FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas defense has had an added aggressiveness about it under new coordinator Robb Smith this spring.
Scrimmages were highlighted by defensive packages that have attacked from all directions. Linebackers slipped through seams in the middle of the offensive line. Pressure came from the edges. Even cornerbacks and safeties were given the green light to make a hard charge into the backfield on occasion.
So it’s seems safe to assume Arkansas will put that pressure on display during the spring-ending Red-White Game in Razorback Stadium today. But Smith wasn’t exactly feeding into those expectations after Thursday’s practice.
“I’ll get that far on Saturday,” Smith said when asked if he planned to blitz a bunch during the spring game. “I think we’re just going to make sure that we’re playing a great technique game and fundamentally sound.”
While Smith was not willing to reveal his exact plan, it’s clear the Razorbacks have spent the spring embracing their physical, attacking mentality under his guidance.
Smith replaced Chris Ash, who moved on to Ohio State, and has been busy breathing life into a group that was picked apart by offenses last season. The Razorbacks ranked near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every statistical category, struggling to find their footing in a relentless league.
But confidence has been the key phrase used by most returning players when describing how they feel in a defense taking on a much different philosophy from its read-and-react approach last fall. The reason behind the comfort, players have added, is the aggressive imprint Smith has made on the group this spring.
“Coach Smith, he’s got some wicked schemes up there,” Arkansas cornerback Carroll Washington said last week. “It just seems like somebody is going to come free every play. I just can’t wait to see really in real game how it’s going to be.”
Arkansas will get a chance to show it — if Smith dials it up, of course — during today’s spring game. The Razorbacks will play their first-team offense and defense (Red team) against the rest of the roster (White team) this afternoon.
Quarterbacks won’t be off limits for contact today, like in every practice, so gauging an accurate sack total is complicated. But Smith’s defense was credited with 11 and 10 sacks, respectively, during the previous two scrimmages this spring.
But success isn’t simply defined by pressure. The phrase “ball disruption” has been a constant in conversation this spring a year after the Razorbacks forced just 14 turnovers. Tackling has been emphasized as well after being a weakness in 2013.
“This year, I feel we’re very more aggressive and everyone is flying around,” said Spaight, who is working with the starters at weakside linebacker. “You watch film on us and you see 11 people to the ball, even when the ball is all the way down field. So if 11 people run to the football that’s a championship defense.”
No one is predicting championship-level for the Razorbacks. Like his predecessor, Smith has been cautious and said Arkansas remains a “work in progress.”
But elevating to the middle of the pack in the SEC would be an impressive enough feat for a program that enters the season with nine straight losses. The Razorbacks have plenty of room for improvement everywhere after the frustrations, but there’s no doubt defensive improvement is a key ingredient in the equation.
“We wanted to develop a more physical mentality,” Smith said of his spring plans for the Razorbacks. “I think our guys embraced that. We’re certainly not where we want to be from that standpoint, but it’s an emphasis with our players and they’ve really worked hard to bring that mentality each and every practice.
“That’s going to be important for us. There are no days off in this league. You’ve got to buckle the chin strap and line up and play football week in and week out and we are starting to embrace that mentality on the defensive side of the ball.”
Smith hopes it’s evident today, too. The Razorbacks will get a chance to evaluate players in a game-like setting. He wants a fast, physical group to take another step in its improvement as spring practice ends.
“You’re never satisfied, but we’re pleased with where we are,” Smith said. “The big thing right now is to make sure we keep pushing forward in our summer program and be ready to roll when the fall comes.”
His players value today’s scrimmage for another reason as well.
The Red-White game also is a chance to show they’ve grown from last season’s struggles and have improved under Smith’s aggressive, attacking plans.
“It’s going to be big to us to go out there and show, yeah, we’re capable,” Arkansas linebacker TQ Coleman said. “We do have a talented defense. And now that we know what we’re doing we can show that.”