FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes paced the sideline in between plays during an 11-on-11 portion of practice earlier this week.
His defense had just made another play against the first-team offense, batting down a pass at the line of scrimmage. But Haynes didn’t hear much noise from the backups as they stood and watched the action. And he didn’t like it.
“We can show a little excitement out here,” Haynes said, looking at players on the sideline. “We’re not going to get in trouble if we show a little excitement.”
Welcome to a new defensive mentality at Arkansas in 2012. The group, which quietly resided in the background of former coach Bobby Petrino’s offense, feels like it has been given new – and exciting - life with Haynes replacing Willy Robinson.
There’s no doubt the talent on the offensive side of the ball will earn plenty of attention this year. There’s good reason with talented veterans like Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton returning. But Arkansas knows, and understands, the performance of its defense will be vital to reaching its goals this season.
So Haynes and company are challenging the group to perform even if it comes at the expense of the offense. Take last Saturday’s scrimmage in Razorback Stadium, for example, when the offense couldn’t score on seven straight possessions.
Safety Ross Rasner said it’s a big change as he looked back at Petrino-run practices.
“We’re not afraid to go make plays or make hits on receivers,” Rasner said Thursday night. “It’s a different attitude. It’s not offensively minded, you know?
“We’re not afraid to go thud up on a running back or lay somebody out in practice. Where in the past we might get kicked out of practice or chewed out for it. But now there’s no voice out there telling us not to do those things.”
To be clear: Rasner and company aren’t unloading on receivers or ball carriers in practice situations. Protecting teammates remains a key component of camp.
But Haynes and Arkansas linebackers coach Taver Johnson — who former coach Bobby Petrino also hired before being fired on April 10 — want emotion, energy and big plays in camp. That’s why Johnson, even after the defense was impressive during portions of last Saturday’s scrimmage, sounded dissatisfied Thursday night.
“The first scrimmage it was OK at best,” Johnson said. “We need to be through the roof when it comes to running to the football. Stopping the run as usual. Same things we talk about. And for sure we need to see some more execution. We’re going into the 18th practice (Friday) and it’ll be 19 by the time we scrimmage. We need to see some execution and some guys being disciplined and just doing their job.”
So the Razorbacks will take aim again tonight, when they wrap up the final practice open to the public in Razorback Stadium. Arkansas will hold its second major scrimmage of the preseason with the group trying to take another step forward.
There are plenty of steps still to take, too. Plenty of uneasiness remains around the group as it closes in on the Sept. 1 opener against Jacksonville State.
There are depth concerns at safety and linebacker. Key players like Tenarius Wright, Alonzo Highsmith and Eric Bennett have been sidelined much of the preseason because of injuries, leaving youth working with starters at key positions.
But the goal is clear no matter who is on the field in practice: put up a fight.
“We’re trying to make sure this culture on defense is fast, tough and physical,” Haynes said. “That’s the only way you can play defense. Don’t take it, you know?
“We need to compete against this great offense and until we do that we’re going to keep getting after them.”
Haynes and Johnson have relayed the message this preseason as they try to improve a group that ranked eighth in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense last season (22.2) points and ninth in total defense (362.8 yards).
While they haven’t implemented sweeping changes in the system, Rasner said things have been simpler so far. He also said players are getting it.
“Some scheme things are a little different, but it’s just the way he teaches it,” Rasner said. “It’s a lot more player friendly. In the past it’s been more, it makes sense to the coaches and the players kind of had some questions about it.
“(Haynes) leaves no stone unturned. Every question we have he has an answer.”
Players are trying to respond with more effort and energy in practices.
Wright tipped a Tyler Wilson pass in 11-on-11 drills earlier this week and the ball fell into defensive end Trey Flowers’ hands for an interception. Linebacker Otha Peters intercepted a pass during last Saturday’s scrimmage and returned it for a touchdown. Cornerback Will Hines also latched onto an interception this week.
It’s just a start. The defense still has much to prove as it closes in on the season.
But Arkansas believes it is moving in the right direction under Haynes.
“I understand the concept that this is an offense-based team,” Arkansas cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew said. “But that’s why Coach Haynes is here, to make a difference.
“We definitely are trying to come out and prove a point that it’s just not an offensive team, but that we definitely have a defense.”