FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas cornerback Carroll Washington had a productive start to last Saturday’s scrimmage in Razorback Stadium.
The senior scooped a fumble forced by linebacker Brooks Ellis on the fourth play of the scrimmage. A few snaps later, he intercepted a pass thrown by Brandon Allen.
“One thing goes right and you play the next play and then another thing goes right,” Washington said. “It just happened to be one of those good days.”
Arkansas didn’t have many of those last season. In fact, the Razorbacks finished last in the Southeastern Conference and were tied for 112th in the nation in forced turnovers last season (14). It played a big part in Arkansas’ struggles, so improvement has been an obvious mantra for the Razorbacks in the offseason.
It has led to some results this spring. The Razorbacks have forced seven during its two 101-play scrimmages and will try to collect even more Saturday.
There’s no way to know if Arkansas’ spring success will carry over to the fall, but new defensive coordinator Robb Smith and the Razorbacks believe there is progress as they try to become a unit known for its ability to collect takeaways.
“It’s certainly something we’ve emphasized,” Smith said. “It’s one of those things you’ve got to keep hitting every day and make sure it’s part of your mentality, who you are. We want to create takeaways. We want to take the football back and give it to our offense and put them in a great position on the football field.”
Of course, forcing turnovers is a goal for every defense. Some are better than others.
Arkansas hasn’t been in that category the past two seasons, struggling to get off the field with the help of takeaways. Arkansas recovered only six fumbles and collected eight interceptions in 12 games last season.
The Razorbacks don’t need to be reminded of the struggles. They just don’t want to repeat it. So the defensive coaches have constantly stressed turnovers to the group.
“(Smith) stresses it every day,” Arkansas safety Rohan Gaines said. “Takeaways, takeaways. We need takeaways. And that’s just something he has instilled in us thus far and it’s working for us.”
Smith said the Razorbacks have worked on turnover drills in each practice.
Arkansas regularly runs through a turnover circuit, too, giving players fundamental drills that involve ball recovery, jarring it loose and catching interceptions.
Arkansas went through turnover circuits on a regular basis last season as well. But Smith is hoping the repetition leads to more success with the current group.
“We work on ball disruption, whether it’s creating a fumble or just literally catching the football — as mundane as that sounds for a defensive football player,” Smith said. “But you’ve got to spend time and do that. I think if we can get better at those big fundamentals that are involved with takeaways, I think when we get ourselves in position to do that next fall, hopefully we’ll be able to capitalize on it.”
Gaines and Washington added there’s more potential for takeaways in Smith’s defense, which has shown more aggressiveness than Arkansas’ scheme last season.
The Razorbacks aim to apply more pressure on quarterbacks, put defensive backs in better position to make plays on the ball and take advantage of other mistakes.
“I feel like it does have the quarterback under pressure,” said Arkansas safety Alan Turner, who led the Razorbacks with two interceptions last season. “Just playing more physical from the linebackers to the defensive backs. It makes it easier.”
But Turner said experience will be a big key as well. He’s preparing for his second season as a starter. Arkansas has other young players who are settling into starting roles as well, leaving the group with more confidence they’ll make plays.
Second-team safety De’Andre Coley showed it during the first scrimmage, when he was in position to make a play at the end of the practice. He slipped around a blocker and delivered a bone-jarring tackle that forced a fumble. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema blew his whistle and ended the scrimmage with the big play.
Turner said it was good to see. It’s the type of thing the Razorbacks hope will happen on a regular basis next season after last season’s turnover troubles.
“It’s just us playing faster and more physical and just knowing what we’re doing,” Turner said of the improvement. “So we won’t have to hesitate. And that’s playing with confidence and that’s helping us to create turnovers.
“I mean, we do some things differently. But the main part is 11 people on defense swarming to the ball. If 11 people swarm to the ball, good things will happen.”