FAYETTEVILLE — Tight ends and running backs covered the ball with two hands while running through a gauntlet Tuesday, emerging from the other side to coaches and managers smacking them across the midsection with big red pads.
Receivers took turns trying to rip the ball from each other during pass catching drills. Ball carriers, meanwhile, dove into red pads placed on the ground to emphasize the importance of hanging on until the play was dead.
It’s no secret Arkansas (1-2) has a myriad of problems in a variety of areas as it prepares for Saturday’s game against Rutgers (3-0) in Razorback Stadium. But the first order of business when Arkansas returned to the practice field was pretty clear Tuesday afternoon: Eliminate the alarming number of turnovers.
“You’re not going to win a football game with turnovers,” Smith said Monday afternoon. “You can’t afford to turn it over. You turn it over four times against anybody you’re going to lose. You turn it over five you’re going to lose. You turn it over more than that you’re going to lose. We can’t afford to turn it over, period.”
The emphasis is warranted considering Arkansas has committed 10 turnovers through three games, hurting itself with self-inflicted wounds. It included five turnovers (three fumbles and two interceptions) in the 52-0 loss to Alabama.
The total number of turnovers is tied with Maryland and Houston for the most in the nation through three weeks. Even worse: Opponents have used the 10 takeaways to score seven touchdowns against Arkansas’ defense, which is struggling on its own.
Arkansas has been outscored 49-14 off turnovers this season.
The Razorbacks also rank No. 119 out of 120 teams in turnover margin (minus-8).
“It just shows our, probably, a lack of focus when we’re out there,” quarterback/receiver Brandon Mitchell said. “That’s why you have to be in tune every single play. That’s something we really focused on (Tuesday), doing ball security things. We did it like 10 or 15 minutes, going through different circuits and things like that. We just have to be focused and be in tune with the game.”
Arkansas did a solid job last season, turning the ball over 20 times in 13 games. The turnover total was tied for the fourth-lowest total among Southeastern Conference teams and played a big role in the Razorbacks reaching the 11-win mark.
The success hasn’t carried over to 2012, although Arkansas is still counting on the same playmakers at the skill positions. Arkansas lost three fumbles in the opener and threw two interceptions in the loss to ULM. Alabama turned Arkansas’ five turnovers into 35 points last Saturday and it could’ve been even worse.
Arkansas coughed up the ball eight times. Running back Knile Davis had half of them, losing two his four fumbles. Dennis Johnson had the ball jarred out of his hands on a second half kick return. Tight end Chris Gragg and quarterback Brandon Mitchell also fumbled, but the Razorbacks recovered the ball.
“We work ball security a lot,” Gragg said. “I know you can blame it on the rain Saturday, but that’s really no excuse. We have to protect the ball better.”
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said after the Alabama loss the fumble total was “ridiculous.” He was just as critical three days about the mistakes three days later.
“The bad thing is a lot of them have been uncaused,” Petrino said. “Just, you know, guys been falling to the ground and putting out their hand to break their fall and letting the ball go on quite a few of them.
“It’s just something that has to stop. Right now. No more. Can’t do it.”
So Arkansas is hoping extra attention during drill work will make a difference in breaking the bad habit, although Petrino said it’s not unusual.
The Razorbacks have incorporated their ball security circuit in practices several times since the fumble-filled season opener. But it’s clear the message hadn’t resonated in an ugly performance against the Crimson Tide.
“The bottom line is just don’t fumble it,” Davis said. “There’s not a lot of extra work you can do. Just don’t fumble the ball.”
Smith said Arkansas can’t afford multiple turnovers again if it hopes to break the two-game losing streak against Rutgers on Saturday.
“We’re just not a good enough football team to do that,” Smith said. “We all have to realize that and make sure we don’t make those mistakes.”