Hogs try to shore up defense


FAYETTEVILLE — Safety Ross Rasner understands the discomfort Arkansas fans may be feeling after the Razorbacks’ 49-24 win against Jacksonville State.

The senior, who is one of the leaders of Arkansas’ defense, said he and his teammates didn’t feel great about it either.

“We never want to give up 24 points in a home opener like that,” Rasner said.

Rasner and his teammates will try to make amends for some of its first-game flaws as the Razorbacks (1-0) play Louisiana-Monroe (0-0) in Little Rock at 6 p.m. Saturday. The big issues were evident last week: missed tackles led to some big gains and Arkansas surrendered 227 passing yards. Then there were the points.

Jacksonville State’s total was the most Arkansas had allowed in an opener since 2008, when it had to gut out a 28-24 win against Western Illinois in the first game under former coach Bobby Petrino. It’s a performance the Razorbacks weren’t happy to see as they began their run under new coordinator Paul Haynes.

“It wasn’t the best we had seen by any means,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “I think our kids believed that. They believed that right after the game and they have taken that to the field this week and tried to get better on those things.”

The area most under the microscope is the secondary. The group – which was one of the biggest question marks in the preseason — didn’t ease many concerns last week.

Jacksonville State — known more for its rushing offense with former Georgia back Washaun Ealy — had success moving the ball through the air against the Razorbacks in the first half. Haynes said he was particularly disappointed with JSU’s touchdown drive late in the half, when the Gamecocks cut the deficit to 35-21 with a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Marques Ivory to receiver Alan Bonner.

Still, Haynes said he wasn’t discouraged by the overall performance.

“It was the first game, but that’s no excuse for the things we did wrong,” Haynes said. “When you look at the tape, it’s all things that are fixable. You don’t look at it and say, ‘Man, I don’t know if we can do that.’ Those are things that we can do. Those are things that we did in fall camp. It comes down to one word: execution.”

So Arkansas has gone to work this week shoring up some of the weaknesses.

It was evident Tuesday, when the Razorbacks used the early portion of practice turning through a series of tackling drills, emphasizing one of the problem areas.

Arkansas also is taking a long look at one of its cornerback spots after senior Darius Winston was benched and replaced by Kaelon Kelleybrew. Haynes said the starter wouldn’t be determined until today or Saturday, but both will play in Little Rock as Arkansas gets in another game before facing Alabama on Sept. 15.

“I feel like we definitely can get better on the back end,” said Kelleybrew, who finished with four tackles and a breakup in his first game with the Razorbacks.

“This is a week to prove that we are better than what people think we are.”

Louisiana-Monroe is expected to present a stiffer challenge, especially through the air, with coach Todd Berry beginning his third season with the program.

The Warhawks are led by junior quarterback Kolton Browning, who threw for 2,483 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011. He also rushed for 443 yards and 5 scores.

Haynes said the dual threat, as well as an emphasis on flipping the ball out to the perimeter on screens and other quick passes, makes ULM a challenge to defend.

“The thing about a team like this is what you can’t worry about is look up at the scoreboard and look at the yards,” Haynes said. “They dink it around enough that they are going to get yards. The big thing, I think, is you’ve got to keep them out of the end zone. That’s going to be important for our guys.”

Arkansas did a good job with that two years ago, holding ULM out of the end zone until the fourth quarter of its 31-7 win in Little Rock.

Personnel has changed plenty since then, but Rasner said the Razorbacks want to accomplish the same thing Saturday after allowing 24 points in the opener.

“We expect a lot more out of our defense,” Rasner said. “I think we’ve had a good week of preparation. So I think you’ll see a whole lot better defense this week.”