Arkansas counting on improvement from new-look defense
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) —
Everything seemed right on schedule for Arkansas after 11 games last season, with the Razorbacks 7-4 and appearing on track to increase their win total for a fourth straight year under coach Bret Bielema.
That is, until a season-long struggle on defense led to a pair of demoralizing second-half collapses in season-ending losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech . Arkansas finished a disappointing 7-6.
As good as the Razorbacks were at times offensively — averaging 30.3 points per game — they were unable to overcome a defense that ranked 123rd out of 128 Division I teams by allowing 6.75 yards per play.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith exited for Minnesota. He was replaced by former Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who spent last season on as the defensive backs coach and had a firsthand look at the Razorbacks woes.
"I don't know if embarrassed is the wrong word, but I don't know if it's the right word," Rhoads said. "Nonetheless, we gave up too many yards last year; we gave up too many points and too many big plays."
Along with the change in coordinators, Rhoads is also bringing a new look to the defense this year — a base 3-4 alignment aimed at boosting confidence in the short term with an eye on maximizing the school's speed in the long term.
So far, so good for the Razorbacks.
"I think defense is about your swag, your confidence, about the way that you feel about yourself before you walk out on the field," Bielema said. "I think our guys have gotten very confident ... I like the demeanor."
Some things to watch as Arkansas tries to improve its defense and bounce back from last season's frustrating finish:
Quarterback Austin Allen turned down the chance to receive an NFL draft evaluation following last season, his first year as the starter at Arkansas. While Allen wasn't about to pass up his senior season with his hometown Razorbacks, the Fayetteville native — who threw for 3,618 yards and 25 touchdowns last year — also felt like he had unfinished business after the two losses to end last season.
"Even if things (with the NFL) were looking good, I wouldn't have left on that note," Allen said.
Hopes of quick improvement with the 3-4 defense are bolstered by the return of a healthy Dre Greenlaw at outside linebacker. The 6-foot, 229-pound junior led all SEC rookies with 95 tackles two years ago as a freshman, but he missed the final six games last season after breaking his right foot against Alabama. He had a second surgery on the foot following an appearance in the Belk Bowl, and Arkansas is easing him back into full-speed action this preseason.
The Razorbacks suffered a practical and emotional blow in the final scrimmage of the spring when All-SEC running back Rawleigh Williams injured his neck for the second time and eventually walked away from the game. Williams rushed for 1,360 yards last season, and Bielema is counting on sophomore Devwah Whaley to step in as the lead backfield option this season — a year after the 5-foot-11, 216-pound running back rushed for 602 yards as a freshman.
Count Arkansas defensive tackle McTelvin Agim among the fans of Arkansas' new-look defense. The sophomore is a former five-star recruit, started the last five games last season and could be the Razorbacks' best defensive player sooner rather than later this season.
"We're moving, and I feel like in the last defense we were just sitting there," Agim said. "After those two (late-season losses), we were low and down on ourselves, and we did need a change in some type of way, because I knew we couldn't play like that again and win."
The Razorbacks are the first SEC school to play this year, opening their season by facing Florida A&M in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium on Thursday night, Aug. 31. The daunting SEC slate includes road trips to Alabama, LSU and South Carolina and a visit to the home of the Dallas Cowboys to play Texas A&M.