New-look Arkansas defense faces test at Rutgers
Chris Smith made it clear during the preseason that he was tired of Arkansas being known as an offense-only school.
The senior defensive end has done his part to change that reputation through three weeks, sharing the lead nationally in sacks with 4.5 and leading a defense that's sixth in the country in total defense.
Now the question is whether Arkansas really turned the corner defensively after beating three mostly overmatched opponents?
The Razorbacks (3-0) will take the first step toward finding that out on Saturday when they travel to Rutgers, a team that defeated them 35-26 last season in Fayetteville. The Scarlet Knights (2-1) had 525 yards of total offense in the win, led by a career-high 397 yards passing from quarterback Gary Nova.
The lackluster defensive effort was more the norm than the exception last season for Arkansas, which allowed an average of 409.9 yards per game on its way to a 4-8 finish under interim coach John L. Smith.
Led by Chris Smith, the Razorbacks have greatly improved their defensive effort so far this season, allowing an average of 253 yards per game. That includes a 24-3 win over Southern Mississippi last week, a game in which Smith had a career-best three sacks.
''We know we had a lot of outside stuff going on and things of that nature (last season),'' Smith said. ''But at the end of the day, it's all about playing football and having fun. I think that's what everybody's doing. They're just going out there and having fun. A lot of guys that hadn't played in past years are playing, and they're just hungry.''
Arkansas allowed 254 yards of offense in last week's win over Southern Mississippi. It was the third straight game the Razorbacks have held an opponent to less than 300 yards of offense, the first time they've done that since the 2007 season. That was before the arrival of former coach Bobby Petrino, whose priority was offense.
Coach Bret Bielema, who was hired away from Wisconsin last December, has brought a far different approach. He has placed equal importance on offense and defense, where defensive coordinator Chris Ash has preached accountability to largely the same group of players from last year's team.
The Razorbacks returned their entire defensive front this season, and that experience has paid off. Smith earned honors as the Southeastern Conference's top defensive lineman for his performance last week, an honor fellow defensive end Trey Flowers earned two weeks before that.
Flowers even dropped back into coverage last week for an interception, and the two ends have combined for 8.5 tackles for losses totaling 54 yards through three games - including one game Flowers missed with an injury. Defensive tackles Robert Thomas and Byran Jones have pitched in as well, totaling 4.5 tackles for loss.
''When offensive linemen try and double-team one of us, or one of our inside guys, to have four guys playing at a high-quality level that's special,'' Flowers said. ''Somebody is in a one-on-one and somebody has got to get free. That's a big part of what we do and how we practice. We feed off each other.''
Arkansas has revamped its linebacker group since last year, with juniors Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell starting alongside senior Austin Jones in the middle. Lake, in particular, has flourished in the new system, making a career-high 13 tackles in last week's win.
''It feels good, but we feel as a defense we can't be satisfied,'' Lake said. ''Because the moment we're satisfied, that's when our rankings start to go down.''
The Razorbacks lead the SEC defensively with an average of just 12.7 points allowed per game. Of course, their first three opponents - Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford and the Golden Eagles, who have lost 15 straight games - hardly rank up with SEC competition.
That competition level rises this week against Rutgers, with Arkansas opening SEC play next week when it hosts Johnny Manziel and No. 10 Texas A&M. Bielema isn't quite ready to declare the defense a finished product, but he's thankful for how the Razorbacks have performed in the first three games.
''As long as I've been it, in those first four games, you can have some complete mismatches where . and then the average thing all comes into play,'' Bielema said. ''But I thought it was important for us defensively to work through some kinks ... So I'm very pleased with the way some of that stuff's gone.''
Despite the early success, Smith still feels like Arkansas has plenty to prove, beginning this week. And he's not quite ready to let go of that chip on his shoulder about what he feels is a lack of respect nationally for the Razorbacks' defense.
''It's always going to be there,'' Smith said. ''Arkansas has always been known for offense and a passing attack. I think it's kind of interesting. It's different that we've come with a different approach this year. We're just going to try to surprise people.''