This is the seventh story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Running backs
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive backs coach Clay Jennings had an interesting description for Arkansas safety Alan Turner last week.
He compared the senior to an insurance policy.
“You’re never leaving home without it,” Jennings said. “He’s the glue back there. He’s the bell cow for us and he’s truly a leader. Not only is he a good player, but he’s providing some leadership for us that’s helping us out a whole heck of a lot.”
The compliment has been part of a long process for Turner, who didn’t earn much playing time during his first three years with the Razorbacks. But he became one of Arkansas’ most dependable players last season, recording a team-leading 97 tackles and will work as the valuable anchor to Arkansas’ back line once again in 2013.
Turner is teaming with junior Rohan Gaines to give Arkansas a 1-2 starting punch at the position. There’s plenty of inexperience behind them, but Turner believes the group is in better shape to improve after last season’s struggles.
“We’re playing with way more confidence and it’s showing,” Turner said. “I feel like if we keep continuing to do that and guys keep continuing to get more confidence, we’ll be real good this year.”
Turner remains a key part of the equation after becoming one of the surprise starters for the defense last season. It wasn’t expected when he signed out of Junction City High in 2010. In fact, Turner was better known for being the long-time friend and high school teammate of former Arkansas defensive tackle Byran Jones.
Jones played right away for the Razorbacks and spent most of his career in the starting lineup. Turner, meanwhile, had to work and wait for a chance. But he wasn’t discouraged, realizing it would be part of the process when he arrived.
“One big thing for me was just patience,” Turner said. “I knew at the beginning we had safeties that were playing. I knew I just had to wait my time. But at the same time, I couldn’t take a day for granted. I had to keep continuing to get better from film to practice to all those things combined.
“I feel like for the most part, each and every day, I got better.”
Turner started the season opener as the third safety in Arkansas’ nickel package last season, but jumped into an even bigger role at strong safety when Gaines injured his knee against Louisiana-Lafayette. He never left the lineup. Turner had 16 tackles against Mississippi State, collected 12 against Texas A&M and finished seventh in the Southeastern Conference in tackles a game (8.1).
It may be hard for Turner to reach the 90-tackle mark again this season. In fact, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema hopes Arkansas’ defense has improved enough to where a safety doesn’t collect as many stops. But it doesn’t change his value.
“I really like A.T. back there and the consistency that he brings every day,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “He’s a guy that’s going to work hard, he’s going to be a great leader for us. He’s going to try to improve on a daily basis.
“As long as he’s improving, as long as he’s bringing everybody else with him, that’s what need from Alan Turner.”
Turner said it’s his goal. It’s no secret Arkansas struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone last season. The most glaring mistake came in the season finale, when a coverage bust led to LSU’s game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute.
Turner said the returning Razorbacks have tried to bury the memory of the glaring mistake as much as possible the past few months. But they haven’t forgotten what happened against the Tigers. It has been part of their motivation in the offseason.
“I do think about that play,” Turner said. “It’s one play. If we could’ve made that stop we would’ve won that game. That could’ve been a big difference for us. Things happen. It didn’t go the way we wanted to, but it’s behind us.”
Jennings said the safeties will move forward as long as they follow their leader.
Turner has stepped into a role as defensive spokesperson in the offseason. He was one of Arkansas’ three representatives at SEC Media Days last month and was named one of four team captains last week.
His position coach believes the recognition is deserved.
“The great thing about great teams, they begin to govern themselves,” Jennings said. “You start out by position and within the secondary room Alan Turner, he’s the governor of that room. He gets it straight before it goes anywhere else.”
Turner plans to do the same on the field this season.
It took him a long time to become one of the key members of Arkansas’ defense. So the secondary’s insurance policy wants to live up to the reputation once again.
“It means a lot to me for the coaches to speak that highly of me,” Turner said. “I just want to keep continuing to get better myself so I can help the defense.”
A Closer Look At … SAFETIES
Best of the Bunch: Alan Turner — The senior returns as the anchor of the group after leading the Hogs with 97 tackles and two interceptions in 2013. Arkansas hopes Turner won’t have to lead the team once again with better play across the board defensively. But Turner — who was named one of four team captain — remains vital to the Razorbacks’ plans in coordinator Robb Smith’s defense.
Watch Out For: De’Andre Coley — Coley has developed a reputation for being a hard hitter, which has been evident in scrimmages. But his understanding of the defense will determine how much playing time he earns this season. There’s no doubt Arkansas realizes the potential Coley possesses and is counting on some production in a backup role as it tries to build depth at the position.
Biggest Question: Can Arkansas count on its backups? Turner and Gaines will enter the season as the starting tandem and have plenty of experience. But there isn’t much behind them with a group that includes Coley, Davyon McKinney and freshman Josh Liddell. The trio has 15 combined tackles — all by McKinney.
Projected Starters: SS Alan Turner, Sr., (97 tackles in 2013); FS Rohan Gaines, Jr., (33 tackles in 2013)
Other Contributors: Davyon McKinney, Jr.; De’Andre Coley, RS-Fr..; Josh Liddell, Fr.
That Figures: 200 — It took three years, but safety Rohan Gaines finally reached the 200-pound mark in the offseason. Gaines said it’s been a “long road” to reach his personal goal, but believes the weight will help as he tries to stay healthy this season. Gaines said it has “allowed me to just fly around and play football.”
Quotable: “I think he’s gained a sense of urgency. You’ve got to be on your ‘A’ game back there. Our safeties are required to make a lot of calls, a lot of checks, and he’s really kind of embrace that role. He’s not letting things happen, but he’s anticipating and staying on top of things. That overall sense of urgency has helped him become a better football player.” — Smith on Coley’s development since the spring.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau