FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas will display its offensive side for the Razorbacks’ SEC Media Day portion Wednesday.
Senior quarterback Brandon Allen — fresh off his session as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy — senior running back Jonathan Williams and senior receiver Keon Hatcher travel with Arkansas coach Bret Bielema for the Razorbacks’ Wednesday afternoon SEC Media Days session in Birmingham, Ala.
Arkansas is the lone school bringing its allotted three players to Media Days entirely from one side of the ball.
Fans will read into this that the Razorbacks could be really be strong on offense. Especially with Mackey Award watch list tight end candidate Hunter Henry, Outland Trophy watch list offensive line candidates Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland, Rimington watch list center candidate Mitch Smothers, and Maxwell Award watch list candidate running back Alex Collins not even among the three Birmingham-bound.
Fans also might read into this some alarm about a no-name defense — with no names on any national awards watch lists — and no names at SEC Media Days.
The no-name present does reflect that last year’s three big Arkansas defensive names, linebacker Martrell Spaight, defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon in August will have reported to NFL camps and not to Fayetteville.
Yet, there seems a defensive confidence among Arkansas fans. They can remember that Flowers, second-team All-SEC as a 2013 junior, was Arkansas’ lone defensive big name going into August, 2014.
And they know their 2014 no-name defensive coordinator is such a big name now that Steve Spurrier, the esteemed South Carolina coach and former Florida national championship coach, says he hopes he just hired a defensive coordinator that can do for the Gamecocks what Robb Smith did for Arkansas.
Arkansas talk radio and message boards grumbled when coming off an initial 3-9 overall, 0-8 SEC season, Bielema replaced one old coaching colleague — Chris Ash, his defensive coordinator at Wisconsin and since 2014 the second in command co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State — with Smith, another old colleague who was a 1999-2001 Iowa defensive grad assistant while Bielema coached Iowa linebackers.
Smith coordinating defenses at Maine and Rutgers didn’t much register with many in Arkansas, either.
Smith sure registers with the Razorbacks faithful now. In one year with Smith as the defensive head, Arkansas transformed from among the nation’s leakiest defensive in 2013 into among the 2014 nation’s best.
Posting SEC shutout victories over nationally ranked opponents LSU and Ole Miss in Fayetteville and finishing holding Texas to a touchdown in the 31-7 rout at the Advocare Texas Bowl in Houston, the Razorbacks closed their 7-6 season nationally ninth in scoring defense and nationally 10th in total defense.
So, after his Gamecocks fell on defensive hard times last season, Spurrier demoted coordinator Lorenzo Ward to a nominal co-coordinator and hired Jon Hoke, his defensive coordinator from 1999-2001 at Florida before coaching 13 years in the NFL, to be the coordinator who will set the defensive alignments and strategies.
“I think Bret showed what sometimes changing a coordinator on defense can do,” Spurrier said. “I mean they went from a struggling defense to one of the best in the country.”
Of course, it’s still the players’ performance over the coordinator’s reputation that truly makes a defense.
Ward was the defensive toast of South Carolina when his defenses were big parts of 11-2, 11-2 seasons for 2012 and 2013 before big defensive statistical skids were deemed big parts of the 2014 Gamecocks skidding to 7-6.
Smith, defensive backfield coach Clay Jennings and defensive line coach Rory Segrest all new to Arkansas last year, and linebackers coach Vernon Hagreaves, new to Arkansas last spring hired to replace Randy Shannon, now at Florida, have big work ahead to make some noteworthy names from previous no-names.
However plenty with an 2014 impact, though not the 2014 recognition afforded Spaight, Flowers and Philon, do return including JaMichael Winston, Taiwan Johnson on the line, Brooks Ellis at linebacker and Jared Collins, Rohan Gaines and Henre Toliver in the secondary.
There are many others with resumes on par or better than Spaight’s before the 2014 senior second-year junior college transfer from North Little Rock stunned the SEC by leading the league in tackles.