This is part two of series previewing the Arkansas Razorbacks 2012 football team.
Fayetteville, Ark. – Throughout the last decade players along Arkansas’ defensive lines have been a force to deal with in SEC play. All-SEC performers like Jamal Anderson (2006), Jeb Huckeba (2004), Carlos Hall (2001), and Malcolm Sheppard (2009) made life in the SEC very difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
The emergence of Jake Bequette during the 2010 and 2011 seasons reinforced the need for the Razorbacks to continue that dominance from their pass rushers but also the need to bulk up in the middle.
For the first time in years the defensive front four at Arkansas should be as talented, deep, and as imposing as any other defensive line in college football.
The Razorbacks are so deep at defensive end they moved 2011 starter Tenarius Wright to middle linebacker. This strategic move comes after losing the other bookend to their line, Bequette, to graduation.
Not often can a Division-I defense lose both starting defensive ends off their 11-2 team and expect to be dominate again the following year. Typically only teams like Alabama and LSU are given that type of respect. This is the level of talent and depth the Arkansas coaching staff has accumulated over the past four years in Fayetteville.
The middle of the defense is where Arkansas’ success in 2012 will start and end. The Razorbacks will be able to outscore most teams on their schedule for the upcoming season but at some point a championship defense will have to stop the oppositions run game consistently while applying pressure on the quarterback on passing downs.
In 2011 Arkansas finished 9th overall in run defense in conference allowing 167.6 yards per game. Many of the yards the Hogs gave up came from bad early/mid-season performances against Alabama, Texas A&M, Mississippi, and Vanderbilt.
The Hogs were short up to four defensive starters during a five-game stretch that included the four previously mentioned poor defensive games. All four of those games were also on the road or at a neutral site leaving room for optimism in 2012.
Can the Hogs limit poor defensive games throughout the upcoming season?
Juniors Bryan Jones and Robert Thomas earned starting positions at the end of spring practices. The two-deep at defensive tackle includes seniors Alfred Davis and D.D. Jones with Lavunce Askew added to the rotations. The Hogs up front are exactly that, hogs. Bryan Jones, D.D. Jones, Thomas, and Davis are each over 300 pounds and are among the strongest on the Arkansas team. Their girth, size, and ability should shut down running lanes along the line of scrimmage.
If the defensive tackles can keep the opposing linemen off Arkansas’ linebackers the Razorbacks should be improved in run defense in 2012. Arkansas linebacker coach Taver Johnson has the tough task of breaking in two new full-time starters.
Tenarius “Tank” Wright is pegged to win the spot at middle linebacker with Matt Marshall or Ross Rasner, both seniors, fighting for time at the strong outside position (Star).
Rasner could be left at free safety if Rohan Gaines or Daunte Carr step up during fall practices at the Star position.
Austin Jones and Jarrett Lake (hamstring) have both battled individual injuries since 2011 but could finally be in position to provide quality depth at linebacker. Jones missed last season with a knee injury after transferring from Air Force. Lake has been full of potential but has not cashed in on those abilities to date. Can both players stay healthy and see playing time in 2012?
Expect opposing offensive coordinators to do everything they can to exploit Marshall, Wright, and Rasner throughout the season until each proves they can cover tight ends and running backs in space. How quickly the Hogs linebackers adjust and play at an SEC level could make a difference in close games especially early in the season.
At defensive end the Hogs are set to start Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. Flowers is young, a sophomore, but electric while on the field. His motor never stops and his talent screams future All-SEC performer. Smith will get his chance to prove he is ready to be a consistent player down after down in SEC action.
Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes has two quality reserves in Miles Colton-Nash and junior college transfer Austin Flynn.
Colton-Nash’s blessing is also his curse. He is athletic and talented enough the coaching staff wants him on the field when possible. Nash was behind a logjam of ends in 2011 which prompted a move to tight end. Now Colton-Nash is back at DE to finish his Arkansas career.
Flynn brings a lot of personality and a presence to the Razorbacks defensive unit. Flynn was an All-Central West Conference performer in 2011 and showed he was ready to play for the Razorbacks after participating in spring practices. If his juco numbers translate into real stats for Arkansas, Razorback Nation can expect 45 tackles, 11 sacks, and 21 quarterback hurries from Flynn if given time.
Haynes will need to find production on defense to make up for the 10 sacks Bequette totaled last season. Returning starting linebacker Alonzo Highsmith was second on the team with 4.5 sacks, poor numbers for a team that wants to turn the corner on the national scene.
How much improved will Arkansas be on defense with Haynes calling the shots replacing old coordinator Willy Robinson?
If Arkansas’ 2012 recruiting class tells the casual observer anything that message rings loud and clear that the Hogs will continue to dominate the SEC from the defensive end position for years to come.
The Razorbacks signed six recruits with the potential to play defensive end bolstering a position that already is arguably the deepest roster spot in 2012.
