Four Downs: Arkansas Seeks Pass Defense Improvement; Gragg ‘Limited At Best’ Saturday


1. What’s Wrong?

Arkansas coach John L. Smith was asked Wednesday what has gone wrong with his defense, which is struggling during the Razorbacks’ 1-3 start.

His initial response: Everything.

“Our ability to defend the run and the pass,” Smith said.

Smith elaborated, though, saying Arkansas actually has done a solid job of stopping the run lately. The same can’t be said about a pass defense, which has been shredded by opponents all season. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova threw for a career-high 397 yards with five touchdowns in last week’s 35-26 win at Arkansas.

“Forcing people to throw the ball, and then not being there to defend it, giving up a big play here, a big play there, has really hurt us,” Smith said.

Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said Arkansas is doing a decent job of rushing the quarterback, but the biggest problems have come in coverage with opponents finding ways to move methodically down the field. The Razorbacks are ranked 111th in the nation in pass defense, allowing 312.2 yards a game.

“You don’t want the offense to just nickel-and-dime you down the field,” Haynes said. “That’s why you start getting on them and our guys have to do a good job of covering. … We’ve got to keep understanding where our eyes got to be, where our drops have to be — exactly. So we can challenge those routes and guys can’t just sit there and nickel-and-dime you down the field when you’re playing zone.”

Haynes was asked if the solution was playing more man-to-man coverages against Texas A&M. He said Arkansas can’t afford to “go crazy with a bunch of man.”

“We still have young guys back there that are learning. You can’t go crazy with it back there,” Haynes said. “I think we have to get better at understanding our zone coverage and challenging receivers a little bit more even in zone.”

2. Gragg ‘Limited At Best’

It doesn’t sound like Arkansas is counting on tight end Chris Gragg during Saturday’s game against Texas A&M. Smith said the senior, who left the Rutgers game with a bone bruise in the first half, is going to be “limited at best.”

Gragg ranks second on the team in receiving, catching 19 passes for 234 yards with 2 touchdowns this season. He is part of a lengthy injury list that has included quarterback Tyler Wilson, receiver Cobi Hamilton, fullbacks Kiero Small and Kody Walker, and offensive guard Tyler Deacon through four games this season.

Backup tight ends Austin Tate, Alex Voelzke and Demetrius Dean will be counted on if Gragg can’t play Saturday.

“We do have some tight ends that can step in and play and Tate has done a good job up to this point and will continue,” Smith said. “He’ll be thrown into that situation, and he’ll do a good job. … We’ll make those substitutions.”

3. Turnover Void

Arkansas has only forced two turnovers in four games this season, one big reason the Razorbacks rank last (No. 120) in the country in turnover margin. Arkansas hasn’t forced a turnover in 10 straight quarters, too, dating back to the first half of its loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 8.

Haynes said a number of factors go into forcing turnovers.

“To me takeaways happen with guys gang tackling,” Haynes said. “We’ve got to get everybody to the ball. We’ve got to get more than one person to the ball. We’ve got to work on flying around. We’ve got to work on one, two guys there get the tackle, the third guy work on stripping the ball. We’ve stressed it for the last couple weeks.”

4. Extra Points

Smith said running back Dennis Johnson did not participate in Wednesday’s practice because of a migraine headache. The senior is expected to earn more carries Saturday after averaging 6.7 yards a carry this season. … Haynes said safety Eric Bennett remains “day-to-day” as he continues to deal with an undisclosed injury. Alan Turner will start if Bennett can’t play Saturday. … Haynes said freshman Nate Holmes, who moved from running back to cornerback before the Rutgers game, is close to being ready to contribute at the position this season.

— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau