rest of the day.

Receivers coach Ronnie Fouch was asked if the frequent matchups between Armstrong and sophomore cornerback Jaylon Braxton were intentional.

“Armstrong wants to go against the best every day and we love one-on-ones,” Fouch said. “It’s a competition. I love Braxton. He gives us a great challenge every day. All those DBs do in one-on-ones. It’s tough against our corners and they’re doing a great job.

With Armstrong out, Tyrone Broden, Isaac TeSlaa, Isaiah Sategna and Jaedon Wilson had the best days among the receiving corps. Broden had a critical catch in the 2-minute drill and multiple other standout grabs.

TeSlaa showed good body control to reach behind him for a couple of catches.

“The depth of the room is solid right now,” Fouch said.

Pittman said he’s hopeful Armstrong will be ready to return for Saturday’s practice.

New running backs coach Kolby Smith and Fouch both had their first media functions Thursday, following Pittman at the dais inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Smith, a running back for Bobby Petrino at Louisville who is now working on Petrino’s offensive staff with the Razorbacks, balked when a reporter suggested Petrino has mellowed since his time as head coach at Arkansas, when he led the Razorbacks to a 34-17 record from 2008-11.

“Not at all, not at all, not at all,” Smith said. “That fire would never leave. That’s who he is. That’s how he’s been able to coach for a long time at a high level and have some of the best offenses in the country and how some of the best players really shine under him. You don’t want that passion to go away.”

Transfer linebacker Xavian Sorey had a tipped pass over the middle that immediately ricocheted to safety Hudson Clark for an interception. The third defensive unit also had an interception from an unidentified player and there were more pass breakups than can be counted on two hands.

Some of them should have been intercepted, with defensive coordinator Travis Williams, Woodson and defensive backs coach Deron Wilson calling out “interception” with the ball in the air at times and reacting in frustration when a few potential picks fell to the turf.

Transfer cornerback Marquise Robinson recovered a muffed snap that tumbled deep into the backfield after being kicked.

Pairing mostly with Sorey on the first unit, Spence had a couple of breakups and asserted his physicality along with Carson Dean.

“I mean he’s an interception magnet,” Pittman said. “That’s a group we really don’t talk about enough. But that young linebacker group is pretty solid now with Dean and Spence and [Alex] Sanford, and obviously Sorey coming in has helped us.”

Facing a second-and-20 in the 2-minute drill, top quarterback Green found TeSlaa for a 26-yard completion to the opposing 44 with plenty of time left and the offense needing a touchdown.

However, the defense was given a “vicinity” sack to cost the offense their second and final timeout. Tailback Ja’Quinden Jackson’s 11-yard catch converted fourth-and-6.

Sategna had a 21-yard catch and run over the middle to reach the 20-yard line but the offense stalled from there. Green’s rollout pass on fourth down was wide for Broden in the end zone with Clark and Doneiko Slaughter in coverage.

The second unit on defense also responded in the 2-minute drill after quarterback Malachi Singleton got loose for a 25-yard scramble to the 41. Singleton’s 6-yard pass to Isaiah Augustave converted fourth-and-3 from the 34. Singleton, who had cost the offense valuable time by opting for a 3-yard run instead of throwing the ball away earlier in the series, got the unit to the 23 before the clock ran out.

The Razorbacks will conduct an open scrimmage Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium that should start around 9 a.m. after warmups.