Ellis, Toliver lead rebuilt Arkansas defense in opening win
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Arkansas didn't get off to the dominating defensive start it hoped for, but the potential is there to be as good if not better than last year's group that finished 10th in the nation in total defense.
A season-opening 48-13 win over UTEP on Saturday gave some needed experience to a new mix of defenders the 18th-ranked Razorbacks hope will improve each week.
Cornerback Henre' Toliver led the way with an interception to open the second half and added a pair of tackles for losses as Arkansas Saw held UTEP to 204 total yards. The Razorbacks totaled 11 tackles for 46 yards in losses.
Arkansas lost four of its top defensive players to the NFL following last season, a year they ended with a pair of shutouts over LSU and Mississippi and by holding Texas to 59 total yards in three of its final four games.
The transition from that dominating unit to this season's new group of players appeared to be a smooth one.
''We came out trying to prove to everybody that we're a different defense,'' linebacker Brooks Ellis said. ''We're still going to be a great defense, even though we lost a lot of great guys.''
Ellis was involved in one of Arkansas' biggest position switches in the offseason, moving from middle to outside linebacker while replacing last year's SEC-leading tackler Martrell Spaight. The junior finished with seven tackles, including one for a loss, in his first start on the outside, while junior Josh Williams also had seven tackles at Ellis' old spot in the middle.
Arkansas started the preseason with sophomore Khalia Hackett at middle linebacker, but coach Bret Bielema eventually settled on moving him to the outside after Williams continued making plays during camp. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound Williams played sparingly last season, though he did have 14 tackles in a loss to Georgia, and his move appeared to be the right one to open the season.
''(I'm) very happy with what Josh is bringing,'' Bielema said. ''I think he's the answer there.''
Despite the comfortable early win, Bielema said the Razorbacks still needed to improve their tackling before next week's game with Toledo.
However, even though UTEP had the ball longer than Arkansas and ran only one fewer play, the Razorbacks still managed to hold the Miners to an average of only 3.8 yards per play while outgaining them 490-204 in total yardage.
They also answered some questions on the defensive line, where they lost Trey Flowers and Darius Philon to the NFL - with junior-college transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter leading Arkansas with eight tackles in his first start.
Count UTEP coach Sean Kugler as one who saw little difference between how the Razorbacks ended last season and began this one on defense.
''They looked like the same guys to me,'' Kugler said. ''I mean, they can fly around; they've got a lot of talent.''
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