Arkansas hoping new-look defense brings improvement
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Bret Bielema grew up playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment before eventually moving to the defensive line and enjoying success there as a player at Iowa.
Now entering his fifth season as the Arkansas coach, Bielema is about to pass those 3-4 lessons forward as the Razorbacks begin spring practice on Tuesday while looking for a quick fix to what was nothing short of an abysmal defensive performance last season.
Arkansas finished 7-6 last year, doing so despite a defense that ranked 123rd out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in allowing an average of 6.75 yards per play.
That performance led to the exit of defensive coordinator Robb Smith and promotion of former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads, who was elevated to Smith's former position after a year coaching the Razorbacks defensive backs. It also led to Bielema scrapping the 4-3 defense the Razorbacks had run in his first four seasons, instead embracing a 3-4 look and completely new play-calling terminology.
''One of the things that we did is we made a total transition,'' Bielema said. ''I didn't try and save anything from what we had as far as how we align. We may align in a front that looks exactly like we used a year ago, but we'll call it something totally different.''
Whatever Arkansas calls it, Rhoads is tasked with improving a defense that suffered through two late-season collapses - including a Belk Bowl loss to Virginia Tech in which the Hokies reeled off 35 straight second-half points. It was the largest comeback in Virginia Tech's 124-year history, and it came a game after Arkansas had closed out the regular season with a 24-21 loss to Missouri .
The Razorbacks led 21-3 at halftime in that game, and the two losses have given Arkansas plenty of motivation to install and perfect its new-look defense as quickly as possible this spring.
''Whether it's the 3-4 or the 6-2, 5-2, any time you've got something new, there's going to be the thing that you've got to work through,'' Bielema said.
Some things to watch as Arkansas begins its spring practice:
ALLEN'S FIFTH: Senior quarterback Austin Allen played well in his first season as the starter a year ago, completing 61.1 percent of his passes and throwing for 25 touchdowns despite some early season offensive line struggles by the Razorbacks. The fifth-year Allen enters this spring as the unquestioned starter and intent on improving upon the 15 interceptions he threw last season, aided by a third straight season under offensive coordinator Dan Enos.
EARLY ARRIVALS: Junior college transfer Brandon Martin is one of nine early enrollees already on campus for the Razorbacks, though none might have a more immediate impact than the 6-foot-4, 215-pound wide receiver. Arkansas enters the spring without four of its top five receivers from last season, and Martin is expected to give Allen a ready-made option.
COACH GREENLAW: Bielema said linebacker Dre Greenlaw is still recovering from offseason foot surgery and will begin the spring as more of a ''mini assistant coach''. The junior initially broke his right foot against Alabama last season before having the follow-up surgery two months ago. Greenlaw had 42 tackles last season, tops for the Razorbacks at the time of his injury, and he had 95 as a freshman in 2015.
LINE RECOVERY: The Razorbacks received a boost following last season when center Frank Ragnow announced he was returning for his senior season. Bielema said the 6-foot-5, 319-pound senior will get some rest this spring as an injury precaution. ''Frank is playing at a level that in unprecedented,'' Bielema said.
MISSING END ZONE: Arkansas' spring game is on April 29th, and it will be held in Razorback Stadium despite ongoing construction in preparation for a new and mostly enclosed north end zone. When completed, the addition will bring the stadium's capacity to nearly 77,000.
More college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org