Arkansas Razorbacks work to build a better defense

Arkansas Razorbacks work to build a better defense

July 22nd, 2013 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photo Arkansas senior defensive end Chris Smith is hoping his side of the ball can lead the Razorbacks for a change.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

ARKANSAS

Camp start: Aug. 5

Opener: Louisiana-Lafayette in Fayetteville on Aug. 31 (FoxSS at 4 p.m. EDT)

Fun fact: New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has a staff that includes former Miami coach Randy Shannon, former Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, former UT line coach Sam Pittman and former Razorbacks quarterback Barry Lunney.

Coming Tuesday: Auburn

With Ryan Mallett or Tyler Wilson quarterbacking the last four years and throwing to the likes of Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton, the Arkansas Razorbacks were often dynamic offensively.

Chris Smith thinks it's about time the defense dominates.

The 6-foot-3, 268-pound defensive end is ready to take charge for a program that was riding high with 21 victories under Bobby Petrino but imploded last year after Petrino was fired for lying about his extramarital affair with an athletic department employee. The Razorbacks plummeted to 4-8 last autumn under interim coach John L. Smith, but they made quite a ripple when they hired Bret Bielema after Bielema had guided Wisconsin to three straight Rose bowls.

"Coach Bielema is a defensive-minded coach, so that is our goal," Smith said last week at SEC media days. "We've had guys in the past like Tenarious Wright and Jake Bequette set the tone, and we're just going to work hard to be the best in the SEC.

"We don't get up at 5 in the morning to be the fifth-best or the fourth-best. We want to be No. 1, and that's what we're trying to be."

Arkansas never finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense under Petrino and was deplorable under Smith, allowing 30.4 points a game to rank 12th in the league and 81st nationally. The Razorbacks surrendered 45 to Mississippi State, 52 to Alabama and 58 to Texas A&M.

Smith had 52 tackles last season and 9.5 sacks, which tied for fourth nationally. Also returning on the defensive front are senior tackle Byron Jones and junior end Trey Flowers, who each had at least 50 stops last season as well.

The secondary of Will Hines, Tevin Mitchel, Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines is back, but can eight returning defensive starters overcome the offensive losses of Wilson, Hamilton and tailback Knile Davis? Brandon Allen, who threw for just 60 yards and was intercepted twice last season against Alabama when Wilson was hurt, is the favorite to guide Bielema's first Razorbacks offense.

Bielema lobbied that senior Travis Swanson was the best center in the country, but the media last week pegged Arkansas last in the SEC West.

"We have some players that you haven't even heard of that are coming at you," Bielema said. "When I took over from Barry Alvarez [at Wisconsin], we had just beaten Auburn in the bowl game but lost a couple of really good players. Everybody had us ranked 60th to 70th in the country and in the bottom half of the Big Ten.

"We went out and went 12-1. I'm not saying we're going to go out and go 12-1, but this team has the ingredients."

A chief reason for the low projection is the four-game stretch of Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama the Razorbacks will face beginning in late September.

Smith arrived in Fayetteville from Mount Ulla, N.C., where he received scholarship offers from Penn State and Virginia but was not wanted by North Carolina or N.C. State. Now he's linked with South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney as the SEC's only returning players with nine or more sacks.

Clowney, however, has been a part of 11-win teams the past two seasons, while Smith and his Razorbacks teammates are undergoing change as a result of last season's stumble.

"Nobody on this team wants a 4-8 season again," Smith said. "When Coach Bielema met with us, he said he didn't want to be good in three years -- he wanted to be good now. That got a lot of respect from the seniors.

"I was thinking about leaving for the draft, but when I heard that, it made my decision."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.