Offense has dominated headlines at Arkansas since the moment that Bobby Petrino took over as head coach before the 2008 season. But the reason that the Razorbacks were never able to win the SEC West under the Petrino and John L. Smith regimes was their defense.
First-year head coach Bret Bielema plans on changing that in 2013, with the help of new defensive coordinator Chris Ash.
Ash comes to Fayetteville after a successful three-year stint on Bielema's staff at Wisconsin, the last two years as defensive coordinator. In all three of Ash's seasons with Bielema, the Badgers won or shared the Big Ten championship.
But things are different now, and the challenge facing the two SEC newcomers in Fayetteville is a big one. The Hogs have finished ninth or worse in the SEC in total defense in four of the last five seasons.
How have they progressed this spring? Good, according to Ash (via Bo Mattingly's Twitter feed).
Ash: We are ahead of schedule (conceptually). Now it's about fine-tuning things. The improvement has been outstanding.— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) April 11, 2013
But it's not all good news.
Ash conceded that depth is an issue. If that's the case, Razorback fans should be concerned about the defense.
Ash: Depth is a concern... Is there a drop off at certain positions? Yeah, there is.— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) April 11, 2013
The good news for Arkansas is that it has a solid foundation up front with defensive ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. Smith quietly finished fourth in the SEC in sacks in 2012 with 9.5 sacks and tied for fifth with 13 tackles for loss. Flowers wasn't so bad himself, notching six sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
But behind them, inconsistency is staring the new staff in the face—particularly in the secondary.
Injuries ravaged that unit last season, but the return of a healthy Tevin Mitchel at cornerback will help stabilize the back end of the defense and allow veterans to step into bigger roles.
One of those veterans is senior safety Eric Bennett, whom Ash has been impressed with this spring.
“I’ve been more than pleased with what Eric Bennett has done,” Ash told the Arkansas News Bureau. “He’s been a great player. He’s been a great student of the game. He’s been very coachable.”
The good news for Arkansas is that there's plenty of room for improvement. The Hogs finished 12th in the SEC in total defense in 2012, giving up 409.9 yards per game.
But Ash's concern about depth is still a major issue.
Between Sept. 21 and Oct. 19, the Hogs will play at Rutgers, at home against Texas A&M, at Florida, at home against South Carolina and at Alabama. By the time the Gamecocks and Crimson Tide roll around, that defense is going to be beaten up and exhausted. That's not ideal when that dynamic Crimson Tide rushing attack lines up on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
But Ash is the right man for the job, and the Hogs will be better defensively. After all, his Wisconsin defense finished third in the Big Ten in each of the last two years. But it's going to take time to build the depth that's needed to compete on a weekly basis in the SEC.