This is the second in an eight-part, position-by-position series previewing the 2012 Razorbacks. Up next: Special teams
FAYETTEVILLE — It was a simple question, but Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith couldn’t come up with a concrete answer Tuesday.
Sure, he has heard teammate D.D. Jones jawing with offensive players plenty the past couple of seasons. He has laughed at some of the exchanges, too. But when asked to pinpoint one specific example after practice, Smith drew a blank.
“D.D. says so much stuff, man. I can’t even remember,” Smith said.
It was a perfect response. That, in a nutshell, explains Jones. The vocal senior’s mouth never seems to stop running when he’s on the field.
But it’s not an annoyance for a group that recognizes Jones has jumped whole-heartedly into a vital role as Arkansas prepares for 2012 season. The Bastrop, La., native has become the Razorbacks’ unofficial emotional leader, lifting them up with a variety of words as they press through the daily grind of preseason practices.
So Smith said the Razorbacks want Jones to keep talking and talking.
And Jones, of course, is more than happy to oblige.
“I get myself fired up that way,” Jones said. “It gets me going a lot. When I see guys down, you’ve got to have somebody step in and pick them up. If you see a thing or two here or there to get their blood flowing. It’s a great thing.
“Me being able to get guys pumped up. It’s something I’ll continue to do.”
Jones isn’t just talking for the sake of talking. He’s also backing up the words.
He is the most experienced member of a defense line sporting plenty of new faces in key roles. Jones has played in 37 games with 22 starts in his Arkansas career. He has compiled 81 tackles and 3 ½ sacks, too, and appears to be saving his best for last.
Jones has been in a first-team spot the past week, using his 6-foot-5, 299-pound frame to make an impression on position coach Kevin Peoples.
“He’s been having a great camp,” Peoples said. “He’s never had a bad work ethic, but you can tell that he has picked it up a notch. He’s really doing a great job of really executing what we want. He’s a good leader.”
Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said Jones is having his “best camp.”
“He’s been playing low,” Haynes said. “He’s playing with great pad level. So if he continues to do that he’ll have a good year for us.”
Both coaches have recognized Jones’ importance as an emotional leader as well.
Effort and energy have been important staples of Haynes’ philosophy in his first year as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator. Those are easy for Jones.
He can be heard trying to motivate the defense with simple shouts of “let’s go” before snaps. He’s vocal at the line of scrimmage in other ways, too, reading and recognizing offensive formations and passing information to teammates.
“If D.D. says that an offensive lineman is pulling, nine times out of 10 he’s going to pull,” Smith said. “That’s one thing I like about him. He has good pre-snap reads and it all falls in with the team leadership.”
Then there’s the trash talking.
Center Travis Swanson said it’s “hilarious” listening to Jones talk because “whenever he opens his mouth it’s something pretty interesting.” Swanson said he couldn’t repeat specifics, but did remember the offensive line yanking Jones off the field after his fourth down stop against Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, last October.
“He is on by their sideline just talking,” Swanson said. “We come on the field and had to take him and be like, ‘Hey, you’re off,’ because he was just talking the entire time.”
Jones shrugged when asked how many similar exchanges he has had with opponents over the course of his Arkansas career. He couldn’t put a number on it, saying simply: “I just talk to them all. I just give them all problems.”
The emotional leader of the defensive front said it’s just part of his personality.
“I don’t know if I’m ever quiet on the field,” Jones said. “I stay jawing. That’s my thing. It keeps me rolling. It’s just something I hope I can continue to do.”
A Closer Look At … DEFENSIVE LINE
Best of the Bunch: DT D.D. Jones — The strength of Arkansas’ inexperienced defense lies on the interior line and Jones may just be the best of the bunch. Position coach Kevin Peoples said Jones has turned it up a notch in camp and worked his way to the first-team defense after spending time at tackle and end in 2011.
Watch Out For: DE Chris Smith — Replacing veteran Jake Bequette isn’t easy. But Arkansas believes Chris Smith is ready for the starting role as he begins his third year with the program. Smith has shown promise as a pass rusher, including his two-sack performance in the Cotton Bowl. If he continues to improve in run defense the Razorbacks may just have an all-conference performer at the position.
Biggest Strength: The Razorbacks believe they’ve got plenty of depth, talent and experience in the middle of its defensive line to make an impact this season. The same group didn’t exactly turn in big results in 2011, but the Hogs believe a year of experience and development under new position coach Kevin Peoples will pay off in 2012. There’s no doubt Arkansas will have options with D.D. Jones, Byran Jones, Robert Thomas, Alfred Davis, Jared Green and DeMarcus Hodge to choose from.
Biggest Question: Will the newcomers produce at defensive end? Arkansas feels confident in a three-man rotation with Chris Smith, Trey Flowers and Colton Miles-Nash. But Arkansas’ success at the position could depend on how quickly a new crop that includes junior college transfer Austin Flynn and freshmen JaMichael Winston, Deatrich Wise and Brandon Lewis can lend support. Arkansas saw how vital it could be last season, when Bequette and Wright both missed time with injuries.
Projected Starters: DE — Chris Smith, Jr., Trey Flowers, So.; DT — D.D. Jones, Sr., Alfred Davis, Sr.
Other Contributors: DT — Byran Jones, Jr., Robert Thomas, Jr., Jared Green, Sr., DeMarcus Hodge, RS-Fr., Lavunce Askew, Sr.; DE — Austin Flynn, Jr., Colton Miles-Nash, Sr., Deatrich Wise, Fr., JaMichael Winston, Fr., Brandon Lewis, Fr., Darrell Kelly-Thomas, RS-Fr., Horace Arkadie, RS-Fr.
That Figures: 5 — Combined career sack total for Arkansas’ defensive ends. It’s an indication of how much the Razorbacks relied on Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright to pressure quarterbacks the past two seasons. But with Bequette in the NFL and Wright playing linebacker, Arkansas will need Smith (3 1/2 sacks), Flowers (1 sack), Miles-Nash (1/2 sack), and its newcomers to get to the quarterback.
Quotable: “I had really high hopes for myself last year. I thought I could come out and just dominate. But I realized it’s a lot faster game and I had to learn, and I’m still learning. I feel like I’ll have a way better year this season than I did last season.” — Arkansas defensive tackle Robert Thomas on his 2011 season with the Hogs.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau