Lofty Hopes Hinge on Hogs' Defensive Improvement

by Chris Bahn  on Monday, Jul. 12, 2010 12:00 am  

Getting to the football at full speed is a goal of the Arkansas defense this season. Coaches are hoping for an improved defense in 2010. (Photo by Will Flowers)

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FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has a clear-cut goal for its defense this fall. How attainable the mark is remains to be seen.

Coach Bobby Petrino was vocal in the offseason about wanting to see the defense crack into the top 20 nationally. Considering that would be the best finish for the Razorbacks in a decade, the request might seem a bit lofty.

In fact, from the outside looking in, it seems like the Razorbacks’ defensive coaches and players are being set up for failure. Safety Jerico Nelson doesn’t view it that way at all, though.

“Expectations are high here. Sometimes you have to set the goal high to achieve that goal,” Nelson said. “That’s what we’re doing. We want to reach that goal he’s set for us. We have a great offense. We want to be up there with them.”

Reaching the goal will be tough. It’s also very necessary based on SEC history and what Arkansas is hoping to do this season. Competing for an SEC title is usually out of the question unless a team’s defense is ranked 20th or better.

Only two SEC champs the last decade have finished outside the top 20 in total defense. Florida ranked 42nd in 2000 and LSU 75th in 2001, but since then the lowest national defensive mark for any SEC title winner was Georgia at 18th in 2005.

LSU led the nation in 2003 and not coincidentally won the national title. Alabama was second nationally in total defense on its way to the 2009 title.

Arkansas’ best defensive finish in the country came in 2000 when the Razorbacks ranked 12th. They haven’t finished in the top 20 nationally since and have been in the bottom half of Division I teams four times, including the last two seasons under Petrino.

Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, in the final year of a three-year deal that pays $300,000 annually, has come under criticism for the play of the defense in his first two seasons. Arkansas was 72nd in total defense in 2008 and worse in 2009, finishing 89th nationally.

Progress was made last year even if the total defensive numbers weren’t better, Robinson said. There are some statistical indications to back that up.

Only five teams in the country had a better turnover margin than the Razorbacks. They forced 30 turnovers — up 14 takeaways from the season before. There were marked improvements in rushing defense, scoring defense and tackles for loss.

It was Arkansas’ defense that saved the day in the Liberty Bowl when the offense struggled. Five of the team’s top seven tacklers return and Arkansas looked better in the spring because of it. Coaches, including new addition Steve Caldwell, the Arkansas State graduate who spent more than a decade at Tennessee with Phil Fulmer, scaled back the playbook and simplified things.



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