Bielema confident about Arkansas defense despite turnover
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Arkansas lost four top defensive players to the NFL, and coach Bret Bielema thinks the unit can pick up where it left off last season.
The expectations remain the same for Bielema heading the opener against UTEP on Saturday.
''I think it's a defense that's built on a system, not a name,'' he said. ''It's the sum of 11 parts.''
Leading the way for Arkansas' resurgence a year ago was a defense that ended last season as the 10th-best in the country at 323.4 yards per game, second in the Southeastern Conference behind LSU. It improved dramatically during the season, earning shutouts of LSU and Mississippi and holding Texas to 59 yards of total offense in three of its final four games.
The No. 18 Razorbacks begin this season with similar defensive hopes under second-year coordinator Robb Smith, though they lost defensive stalwarts Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight and Tevin Mitchel to the NFL.
Bielema's continued confidence is fueled by the presence of Smith at the top as well as the added depth and experience that comes with having three of his recruiting classes on campus.
And that depth starts on the defensive line, where Bielema said the Razorbacks have more talent than at any other time in his three seasons.
Among those options, only two of Arkansas' top defensive linemen - DeMarcus Hodge and Mitchell Loewen - are seniors. The rest are either juniors or underclassmen, including freshman Hjalte Froholdt, and all are eager to show they can follow in the footsteps of Flowers and Philon.
''The guys that played behind those guys learned so much from them that even though those guys left, we aren't going to miss a beat,'' junior defensive end Deatrich Wise said. ''That sense of proving people wrong is going to be a big thing with us.''
Finding a way to replace Spaight's production has been one of Arkansas' biggest missions during the offseason. The outside linebacker led the SEC with 128 tackles last season, and Smith is counting on junior Brooks Ellis to fill his role after spending last season at middle linebacker.
Regardless of who takes over as the top defensive playmakers, the Razorbacks believe they won't have a letdown following last season - when they ended a school-worst 17-game SEC losing streak with the shutouts over LSU and Ole Miss.
''We always said `We want to taste that first win,' and once we did, we realized what we were capable of and what we had to do to get it,'' sophomore defensive end Tevin Beanum said. ''Now that we realize it's well within our grasp to accomplish that, I think we're just steamrolling now.''