FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas sophomore Rohan Gaines understands that at 5-foot-11, 190-pounds he’s considered undersized for his strong safety position.
He endured a few bumps and bruises last season, suffering minor injuries during 11 starts as a redshirt freshman. He even was banged up earlier this spring, landing on his shoulder while trying to make a play during a Saturday scrimmage.
But Gaines shrugged off the notion that his size is a problem last week.
“Just because you’re undersized doesn’t mean anything,” Gaines said.
Gaines, who finished second on the team in tackles last season (75), is trying to show Arkansas’ new staff he’s one of its most dependable players no matter what size as the Razorbacks move into the final stretch of spring practice.
Arkansas has paired Gaines with returning starter free safety Eric Bennett — who is nearly the same size as his teammate (6-foot, 191 pounds) — in its starting back line. Gaines said he’s prepared physically and mentally for his second season as well after plenty of learning experiences on both fronts in 2012.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash is confident the sophomore is capable of producing, too. He said last week the Razorbacks would prefer bigger players at the safety positions, but likes what Gaines has shown this spring.
“Rohan has been really good every day we’ve gone out there,” Ash said. “I really am a big fan of Rohan. He comes to work every day with a smile on his face and he’s ready to be coached. He’s really putting a lot of overtime in to study the game of football. When he comes out there, he’s on top of his game. He’s got good football IQ.
“He flies around, plays with a motor and I really like him. He’s a tough kid.”
Gaines’ toughness is being tested in Arkansas’ new defensive scheme.
The Bainbridge, Ga., native has noticed one big difference as the new plan is being installed. The Razorbacks want their strong safety closer to the line of scrimmage.
It has made Gaines play more like a linebacker on plenty of snaps, putting his run stopping skills to the test. But Gaines said it has been valuable work as Arkansas emphasizes toughening up defensively under new coach Bret Bielema.
“I love strong safety because feel you are in position to make more plays,” he said.
Gaines said it’s just part of his goal this spring. He also is working to step into a leadership after taking a backseat to other veterans most of last season.
Bennett is the veteran of a first-team secondary that includes cornerbacks Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines. But Gaines said Bennett shouldn’t face the responsibility alone now that a young group from 2012 has more experience.
So Gaines – who had an interception in Arkansas’ first spring scrimmage on March 30 – is eager to do his part as the Razorbacks build their new defense under Ash.
“He is allowing me to be more of a general,” Gaines said. “He’s allowing me to put things together, put pieces together.”
Gaines — who was named to the Southeastern Conference’s All-Freshman team in 2012 — relishes the role. He’s also eager to show he’s tough enough to play the position. An example: Gaines returned to the field after his scrimmage injury and said it was no big deal a few days later.
The sophomore believes has taken another step in the right direction with 10 practices finished this spring. But there are five more left, so Gaines has more to prove as he tries to tries to show the coaching staff he is a worthy of his role.
“I feel like it was a pretty good opening year for me (in 2012) and now I have just got to keep getting better,” Gaines said.