FAYETTEVILLE — Greg Schiano was stunned when Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith showed him the numbers earlier this month.
Auburn’s offense under coach Gus Malzahn averaged 286 rushing yards a game against Southeastern Conference opponents last season. Schiano expected that type of production against some lesser-known foes. But to consistently gouge opponents like Alabama, LSU and Georgia on the ground was eye-opening to the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, who is now an NFL Network analyst.
“That’s unheard of to me,” Schiano said last week’s appearance at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. “When Smitty told me that, I was blown away.”
There’s good news for Schiano. He doesn’t have to worry about stopping it.
That task is assigned to Smith, one of his former assistant coaches.
Arkansas’ new-look defense will make its debut when the Razorbacks play sixth-ranked Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday at 3 p.m. There’s no easing into the season for Smith, whose only other experience as a defensive coordinator came at Maine (2006-08) and Rutgers (2012).
His first test is against the hurry-up, no-huddle system that led Auburn to a national title in 2010 and was seconds away from another last season. Smith said Saturday will be the first time he’ll face off against Malzahn and Arkansas’ preparation has confirmed everything he expected. Auburn will be an impressive opponent.
“They play with great tempo,” Smith said. “They’re disciplined. They can run the football. They have great speed on the perimeter. They’re a great challenge.”
But Smith said the Razorbacks are eager for the opportunity to get back on the field after finishing as one of the Southeastern Conference’s worst units in 2013.
Smith was hired to replace former defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who left for a similar position at Ohio State. He joined linebackers coach Randy Shannon and two new assistants — defensive line coach Rory Segrest and secondary coach Clay Jennings – on a restructured staff asked to re-energize a demoralized unit.
Linebacker Braylon Mitchell, who finished second on the team in tackles last season, said the new defensive staff has succeeded since spring practice.
“Coach Smith has had a big impact on us,” Mitchell said. “His intensity and just everything he brings to the game. He’s a big motivator. He teaches us to approach practice as if it’s game day. I feel like that helps us a lot out there on the field.”
There have been signs of success since the spring as Arkansas emphasized aggression. Some of the most visible changes have come in the secondary, where defensive backs who backed off receivers in Arkansas’ scheme last season are now being asked to press and jam them at the line of scrimmage. There was more blitzing on display last spring as well, although the Hogs have remained relatively vanilla on defense during practices open to the media this preseason.
The entire team worked to simplify terminology — the Hoganese language Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has spoken about on numerous occasions — in hopes players understand assignments and play instinctively this fall. Arkansas linebacker TQ Coleman said it has made a difference for a defense gaining confidence.
“At first it felt like a lot was being thrown at us at one time,” Coleman said. “But just Coach Jennings and Coach Smith, the aspect of them coming in, just slowing the game down, getting everybody to understand what they have to do has been a big thing and I feel like it’s made a tremendous difference to this defense.”
It doesn’t surprise Schiano, who said Smith was one of his favorite assistants. He gave Smith his first big chance in 2009, when he hired the Maine assistant to join his staff at Rutgers. He gave him another chance by adding him to Tampa’s staff in 2013 and said Smith has been productive at every stop in his coaching career.
Bielema said Smith has proven to be a detailed-oriented coach since his arrival who uses the phrase “the devil’s in the details” on a regular basis. Smith said he learned it from Schiano, who is one of his biggest mentors in the business.
“He’s a detail guy,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of the philosophy that I formed though the year with how to be precise and how to be detailed have certainly come from being on his staff and working for him.”
So it’s no surprise Schiano likes the look of what Smith is installing, saying the finished product will be one that hasn’t been seen at Arkansas in awhile. He said the Razorbacks are going to flock to the football and, as a result, create turnovers.
“I think it’s going to take a little time,” Schiano said. “I don’t think it’s going to be overnight. But I think what you’re going to see is a relentless effort to swarm the football. That doesn’t happen by accident.”
Smith said “we’re getting there” after three weeks of camp, but admitted there are still important strides to make. Those will have to come on game day with the week winding down. Arkansas’ progress, to this point, will be on display at Auburn.
“The proof is going to be in the pudding on Saturday,” Bielema said. “But I couldn’t, as a head coach, be more pleased with what Robb has done. With what Clay Jennings, Rory Segrest, Randy Shannon, those four guys together, I think, have been very engaged with how can we make Arkansas better. …
“It’s going to be a tough matchup. Out of the gate you’re going against one of the most prolific offenses in 2013. But 2013 was 2013.”
Arkansas believes it applies to the defense as well. Last season’s struggles were frustrating, but Smith and the new-look defense feel ready for the challenge.
“There’s a little unknown there, but I feel really good about the way our guys prepared,” Smith said. “Starting in last spring, going through this fall, I know they’re anxious to get out on the field to play a football game.
“It’s going to be our first time doing it together, but hey, that is what it is. We’ve got to be ready to go and hit the ground running when the ball is kicked off.”