FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was among the Southeastern Conference’s worst defenses last season, struggling to keep opponents from piling up yards and stepping into the end zone in its first year under Bret Bielema.
Bielema said Arkansas has spent the past several months trying to develop an important defensive trait that should help the unit improve this season.
“If we can just become more aggressive at every position — D-line, linebacker, DBs — if we just play with a little bit more physicality, a little bit more confidence a little more swagger we’re going to get better,” Bielema said.
Arkansas will continue its work to crank up the aggressiveness when it opens preseason camp on Aug. 4. The Razorbacks finished its 3-9 season with issues on both sides of the ball, but made significant changes defensively.
It started with the departure of defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who left for a position at Ohio State. Bielema hired Robb Smith to lead the new-look group that also includes first-year assistants Rory Segrest and Clay Jennings.
He believes Smith’s scheme has already made a difference for the Razorbacks.
“I think the simplicity that Robb brings is very, very good,” Bielema said at SEC Media Days. “Our previous defensive package was small in the way that it was described, but it was very complex in what had to get done. I think the more we can simplify things for players from snap to snap is just going to make them better.
“It’s going to make them more physical. It’s going to make them better executers when the time comes and obviously a better defense overall.”
Arkansas surrendered 30.8 points and 413.4 yards a game last season.
It included 52-0 and 52-7 losses in consecutive weeks against Alabama and South Carolina. The season also ended with a costly defensive lapse when LSU completed a late-game deep ball to score the winning touchdown in a 31-27 win.
Safety Alan Turner, who led Arkansas with 97 tackles last season, said the defensive breakdowns led to most of the Razorbacks’ problems last season.
“I know there were a few games we could’ve won at the end, but they didn’t go our way because we had a mental breakdown here from a player or somewhere else that led to a big play and the result didn’t end the way we wanted to,” Turner said at SEC Media Days. “So I feel like us as players embraced that and then during this offseason we’re trying to correct that and just keep moving forward because we know if we can do that the results will change.”
Turner said another year of experience for returning players — which include starters like defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon, linebacker Braylon Mitchell, Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis, and defensive backs Tevin Mitchel, Will Hines and Rohan Gaines — will help Arkansas improve.
But he said the new philosophy will play a big role, too.
Turner said there’s more confidence and aggressiveness coming from the defense since Smith’s arrival. It was evident last spring. Like Bielema, Turner is confident it will continue as Arkansas prepares for the start of preseason camp.
“He wants to try to keep it simple and he wants us to play fast and play aggressive,” Turner said. “If we do that, a lot of great things can happen for us.”
There’s typically no shortage of news from the police blotter during college football’s offseason. While this summer has been no exception across the country, Arkansas hasn’t had any players step into legal trouble.
“It is something that it’s a huge point of emphasis for us,” Bielema said during SEC Media Days. “It’s not by chance. It’s not by luck. You recruit a type of individual. And you constantly talk about indicators again. We have guys that continue this upward trend academically. When that’s usually happening it’s a very good sign that things are going to be right in many different areas.”
The offseason hasn’t been without a couple of incidents involving players with Arkansas ties. Former linebacker Jarrett Lake was arrested for animal cruelty last winter, but the incident came after his career had ended. Signee JoJo Robinson was arrested for armed robbery in Florida, but the charge was later dropped and the wide receiver has been on campus preparing for preseason camp this summer.
Bielema isn’t naïve, realizing Arkansas may not go incident-free under his watch.
But he believes his players understand the importance of making good decisions.
“You’re dealing with 18 to 22 year old kids,” Bielema said. “I was there too. You’re not going to make 100 percent decisions every day of your life. But I think our kids understand the importance. I think they — because of what Fayetteville is like — you guys spend time there and you know it’s a fishbowl. There’s no doubt about it.
“I mean, you walk into any restaurant, grocery store or wherever you’re at, people are going to know most of the time that you’re a football player. That has a lot of positives, but it also has a lot of negatives.”
SEC Network news
Two more cable providers have agreed to carry the SEC Network.
Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks reached an agreement with ESPN, according to a news release from the SEC.
“It is great to have Time Warner Cable as a distribution partner for the SEC Network,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said in the news release. “Time Warner Cable customers, particularly those in South Carolina and Texas, will have the opportunity to enjoy our football season opener exclusively on the SEC Network when Texas A&M visits South Carolina on August 28.”
The addition of Time Warner and Bright House to the list of providers means the SEC Network will be available to approximately 60 million households.