This is the ninth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Quarterbacks
FAYETTEVILLE — Former Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith took a peek into the future when he evaluated the Razorbacks’ defensive line depth late last fall.
Smith, who is now a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was one of three seniors closing in on the end of his career. But he also recognized the promise waiting behind them in a 2012 signing class that included five defensive linemen.
“Deatrich Wise, Taiwan Johnson, Brandon Lewis, JaMichael Winston, Darius Philon, all of them are redshirt freshmen,” Smith said last November. “That’s one thing that is going to be scary to come back in two years and see those guys play. I feel like the young guys in development play hard. They’re hungry. They’re fun to watch.”
Arkansas doesn’t have to wait that long. The Razorbacks will get a chance to see all five players — who are now third-year sophomores — when they open the season at Auburn on Aug. 30.
Defensive end Trey Flowers, a first-team All-SEC selection, is the focal point of Arkansas’ defensive line entering the season. There’s no doubt how much the five sophomores help him will determine the success of the group.
Three are on track to start the opener next to Flowers. Philon, Johnson and Winston have manned first-team spots the past two weeks in camp. Wise and Lewis are capable as well, but have been working through knee issues.
All five have traveled different paths to their place on Arkansas’ defensive line depth chart. But Johnson said they’re ready to play an important role in Arkansas’ defensive plans.
“We came in and worked hard and we’re all a brotherhood,” Johnson said. “We’re all family. I’ve lived with all of them and I still live with one of them. We really care about each other and we push each other and I really feel that is what is going to drive us this season, as far as being able to play with all our brothers on the field.”
The five-man group was part of former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s final signing class. Arkansas recognized the need to add size, length and athleticism up front and former defensive line coach Steve Caldwell found help.
Wise was the only one who played right away, appearing in two games before being sidelined the rest of the 2012. The rest redshirted, working behind older players through Arkansas’ tumultous season.
Philon played the biggest role last fall, starting five games and finishing sixth on the team in tackles (46) and third in tackles for losses (9). New defensive coordinator Robb Smith said he’s eager to see how much Philon can produce now that he’s a full-time starter as a sophomore.
“He loves to play the game,” Smith said. “He’s got a leadership ability about him, too. Guys are kind of drawn to him. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s doing everything Coach Segrest asks him to do. We’re anxious to roll with him.”
But Smith and the defensive line coach Rory Segrest needs contributes from all of them. The five-members of the 2012 class make up the bulk of Arkansas’ two-deep depth chart up front. So expectations are high.
“We know we’re very important,” Winston said. “Just doing our job is key. It’s key.
Winston and Johnson weren’t with the starting unit when preseason camp began, but have joined Philon.
The Razorbacks moved junior DeMarcus Hodge out of the nose tackle spot and handed the first-team role to Johnson despite being undersized (6-foot-3, 255 pounds). Johnson, who was a defensive end when he signed, is being asked to play in a tilted nose guard position. Arkansas believes is best for his speed and leverage.
Johnson said he’s ready to be the next member of the 2012 class to play a big role.
“Some guys have had starting roles and some like a person like me, I’ve had to wait my time and be on the scout team and prove myself and work my way up the depth chart,” Johnson said. “I feel that’s a plus. Most of my boys have experience. I don’t have that game experience like they have, but just being out there with them, going through this camp, I have confidence that they’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs.”
Winston, meanwhile, has moved up because of injuries of the injuries to Winston and Lewis. He has worked with the starters the past two weeks and Segrest said his improvement has been noticeable.
Arkansas is hoping Wise will be available for the opener after being credited with five sacks during the Red-White Game last April. But Segrest said Winston has proven capable since the spring.
“You can see he’s got his mind made up that he’s wanting to get it done the right way,” Segrest said. “He’s a powerful guy. He’s gotten a lot quicker since the spring. He’s shown some flashes, and I feel pretty good with where he is at this point.”
Winston and Philon were high school teammates at Pritchard (Ala.) Vigor High. Johnson said he and Philon — who will start alongside each other on the interior against the Tigers — remain roommates for their third year on campus.
The three, along with Wise and Lewis, are eager to perform next to each other for the first time in their Arkansas careers.
Johnson said the 2012 signees know “challenges are coming,” but Winston added they’re ready to tackle them together.
“It’s nice to have those guys on the field with you,” Winston said. “You knowing you’ve all come in together and finally have that camaraderie.”
A Closer Look At … DEFENSIVE LINE
Best of the Bunch: Trey Flowers — The senior is the cornerstone of Arkansas’ defense after turning down a chance to enter the NFL Draft as a junior. Flowers was named first-team All-SEC by the conference coaches this week after collecting 13 ½ tackles for losses and 5 sacks last season. Flowers had the benefit of playing opposite Chris Smith last year, but will be the focal point of offensive gameplans this fall.
Watch Out For: Darius Philon — The sophomore is primed for a big year after starting the final five games in place of injured senior Robert Thomas. Philon is considered an undersized player at the position (6-foot-3, 287 pounds), but it hasn’t kept him from making an impact. He was six on the team in tackles (46), third in tackles for losses (9) and fourth in sacks (3) last season.
Biggest Question: Can Taiwan Johnson anchor the line at nose guard? Philon may be undersized at defensive tackle, but it’s nothing compared to Johnson. The Razorbacks bumped the 6-foot-3, 255-pound sophomore up to the first-team defense the second week of camp to play a tilted nose guard position in their scheme. The Hogs are banking on Johnson’s speed and leverage to stand firm inside.
Projected Starters: Trey Flowers, Sr., (13 ½ tackles for losses, 5 sacks in 2013); Darius Philon, So., (9 tackles for losses, 3 sacks in 2013); Taiwan Johnson, So., (4 tackles in 2013); JaMichael Winston, So., (4 tackles in 2013)
Other Contributors: Deatrich Wise, So.; Tevin Beanum, RS-Fr.; DeMarcus Hodge, Jr.; Brandon Lewis, So.; Bijhon Jackson, Fr.
That Figures: 11 — Flowers’ rank on the school’s career tackles for loss chart. The senior — who has 32 in his career — should climb quickly this season. He’s five away from jumping into a third-place tie with former Razorback Wayne Martin (37). Henry Ford is second (46), while Billy Ray Smith holds the school record with 63.
Quotable: “I feel really good about the line. We’re a bunch of athletic guys. Most people call us undersized but we’re athletic, we play hard and we play physical and we attack the line of scrimmage and we try to make plays in the backfield.” — Johnson on Arkansas’ defensive front.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau