FAYETTEVILLE — One of Arkansas’ young defensive backs made a mistake during the middle of Thursday’s practice. The coverage bust led to a big play.
Quarterback A.J. Derby found wide receiver Demetrius Wilson all alone down the middle of the field and hit the senior in stride. A split second later, Arkansas’ new defensive coordinator took off from his spot behind the scrimmage, beginning a 40-yard sprint down the field to correct one glaring flaw.
“Run after him,” Robb Smith shouted as he raced up to the defensive back that blew the coverage and stopped running after the completion. “Run after him. Finish the play.”
Arkansas wrapped up its third spring practice Thursday, completing the first week of drills that will lead to the Red-White scrimmage on April 26. It was the third chance for returning players to get a feel for what Smith — who is replacing departed defensive coordinator Chris Ash — and a new-look defensive staff expect as the group tries to mold itself into a respectable unit after struggling in 2013.
Smith was one of three coaches Bret Bielema hired to join linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who is the only defensive assistant returning from last season. So there’s a feeling-out process taking place this spring, but Arkansas linebacker Braylon Mitchell said Smith’s sprint is proof he’s passionate about his new position.
“He brings a lot of energy,” Mitchell said. “He reminds me of coach Ash so much just with his passion and how enthusiastic he is about the game. Every practice, every meeting he comes in and he starts off loud and clapping and running around. So (Thursday) we got to see his 40-yard dash.”
That type of energy is needed for a coach now in charge of a unit that ranked near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in every major statistical category last season. The Razorbacks allowed 30.8 points a game and, fittingly, watched the season end with a blown coverage that led to LSU’s game-winning touchdown.
Ash, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson all left for new jobs over the winter, leaving Shannon as the only assistant to man the same position this spring. So there has been plenty to sort out the past two months between the four-man defensive staff — Smith, defensive line coach Rory Segrest and secondary coach Clay Jennings — as it prepared for spring practice.
“The coaches, they all seem to be on the same page,” Mitchell said.
So Smith said it’s time to get players there with them.
“The biggest thing for us is to start to introduce our scheme,” Smith said of the first-week goal. “There’s some similarities from last year, but there’s going to be some changes as well. We wanted to get that introduced with our players. But most importantly we wanted to create a tempo, an attitude. A way in which we practiced.”
One notable segment in Arkansas’ practice Thursday was a turnover circuit. Players rolled from station-to-station, working on scoop-and-score drills, slapping the ball out of a quarterback’s hands, recovering fumbles and stripping ball carriers.
Mitchell said the staff is placing an extra emphasis on physicality, too, determined to improve a unit that had tackling trouble last season. The Razorbacks didn’t go through a wealth of live-tackling drills Thursday, but Smith said it was good to see the group get after it during the first day in full pads.
“Everybody is working hard,” Smith said. “That’s the most important thing right now. Just excited about our tempo. Excited about our attitude. The one thing they can control is their effort. That’s what we ask out of them and their effort has been phenomenal these first three days. … They bring a hunger, they bring a desire, they bring a great energy and that’s a great start.”
Smith didn’t study too much tape from 2013 because he didn’t want to cloud his vision about returning players before getting them on the field. Smith said Shannon, who he referred to as the “elder statesman” of the group, has helped the new coaches understand the personnel Arkansas is working with this spring.
He said the depth chart will be fluid as the Razorbacks begin to figure out which players fit best into their plans. Smith has stressed to everyone there’s a clean slate.
“It’s a fresh start,” said Arkansas safety De’Andre Coley, who redshirted in 2013 and worked with the second-team defense Thursday. “Everybody is equal this spring.”
Defensive end Trey Flowers believes a solid foundation between coaches and players has been set with the first week complete. The Razorbacks now step away for spring break and won’t return to the field until April 1.
“It was very important to just get a feel, get an understanding for the tempo, the philosophy that they want,” Flowers said. “We were just getting the technique and fundamentals down before we can get into the real spring.”
Smith said he’s not “going to Aruba or anything like that” next week.
Instead, Smith has other big plans as he continues to mold Arkansas’ defense.
“I’ll sit in here and get a chance to go back through the tape and kind of fine-tune and get to know them that much better so we can kind of get a jump on things when we get back and finish strong this spring,” Smith said. “Hey, I wish we weren’t going on break. I’m excited, though, to get back at it and crank it up again.”