Arkansas DB Tevin Mitchel
Former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino led his team into the national discussion on the heels of a fantastic quarterback, creative play-calling and stellar wide receivers.
But when the play-calling element was removed from the equation last season after Petrino was dismissed, the defense couldn't pick up the slack—particularly in the secondary.
The Hogs defense finished 12th in the SEC last season in total (409.9 YPG) as well as scoring defense (30.4 PPG), and last in passing defense (285.8 YPG).
That simply won't cut it.
While many of the pieces of the Hogs offense remained consistent from 2011-12, that won't be the case this season for first-year head coach Bret Bielema. It's a given that the Hogs will have to rely on the defense a little more than usual.
That shouldn't signal impending doom, though.
While the secondary struggled last season, it was hit rather hard with the injury bug. Starting cornerback Tevin Mitchel was hit hard in the loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Week 2 and was forced to miss the next four games with concussion issues. Safety Eric Bennett was plagued by hamstring and ankle injuries despite notching 40 tackles.
However, last season's speed bumps could have paved the way for a bright future.
Mitchel was a SEC All-Freshman selection in 2011 after tallying 56 tackles and breaking up one pass. The 6'0", 180-pounder was one of the centerpieces of Arkansas' 2011 recruiting class and, when healthy, has the speed and ball awareness to be an All-SEC performer.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas News Bureau writes that the 6'0", 190-pound Bennett was the recipient of a hefty amount of praise from first-year defensive coordinator Chris Ash this spring.
“He’s never wrong,” Ash said. “When he’s out there, he’s always making the right calls, always getting aligned right. Ninety-nine percent of the time he’s in the right position."
Strong safety Rohan Gaines was one of those players who was forced into action before he was ready last season, but the experienced he gained from that debacle will be incredibly beneficial moving forward. Now Gaines knows what to do and what not to do, and that's big, as he is expected to step into more of a leadership role as a sophomore in 2013.
Whether it's sophomore Will Hines or freshman Jared Collins lining up at the other cornerback spot, Arkansas' secondary could evolve from a liability to a strength in 2013.
While health is an important factor, the addition of Ash on the staff could pay huge dividends.
Wisconsin's defense finished in the top five in the Big Ten in pass defense in each of Ash's three seasons in Madison. Bielema explains why Ash was brought in on the team website:
In the last three years working together, I gained a great respect for the way Chris teaches the game and develops student-athletes. I've followed his career for a long time, and his knowledge of the way we run our program and specifically the defense will be valuable for us moving forward in our transition. Chris helped us improve drastically in our pass defense at Wisconsin where his defenses consistently ranked in the top 25 nationally in all the major categories.
Not only will Ash have a talented yet underachieving group to work with, he's going to have help up front.
Where will Arkansas rank in the SEC in pass defense?
Arkansas' unquestioned strength on defense is its pass rush led by defensive ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. Smith went largely unnoticed last season, but finished fourth in the conference with 9.5 sacks and tied for fifth with Flowers with 13 tackles for loss.
A dominant pass rush has a tendency to force mistakes, which can make a secondary look very good.
Don't write off Arkansas just yet.
The Hogs have the pieces to turn things around in a hurry in the secondary and a drastic improvement may be necessary if the Hogs want to get back to a bowl game this season.