Arkansas eyes cure for defensive woes
Bobby Petrino's firing in April brought with it a host of questions about how Arkansas, one of the Southeastern Conference's top passing attacks over the last few seasons, would fare on offense.
Little did the Razorbacks know just how bad things would get on defense without their former coach.
Arkansas (1-3) lost its third straight last week, a 35-26 setback to No. 23 Rutgers. The loss had all the trademarks of what has become a theme for the Razorbacks during their losing streak, primarily a pass defense that's allowed opposing quarterbacks to have their way so far this season.
Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova became the second quarterback to have a career game against Arkansas this season, throwing for 397 yards and five touchdowns. His performance came two games after Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning also set a career-best with 412 yards passing.
Whether it's been because of youth, injuries or simply a lack of talent, the Razorbacks have struggled mightily to stop the pass this season. They enter Saturday's game at Texas A&M (2-1) ranked 111th in the country in passing yards allowed per game (312.3), a mark that's contributed greatly to an overall defense that's last in the SEC in points allowed (36.2) and total defense (458.8 yards allowed).
''Our play in the secondary hasn't been good,'' coach John L. Smith said. ''You lose some guys back there; that's not good. Our secondary play hasn't been what we would like it to be.''
Stopping the pass doesn't get any easier this week against Aggies' quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Manziel's scrambling ability - he's averaging 87.3 yards rushing per game to go along with 213.7 yards passing - is similar to that of Browning, who escaped the Razorbacks' pressure time and time again before finding open receivers.
Arkansas has defeated Texas A&M in each of the last three seasons when the two teams played in Cowboys Stadium, but this is the school's first trip to College Station since both schools were members of the former Southwest Conference in 1991. The Razorbacks haven't lost four straight games since the 2004 season under Houston Nutt, and senior linebacker Alonzo Highsmith believes the defense can improve and keep that from happening.
''I'm confident that we can turn this around,'' Highsmith said. ''It's just, that when our name is called, we've got to make the play. We've got to get something going. Our playmakers, we've got to make the plays.''
Arkansas was 25th nationally in pass defense last season, allowing an average of 195.2 yards per game through the air. That was under former defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, who Petrino replaced after the end of the regular season with former Ohio State assistant coach Paul Haynes.
Haynes helped coach the Razorbacks to a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State last season, but that team suffered several key losses to graduation in four-year starter Jerry Franklin at middle linebacker as well as secondary stalwarts Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas.
The team entered this season confident in returning starter Eric Bennett at safety as well as sophomore cornerback Tevin Mitchel. However, Bennett missed much of the preseason with a nagging hamstring injury and has struggled to get fully healthy, while Mitchel was injured against Louisiana-Monroe and has missed the last two games.
In their place, Arkansas has turned to a host of combinations to try and slow opposing passing attacks, including fifth-year senior and former walk-on Kaelon Kelleybrew as well as freshman Will Hines at cornerback.
Regardless of who was on the field against Rutgers, Nova had his way against the Razorbacks' secondary - completing 25 of 35 passes and hitting eight different receivers.
The loss was yet another letdown for Arkansas, which entered the season with championship expectations.
''Nobody around here likes losing, but as far us giving up?'' Kelleybrew said. ''That's definitely out of the equation. All we can do is come together as a family and play together as a family and go from there.''
Haynes made an adjustment last week against the Scarlet Knights, moving Tenarius Wright back to his normal position of defensive end. Wright had moved to middle linebacker during the offseason to try and replace Franklin, but the senior struggled with preseason injuries and in pass coverage - particularly in a 52-0 to No. 1 Alabama.
Highsmith moved from outside linebacker to the middle against Rutgers and responded with a game-high 15 tackles, including two for losses.
Haynes is hopeful Highsmith's move results in better pass coverage, though he said the Razorbacks must improve in both man- and zone-coverage if they are to turn around the defensive performance. He's also confident Arkansas can keep the negative thoughts associated with the losing streak from building entering this week.
''With all the adversity you go through, you learn from it and you teach from it,'' Haynes said. ''But the thing about it in football, all these players and all these coaches are warriors. This is what we do. We're not going to lay down, we're not going to be divided. We're going to move forward; we're going to fight, and we're going to get better.
''And we're going to win.''