FAYETTEVILLE — Cornerback Tevin Mitchel and the rest of the Arkansas secondary doesn’t need to be reminded of last season’s struggles, when it seemed pretty easy for opponents to turn in big plays against the Razorbacks.
Quick screens turned into backbreaking touchdowns. Passes tossed into the end zone were regularly pulled down by wide receivers. And then there were blown coverages like the game-winning touchdown pass in a gut-wrenching loss at LSU.
Nothing will change the disappointment that followed the group with every mistake last season. But Mitchel and his teammates are trying to let the frustration serve as fuel this spring and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Arkansas’ secondary, which was a maligned group last season after opponents completed 65 percent of their passes and threw for 25 touchdowns, is working to bury its bad reputation as its prepare for 2014. Nearly every contributor is back after Arkansas allowed 235 passing yards a game, but there’s renewed confidence under a staff that now includes defensive coordinator Robb Smith and secondary coach Clay Jennings.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mitchel said after Arkansas’ third week of practice. “I believe we’re buying into the system and believing the coaches and trusting them and we’re learning faster and we’re out on the practice field and we’re practicing fast and we’re understanding what we have to do. We’re just looking to get better.”
It didn’t seem like things could get much worse after last season.
Especially for Mitchel, who was the focal point of the struggles.
He returned an interception for a touchdown against Rutgers, but not much else went right during his junior season. But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said earlier this spring Mitchel — who also has taken off his No. 8 jersey and replaced it with No. 23 — has shown more growth than anyone since the end of the 2013 season.
“I can’t even tell you how excited I am about No. 23,” Bielema said after the first scrimmage on April 5. “He’s had — in my opinion — the most improvement as anybody on the football team. Just confidence, swagger, ability, toughness.”
Mitchel said he’s motivated knowing it’s his final spring with the Razorbacks.
“I’m focused and I’m buying in with the coaches and I’m trying to become a better player and a better person, on and off the field,” Mitchel said. “I believe it’s working and I’m just looking forward to the next day and getting better, being consistent.”
Mitchel is leading a cornerback position Bielema labeled as the most improved unit, joining Jared Collins, Carroll Washington, Will Hines and D.J. Dean. All five gained plenty of experience last season and have made plays this spring.
So Mitchel believes the group — which also includes true freshman Chris Murphy — is “stacked” as it adjusts to Smith’s defense, which has showed more aggressiveness than last season. They’ll have to prove it on the field next fall, of course, but Bielema believes the improvement from the cornerbacks is evident.
“Where we were struggling a year ago, and I know we’re not playing the SEC schedule right now, but you really feel good about those five guys competing,” Bielema said about the growth of the cornerbacks.
Arkansas has just as much confidence in its safeties as well.
The veteran of the group — Alan Turner — was an unexpected starter last season, but finished with a team-leading 97 tackles. He wasn’t perfect. No one was, but Smith said Turner has been a consistent leader throughout the spring.
“I like A.T. a lot,” Smith said. “You can sense he really loves the game of football. That energy really carries out throughout our defense and provides a leadership, a passion for the game. That’s how you have to pay defensive football. He’s a passionate guy and he’s really improving. We’re excited for big things for him.”
Turner is leading a group that also includes safety Rohan Gaines, who battled through an injury-plagued 2013. Hard-hitting De’Andre Coley — who ended the first scrimmage with a jarring hit the forced a fumble — and Sleepy McKinney have manned the second-team spots after TQ Coleman’s move to linebacker.
Turner said he’s more comfortable after a valuable year of experience.
He’s more confident, too, despite Arkansas’ struggles on the back line.
“I just want to be one of those guys that comes out with confidence and tries to make the defense as a whole better,” Turner said. “Just do anything I can. I feel like we’re taking great strides and we’re going to get better.”
Arkansas has shown some play-making ability in the back end in two scrimmages.
Washington intercepted a pass thrown by quarterback Brandon Allen during last Saturday’s scrimmage and also added a fumble recovery. Turner intercepted Allen during the first scrimmage, while Coley forced the fumble on the final play.
It doesn’t mean success is guaranteed in the fall for Arkansas’ secondary.
But the group is gaining confidence as it continues to move past 2013.
“Those guys are enthusiastic every day. They’ve got a smile on their face,” Jennings said. “They’re working hard. As long as they’re giving great effort, then it’s my job to make sure I put them in the right position to win.”