This is the second story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Offensive line.
FAYETTEVILLE — Carroll Washington played press coverage in junior college, so the Arkansas cornerback was relieved when defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s arrived last winter and laid out his new plan for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas was going to be aggressive. It would be physical. And a big part of his plans would require cornerbacks playing much closer to the line of scrimmage.
“That’s kind of my thing,” Washington said. “It was very rare last year. Being that I didn’t play as much either, I rarely pressed at all. So I mean, being as though we’re coming in and pressing now, I feel like I’m back in my old style.”
Arkansas’ cornerbacks — which were one of the team’s biggest weaknesses last season — enter the 2014 season with new life after the philosophical change on the edges. No longer would they play it safe by lining up seven or eight yards off the line of scrimmage and give receivers a healthy cushion. Instead, Arkansas plans to put them in the face of wide receivers to battle at the snap and, hopefully, make passing the ball against the Razorbacks much more complicated.
The change has been welcomed with open arms by Arkansas’ cornerbacks.
“I like that a lot. This new philosophy we adopted, we all like it,” Arkansas cornerback Jared Collins said. “Last year we played off a lot and I think that got us out of some of the plays we could’ve made. …
“But now we’re just trying to be more physical and disrupt plays.”
There are risks and rewards. After all, failure to disrupt receivers at the line of scrimmage could lead to more big plays downfield. But it’s a change Arkansas coach Bret Bielema believed his cornerbacks needed after being battered last season.
Smith and secondary coach Clay Jennings, who Bielema has called a “home run hire,” have been responsible for restoring the confidence of a group that includes Washington, Collins, Tevin Mitchell, D.J. Dean, Will Hines and Henre’ Toliver.
Jennings said it starts with trusting them to do their job at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a badge of honor for a corner, for any defensive back to want to get in someone’s face,” Jennings said. “I think once you step in someone’s space and try to make them uncomfortable, you’re trying to send a message. And if you can move your feet and put your body in the correct position and get guys rerouted and make that quarterback go to his second or possibly third option, we’re going to be OK.”
One of the first priorities was making sure the corners were physically capable of accomplishing it. Bulking up in the offseason became a necessity for the group.
Washington was one of the biggest to biggest. He weighed 165 pounds when he arrived last summer, but is now listed 190. Washington — who put on 10 pounds this offseason — said it was evident during the first week of preseason practice.
“I was actually running with a receiver and he was running a comeback route,” Washington said. “My hand got stuck on him. I actually wound up pulling him down. I’m like, ‘I didn’t even mean to do that.’ I guess the weight room is paying off.”
Jennings said it has helped in other ways as well.
“It gives them a heck of a lot more confidence as far as being able to control some receivers,” Jennings said. “And then also when they put their body in front of somebody, one of those big guys wants to run into their chest, they’ll be able to get them off of them. I think the physical development those guys have had in the weight room with (strength) coach (Ben) Herbert, I think it’s huge.”
Arkansas is confident it has a solid starting duo in Washington and Mitchel, whose confidence was shaken last year after being beaten for a handful of big plays.
Mitchel, a senior, had offseason shoulder surgery and was limited early in camp, but has been cleared for full contact and is expected to get his first scrimmage work of preseason camp Saturday afternoon. Bielema said Mitchel — who had 47 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown last season — has changed.
“Tevin physically is better than he was a year ago, but he is a different person in every way shape or form,” Bielema said. “His mind is in the right place. His heart is in the right place. When those things fall in line … Now the upstairs is matching the downstairs and that, I think, can do something.”
They have help with Collins, Dean, Toliver and Hines as well. The group has become one of Arkansas deepest entering the season with five players who earned ample playing time last season. Of course, they still have plenty to prove after last year.
Arkansas was disappointed with a handful of big plays surrendered in last Saturday’s scrimmage. Receivers Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher and Damon Mitchell each got open deep to complete pass plays of 40 yards or more.
But it didn’t shake the cornerbacks’ enthusiasm about their new responsibilities.
“They’re challenging us to cover our man,” Collins said. “I feel like it means they can trust us to do our job each and every play if they’re trusting us to press.”
A Closer Look At … CORNERBACKS
Best of the Bunch: Carroll Washington — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has raved about Washington’s progress this preseason, believing the senior has what it takes to become a lock-down cornerback for the Razorbacks. His weight was one of Bielema’s biggest concern when he arrived last year. But Washington is now up to 190 pounds, which is crucial for Arkansas’ plans to play press coverage this season.
Watch Out For: Henre’ Toliver — The Razorbacks have plenty of veterans returning at cornerback, but don’t be surprised if Toliver finds his way on the field some this season. The staff likes his size (6-foot-1, 192 pounds) and athleticism. He got some first-team work during Arkansas’ first scrimmage because of injuries and held up.
Biggest Question: There’s experience at the position, but is the group really better than it was in 2013? It can’t truly be answered until the season begins at Auburn on Aug. 30, but the Razorbacks are confident the corners have new life after a change in defensive philosophy. There’s no doubt Arkansas will be tested early with talented offenses like Auburn, Texas Tech and Texas A&M on the schedule the first month.
Projected Starters: Tevin Mitchel, Sr., (47 tackles, INT, 5 PBUs in 2013); Carroll Washington, Sr.,(18 tackles, 2 PBUs in 2013)
Other Contributors: Jared Collins, So.; D.J. Dean, So.; Will Hines, Jr.; Henre’ Toliver, Fr.; Cornelius Floyd, Fr.
That Figures: 10 — Number of touchdown passes of 30 yards or more surrendered by the Razorbacks last season. The cornerbacks weren’t always responsible for the big-play scores, but the group endured plenty of struggles in a rocky season.
Quotable: “When you’re right there in his face, there’s no way he can run to you. When you’re playing off seven yards, he can move this way, move that way and you basically have to mirror his footsteps. By us being right there in their face, it gives us a chance to put our hands on them and slow them down and receivers don’t like getting touch anyways. That kind of frustrates them.” — Washington on Arkansas’ plan to play more press coverage this season.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau