The Arkansas Razorbacks are far off from competing for an SEC championship, don't let the headline fool you. There is a laundry list of problems standing in the way of a conference title for the Hogs and head coach Bret Bielema.
However, covering all those problems would take a very long time. So instead, we'll cover the biggest issue keeping Arkansas from winning its first SEC championship.
Above anything else, the biggest obstacle standing in the Razorbacks' way of an SEC title is the defense. Some might think quarterback would be a problem, but it's one position. Brandon Allen had a great spring and there's good depth behind him. The defense as a whole is weak and the biggest problem.
Offense wins games, defense wins championships. It's an extremely cliche saying, but it's also very true.
When you think of the best and most consistent programs in the SEC, such as Alabama and LSU, a staple of them are tough, hard-nosed defenses. Even when their offenses don't have good games, their defenses shut down the other team.
One of the big problems is the sheer lack of physicality. You'd think they were afraid of tackling, which is saying a lot considering they are football players who play defense.
The physicality issue plagued the entire defense. The defensive line was pushed back repeatedly throughout the year, opening big holes for backs to get to the second level against a weak and thin linebacker unit. The D-line was not bad in passing situations but fizzled against the run, ranking 78th nationally in yards allowed per game (178.4).
The linebackers were probably the worst group on the defense. A lot of that can be contributed to pure inexperience, lack of depth and talent.
The Hogs didn't have one linebacker with starting experience on their depth chart last year. That resulted in poor play for the group overall for the season, with the worst being their tackling. You know things are bad when college linebackers playing at a high-level Division I school have problems wrapping up and making a tackle.
Most of the time, the linebackers were either misreading plays, not getting off blocks or using weak arm tackles. It's fundamental things like this that are keeping the Arkansas defense from making big strides.
The secondary lacked physicality as well. The Hogs play a lot of man, which requires defensive backs to be physical, make good reads and stay with their man. Arkansas' defensive backs did the opposite, not playing physical, making bad reads and getting beat deep.
What really stuck out for the defensive backs was them providing up to 10 yards of cushion for opposing wideouts. That led to the Hogs being eaten alive with underneath patterns and crossing routes. When they did line up close, wideouts were able to beat them deep with straight-line speed or faking the direction of the route.
The defensive backs have to get better at the bump and run in man coverage. Being physical at the snap can throw receivers off their routes. They also can't bite on fakes by receivers. They have to learn how to play physical and up close, but at the same time, go step for step with their man.
This physicality issue can be fixed through practicing hard, repetition and raising the talent level through recruiting, something Bielema and the staff are working hard on.
It already looks as if the 2014 defense will be much better than last season's.
The D-line looked great during the spring and has defensive end Trey Flowers (44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks in 2013) back for his senior year. At the other end is redshirt sophomore Deatrich Wise (17 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks), who Bielema spoke highly of to HawgSports.com's Trey Biddy:
He's a kid with unbelievable talent and a lot of god-given ability. He's definitely showing great, great signs. He's using his hands, he's being aggressive.
Wise has a great frame at 6'6", 267 pounds and made big impressions this spring, recording five touch sacks in scrimmages. Arkansas will have a formidable rush off the outside if Wise continues the path he's on. He will most likely be rotated a lot this season with redshirt sophomore Brandon Lewis (13 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks), who actually took more first-team reps this spring than Wise.
Arkansas also has capable pass-rushing ends in Tevin Beanum and JaMichael Winston, giving them five ends they can rotate and good depth.
The depth at defensive tackle isn't as good, but the talent is better than last year. Redshirt sophomore Darius Philon (46 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) had one of the best springs out of anyone on the team and showed that after a solid freshman campaign, he's ready to take the next step in 2014.
The current depth chart on HawgSports has DeMarcus Hodge as the starter at defensive tackle alongside Philon. He's listed at 343 pounds, so he needs to lose some weight, but Hodge is good against the run and is an effective pass-rusher.
True freshman Bijhon Jackson has a legitimate chance at starting over Hodge if he can't get into better shape. Jackson has the skills to step in and contribute immediately. If he ends up starting next to Philon, the defensive line would be athletic and the pass rush would be dangerous.
You can also expect redshirt sophomore Taiwan Johnson to see the field a lot more at defensive tackle. He's undersized at 6'3", 263 pounds, but he's quick and has a good first step. He'll be used in passing downs quite a bit this season.
The linebackers should also be much improved despite the product in 2013.
After a year of starting under his belt, Braylon Mitchell is set to take a giant leap forward for his senior year. He was second on the team in tackles last year with 77. He was good in pass coverage with three pass breakups, but you'd like to see him use that power and speed to make more plays behind the line.
In the middle, the Hogs have sophomore Brooks Ellis (33 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks), who is as physical as they come. He earned a starting spot later in the season and showed big-time potential. He's a sideline-to-sideline player and could be one of the best linebackers Arkansas has had in a while.
However, one of the most talented players at the position is junior Otha Peters, who was injured most of the '13 season. Biddy had a good suggestion on how to put the three best guys out there:
Leave Peters at MIKE, move Ellis to WILL and move Martrell Spaight from WILL to SAM. Spaight may not love that move as he seems himself as more of an inside linebacker, but he is the only linebacker aside from Mitchell with the sideline-to-sideline speed to get the job done at SAM, and he is a bigger hitter than Mitchell. The only way Arkansas can get its best three linebackers on the field at the same time is if Peters is at MIKE, Ellis is at WILL and Spaight is at SAM.
Peters in the middle, Spaight at SAM and Ellis at WILL would put the three best on the field and be a huge upgrade from a physicality, skills and talent standpoint. All three are competent tacklers and good in pursuit of the ball.
The secondary should be strong if all the experience pans out. Senior safety Alan Turner (97 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Tevin Mitchel (47 tackles, 3.0 TFL, interception) have a lot of experience and are playmakers. Mitchel has always had the talent to be an All-SEC performer but has struggled with tackling in space. Biddy wrote on his progress this spring:
Tevin Mitchel made strides this spring and has grown more as a team leader. This is a player who seems to have regressed from his freshman to junior season but is now a senior and at least in scrimmage work looked like the best cornerback on the field. That is a welcome sight because Mitchel has shown great potential in the past. His biggest problem to date has been poor decisions with tackling techniques in the open field.
If junior cornerback Will Hines can use his strength and long arms to challenge receivers in press coverage, he could make the secondary much improved overall against the pass with Mitchel. Redshirt junior Rohan Gaines (33 tackles, 1.0 TFL) is listed as the other starter at safety. He has the experience, but redshirt freshman De'Andre Coley made huge plays this spring.
Coley has a very high ceiling and is good in pass coverage, but Gaines would give this secondary even more experience, which the Hogs need.
The 2014 version of the Arkansas defense looks to be better already and spring practice just ended. Don't get me wrong, it's still a long ways off from being good enough to help the program compete for a conference title. But, Bielema and his staff are teaching these kids how to play tough, physical defense that wins you ball games.
They are also putting together the pieces for a defense that can win the ugly games on days the offense just doesn't have it. Jackson, Ellis and Philon are excellent building blocks, and there's some serious talent already on board in the Class of '15.
The Hogs are headed in the right direction on defense. With the young, athletic playmakers they have and talented recruits, Arkansas could finally have a great defense sooner rather than later.
All player stats courtesy of ArkansasRazorbacks.com.
Bryan Heater is the featured columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.
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