This is the third story in a 10-part series previewing the 2013 Razorbacks. Up next: Cornerbacks
FAYETTEVILLE — There isn’t much Arkansas defensive tackle Darius Philon needs to say about his first year away from home.
The Mobile, Ala., native was immature. He admits it. So he had to do something about it in the offseason or his time with the Razorbacks would be over.
“You’ve got to grow up one day,” Philon said. “The immature days are over with. … If I want to be here I have to grow up and be a man. If not, I’ll be back at home.”
Arkansas’ defensive depth chart is proof Philon decided to stick around after a redshirt season. Actually, it’s more than that. It’s proof he has matured as he works with a second-team defense trying to build defensive line depth this spring.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Philon has impressed the Arkansas coaching staff with his work ethic this preseason. He’s working hard. He’s listening to coaching. He’s getting better and wants to show he’s an important part of the defense.
It’s why the staff has labeled him one of the biggest surprise of the summer.
“From where he was in the spring to where he’s at right now, he’s been tremendous,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “He’s actually been one of the more surprise players here in training camp from a defensive standpoint because he’s got great physical tools. He’s a big kid. He’s athletic. But just to see the improvement and the consistency he’s been playing with right now has been fun.”
It’s also good news for Arkansas. The Razorbacks enter the season with plenty of confidence in its first-team defensive line. Arkansas has veterans Robert Thomas, Byran Jones back, Chris Smith and Trey Flowers back to anchor the group.
There’s nothing but inexperience behind them, though.
In fact, eight of Arkansas’ 11 reserves across the front haven’t played a down. Only defensive end Deatrich Wise – who redshirted after appearing in two games early on – and tackle DeMarcus Hodge have recorded tackles. They’ve combined for four.
But Philon said he and the young group are eager to perform.
“Last year I wanted to play so bad. But at the same time, I didn’t really have the fundamentals and the development that those other players had in front of me,” Philon said. “It gave me a spring to work on my fundamentals and get better. So I just have to take it one day at a time and keep working on my fundamentals and basically I have a chance to go out there and make plays.”
It helps that Philon feels better physically after bulking up in the offseason. He’s up to 305 pounds now after originally weighing in at 285. The weight gain was critical.
So was Philon’s new outlook.
The new coaching staff gave everyone a clean slate when it arrived last winter, but defensive line coach Charlie Partridge admitted the Razorbacks “heard the rumblings” about Philon. He was immature and approached things “like a boy out of high school.” He couldn’t be counted on, which was a problem.
Philon said there’s been nothing special about his maturation. It took time, but he decided to change. Hodge said it’s evident in every way this preseason.
“We need him to grow in this situation we’re in,” Hodge said. “He’s more dialed in, he’s more focused on what he needs to do. He’s learning his part to this team and his role. He’s coming in every day, working hard and bring his competitiveness.”
It’s also giving Philon a chance to make a mark on defense this season.
“He’s bought in hook, line and sinker to the fundamentals,” Partridge said. “He’s being trustworthy in all aspects. He’s really just matured as a person and that’s carrying over to the football field. I’m proud of him right now.”
A Closer Look At … DEFENSIVE LINE
Best of the bunch: DE Chris Smith — The senior has received his share of recognition after being named to watch lists for four national awards and earning All-SEC first-team honors. Now Arkansas needs him to back it up. Smith enters his final season ranked 12th on the school’s career sacks list and would pass record holder Wayne Martin if he manages to collect 13 sacks this fall.
Watch out for: DT Darius Philon — Arkansas coaches said it was clear Philon was “immature” when they arrived, but the sophomore has taken big strides the past few months. In fact, coordinator Chris Ash called him one of the biggest surprises of preseason camp. The Razorbacks like Philon’s size (6-foot-3, 305 pounds) and strength on the interior, believing he’s capable of being a solid backup this fall.
Biggest strength: Arkansas has a veteran starting group that has been through the rigors of a 12-game schedule. The foursome of Smith, Trey Flowers, Byran Jones and Robert Thomas has combined to start 66 games, most of which have come in the past two seasons. They talented group appears to have taken another step towards becoming one of the SEC’s top starting units under position coach Charlie Partridge.
Biggest question: What happens behind those veterans? Unlike last season, the Razorbacks’ second unit is an inexperienced bunch. Arkansas has spent the preseason trying to prepare redshirt freshmen like Deatrich Wise, JaMichael Winston, Brandon Lewis and Darius Philon. Their development ultimately will determine how strong Arkansas’ defensive line is this season.
Projected starters: DE – Chris Smith, Sr., (9 ½ sacks, 13 TFL in 2012), Trey Flowers, Jr., (6 sacks, 13 TFL in 2012); DT – Robert Thomas, Sr., (18 tackles, 5 TFL in 2012), Byran Jones, Sr. (52 tackles, 5 TFL in 2012)
Other contributors: DE – Deatrich Wise, RS-Fr., (N/A), Brandon Lewis, RS-Fr., (N/A), JaMichael Winston, RS-Fr., (N/A); DT – DeMarcus Hodge, So., (2 tackles in 2012) Darius Philon, RS-Fr., (N/A) Horace Arkadie, So. (N/A)
That figures: 4 – Number of career tackles for Arkansas’ reserve defensive linemen. They belong to sophomore DeMarcus Hodge (2) and Deatrich Wise (2), who played in two games before redshirting. Even more: Eight of the 11 reserves across the defensive front have not played a down at Arkansas.
Quotable: “We’re hoping that he’s one of our leaders. We’re hoping that he’s one of our big-time playmakers. That’s what we’re going to need from the defensive line. We’re going to need those guys to make plays. Hopefully he’s one of the leaders of that group.” — Defensive coordinator Chris Ash on DE Chris Smith