Brandon Lewis, JaMichael Winston, and Deatrich Wise have already been praised by coach Steve Caldwell for their abilities at this stage of their careers. How that translates to playing time this season is yet to be determined but promising for the future success of the program.
Linebackers A.J. Turner and Otha Peters come to Fayetteville with high expectations by the coaching staff and by Razorback Nation.
Highsmith is the only linebacker from Arkansas’ 2011 class that is still on the team. Brock Haman transferred and Tyler Gilbert was released from his scholarship after spring practices due to an arrest. Highsmith’s eligibility is up at the end of the season. Who will be the linebackers of the future for the Hogs?
The Hogs secondary on paper appears to be safe in 2012. Darius Winston returns for his senior season opposite true sophomore Tevin Mitchell. Winston has talent but has never played at a top level for an entire year. Mitchell played well last season showing he was not afraid to lay the wood on running backs on run defense from his corner spot.
The big question is can the pass rush up front make Winston and Mitchell into better players? If the young but talented defensive ends can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks Winston and Mitchell should have solid seasons. If no rush is found and the linebackers are not able to stop the run Winston and Mitchell could be in for really long seasons.
Rasner and junior strong safety Eric Bennett are set to take over for graduated players Tramain Thomas and Elton Ford.
Thomas was a play maker at free safety for the Hogs last season. He was second on the team with 91 tackles and first on the team with five interceptions. Can Rasner provide the same run support while covering the deep end of the field for the Hogs?
Alan Turner and Jerry Mitchell round out the two-deep chart at safety for the Razorbacks. Davyon McKinney and Kelvin Fisher complete the backup corner spots entering fall practices.
Arkansas’ scoring defense was No. 33 in the nation last season; a very respectable ranking. The unfortunate part of only giving up 22.2 points per game is seven other SEC defenses gave up fewer points per game. Will the Hogs be improved this year?
Arkansas will not only be breaking in new linebackers in 2012 but also a new defensive coordinator.
New DC Paul Haynes had a good one-game showing at the Cotton Bowl against Kansas State. KSU was one dimensional relying solely on their quarterback for everything allowing the Hogs defense to focus on Klein. How well will Haynes match up against top SEC offensive coordinators with a balanced offense?
Haynes comes to Arkansas from Ohio State where he served as co-defensive coordinator for one season but did not call the defensive formations. Reps through spring practices and fall practices will be as important for Haynes as it will be for Arkansas’ defense. Getting into a rhythm with his unit and calling plays will take time.
Early games against Jacksonville State and Louisiana Monore will show Haynes in-game tendencies and willingness to experiment with his players in specific situations. Will bravado or realization of the moment guide Haynes by game three at home against Alabama?
Several questions remain for the Hogs in 2012. On paper most will point to play at linebacker as the key to the upcoming season which is an easy and obvious pick as the Hogs need two new starters. Perhaps the biggest and most overlooked question is how will Haynes handle the defense? Will he be able to improve the Razorbacks defense over Willy Robinson?
Robinson’s defense finished 2010 No. 5 in the SEC and No. 36 overall in college football in total defense. In 2011 the Hogs allowed 15 more total yards per game moving their national ranking to No. 47 but they dropped their scoring point per game defense from 23.4 in ’10 to 22.2 in ’11; a ranking improvement from No. 47 nationally to No. 33.
Haynes takes over a defense that is counterpart to an offense that is on the level to win a national championship. Will he be able to hold his own throughout the 2013 season?
Players to Watch for in 2012
Arkansas Razorback Defensive Recruits in 2012
TE/DE Jeremy Sprinkle, 3-star, 6’6”, 215, White Hall, AR
CB Ray Buchanan Jr., 3-star, 5’10”, 170 pounds, Suwanee, GA
CB Jared Collins, 3-star, 5’11”, 170 pounds, Tulsa, OK
FS Will Hines, 3-star, 6’1”, 175 pounds, Waco, TX
SS Defonta Lowe, 3-star, 6’2”, 180 pounds, Bearden, AR
LB A.J. Turner, 3-star, 6’3”, 200 pounds, Lepanto, AR
LB Vin Ascolese, 3-star, 6’2”, 215 pounds, New Bergen, NJ
LB Otha Peters, 4-star, 6’1”, 220 pounds, Covington, LA
DE Brandon Lewis, 3-star, 6’5”, 220 pounds, Memphis, TN
DE JaMichael Winston, 3-star, 6’6”, 230 pounds, Prichard, AL
DE Darius Philon, 3-star, 6’1”, 282 pounds, Prichard, AL
DE Deatrich Wise Jr., 4-star, 6’5”, 220 pounds, Carrolton, TX
DE Taiwan Johnson, 3-star, 6’3”, 240 pounds, Manvel, TX
DE Austin Flynn, 3-star, 6’4”, 250 pounds, Los Angeles Harbor CC