FAYETTEVILLE — Chris Ash hasn’t changed his stance after two games.
Sure, the Arkansas defense has played pretty well. The Razorbacks forced two turnovers and collected four sacks against Louisiana-Lafayette. They held Samford to 231 yards last Saturday even though three key starters weren’t on the field.
But they’re still not close to what the defensive coordinator expects after two games.
“When you really look at the details of it, we’ve got a long way to go,” Ash said Sunday night. “Just our consistency with our responsibilities, our consistent effort, communication, playing physical every snap. We’ve got a long way to go.”
He’s right. It’s also hard to ignore the big steps Arkansas (2-0) has taken from last season as it begins preparation for Saturday’s game against Southern Miss (0-2).
Statistically speaking, the improvements are clear from average yards allowed (436 after two games in 2012 to 252.5 in 2013), points allowed (29 to 17.5), rushing defense (116.5 yards to 98.5 yards) and pass defense (319.5 yards to 154 yards).
The Razorbacks are ranked in the top 40 nationally in all four defensive categories so far, something they couldn’t accomplish after two games last fall. The success has come against Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Football Championship Subdivision (Samford) opponents. But that’s comparable to 2012, when Jacksonville State (FCS) and Louisiana-Monroe (Sun Belt) scorched the Razorbacks early in the season.
So there’s proof Arkansas — which does have room to grow — has been sound.
“They’ve handled it well, but they’re not where we want them to be at,” Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon said Sunday. “We haven’t given up really big, big plays, but we’ve given up some plays in key situations that we need to prevent. That comes from just doing more work and guys really concentrating.”
The work so far has helped Arkansas hold its two opponents below 300 yards. It’s also an improvement from 2012, when Kentucky (170 yards) was the only team Arkansas held below the 300-yard mark. That came in a weather-shortened game.
Southern Miss coach Todd Monken noticed a group that has been stingy, refusing to allow a slew of big plays. The longest gain against the Razorbacks so far was a 31-yard completion in the opener, when linebacker Jarrett Lake was caught looking in the backfield while running back Elijah McGuire got behind him out of the backfield.
“What you don’t see on tape is a lot of explosive plays,” Monken said about Arkansas’ opponents. “You see some games where they turn guys loose, but for the most part, they force you to drive the ball and that’s a sign of a really good defense.
“They believe in their philosophy and they don’t waiver from it. So we’re going to do have to do a good job of executing and finishing off drives with touchdowns.”
Samford accomplished that three times last Saturday, which was Ash’s biggest disappointment in Arkansas’ 31-21 win. Two of the Bulldogs’ touchdown drives spanned 75 yards on 13 plays and 50 yards on six plays. The third came from a short field after a fumble by Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams.
Linebacker Braylon Mitchell admitted Arkansas “got too comfortable” and “let Samford stay in the game a little longer than they were supposed to.” But the defense buckled down and limited Samford to 10 yards in the fourth quarter.
Ash also liked a three-series stretch late in the second and third quarters.
“We had a third down stop, they punted, we fumbled the punt, we went out and stopped them again,” Ash said. “And then we came out to start the second half and got a stop. So there were three series there in a row that we played pretty good defense that I was pretty excited about. In the fourth quarter, we only gave I think maybe 10 yards in two series. So we finished the game strong.”
Arkansas won despite having three key starters sidelined. Defensive end Trey Flowers, who earned SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors after the season opener, and safety Rohan Gaines sat out with knee injuries. Linebacker Jarrett Lake, who has been touted as a leader since the preseason, was suspended.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema believes it was a reason for the “bump in the road.”
“There was just so many new starters in that second game,” Bielema said. “You’d like to get a little more continuity, especially it was one at each position. Thankfully, it was one at each position, but it was a safety, it was a linebacker, it was a D-Lineman.
“And really at all three of those positions, it was one of our key guys.”
Arkansas is optimistic Flowers and Gaines will be back from the injuries. Lake, who was being touted as a defensive leader before his suspension, should return as well.
So the Razorbacks could be at full strength when Ash’s construction of Arkansas’ defense continues against Southern Miss and its no-huddle, spread offense.
There’s no doubt the first two weeks are proof the Razorbacks remain a defensive work in progress. But they’ve at least shown more promise through two games than in 2012, when the group finished as one of the SEC’s worst defenses.
“When you can end that football game with 230 total yards, they were 3 of 11 on third down, you know, those are pretty good statistics,” Ash said. “I wish we didn’t have the 21 points on the board, but we can clean that up and get it taken care of.
“There were a lot of good things that happened. But we’ve got to take care of the negative things because they will get magnified against a better team.”