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DE Trey Flowers
When the 2013 season finally ended, the defensive statistics were not good. The Arkansas defense ranked 72nd in passing yards per game allowed (235.0), 78th in rushing YPG allowed (178.4) and 76th in total defense, allowing 413.4 YPG.
The Hogs didn't allow over 300 yards in the first three games against lesser competition, but they allowed over 300 yards in the final nine games, including over 400 seven times and over 500 four times. Even if the offense was great, playing that bad on defense isn't going to win games in the SEC.
Though the Razorbacks lost a few starters, including sack leader Chris Smith, this year's group has eight upperclassmen, and all 11 currently listed as starters either have been starters or played key roles last year.
The big problem with the defense was a lack of physicality and big plays. After defensive coordinator Chris Ash left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, Bielema hired Tampa Bay Bucs linebackers coach Robb Smith to replace Ash on Feb. 8. The hire brought changes in Arkansas' defensive philosophy.
As Biddy of HawgSports.com (subscription required) pointed out, Smith "will focus on attacking the line of scrimmage where as last year there were more read concepts involved." Basically, you can expect the defense to be much more aggressive in 2014.
Under Smith, the Razorbacks are going to attack the line of scrimmage more frequently instead of sitting back, making reads and waiting for the play to come to them. Last year, the defensive backs gave a lot of cushion to receivers, but they will now be pressing wideouts more on the line of scrimmage.
You could already see the changes having positive effects on the defense this spring.
There were more disruptive plays made, and the energy level and passion displayed by the defense was contagious. They appeared to get the best of the offense in several different practices.
The D-line looked like the most solid unit on the defense during scrimmages. Defensive end Trey Flowers didn't play as a precaution, but Deatrich Wise stole the show on defense, racking up five sacks. He and Flowers are going to give the Hogs a legitimate pass rush off the outside this year.
Arkansas was bad against the run last season, but the Red defense held the White offense to minus-42 yards rushing as the D-line wreaked havoc, totaling nine sacks. Defensive tackle Darius Philon caused a lot of disruption too and regularly clogged up the middle with 2.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks. He also showed off some speed by returning a fumble 19 yards for a score.
If true freshman Bijhon Jackson wins the starting job for the other tackle spot in the fall over DeMarcus Hodge, the Razorbacks will have a very athletic and physical D-line that could be dangerous in the pass rush and keep backs from getting so many big runs.
The depth at linebacker still remains an issue. However, the Hogs have four guys in Brooks Ellis, Braylon Mitchell, Otha Peters and Martrell Spaight who can make big contributions in 2014.
Last year, Arkansas didn't have one linebacker with starting experience coming into the season. It'll have a lot more experience this time around, which should make the unit better overall. Mitchell was second on the team with 77 tackles, but he could end up splitting a lot of time with Spaight in order to let Peters start in the middle and Ellis at the "Will" linebacker position.
Mitchell and Spaight are athletic and have the speed to play sideline to sideline. Ellis is a star in the making with great instincts and tackling form. Peters is very talented, but he missed a lot of last year with a broken arm suffered before the first game. Making those moves would give Arkansas a solid starting group of linebackers who are much better than 2013's version.
The secondary is also looking a lot better in this new defensive scheme that calls for them to do more press coverage. It has allowed the defensive backs to make plays on the ball, which was shown in the spring game where they picked off four passes and had five pass breakups.
Rohan Gaines, Will Hines, Tevin Mitchel and Alan Turner all have starting experience and should make the Hogs a lot tougher to throw the ball against in 2014.
Though the defense was mediocre last year, the change in philosophy under Smith has the unit being much more aggressive and confident. Now, it's up to them to continue to learn the new system and carry that aggression and confidence over into the '14 campaign.