FAYETTEVILLE — Bret Bielema liked what he saw from Arkansas’ new-look defense early during preseason camp.
In fact, the Razorbacks coach took such notice after the team’s first scrimmage that he held a surprise staff meeting to let the defensive staff — led by new defensive coordinator Robb Smith — know just how excited he was about the progress.
The moment was a refreshing change for an Arkansas program mired in defensive mediocrity for the last few seasons, particularly last year when it finished 12th in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 30.8 points allowed per game.
“I wanted them to know the changes I saw on that film and in that stadium didn’t just happen by chance,” Bielema said. “I know our players did it, and we sell that on a daily basis, but our coaches made that happen.”
Leading what the Razorbacks hope is a defensive resurgence this season is Smith, the former Rutgers defensive coordinator who spent last season as the linebackers coach with Tampa Bay in the NFL.
The fiery 39-year-old joined Arkansas in February, replacing former defensive coordinator Chris Ash after he left for Ohio State.
Smith is no stranger to coaching top defenses, having led Rutgers in 2012 when the Scarlet Knights were fourth in the country while allowing only 14.2 points per game.
However, he faces a difficult opening act with the Razorbacks — who have allowed more than 30 points per game in each of the last two seasons while finishing a combined 7-17.
One of Arkansas’ biggest struggles last season was a lack of forced turnovers by the defense. The Razorbacks were last in the SEC in both turnover margin and forced turnovers (14), an area where Smith has spent much of his focus since the spring.
He’s done so by preaching a simplified defensive approach and numerous techniques to force turnovers.
“If there was a turnover defense, you would call it every time,” Smith said. “.. When you can play fast and disrupt the football when you get there, that’s what’s going to give you your opportunities for takeaways.”
Smith is one of three new defensive coaches this season for the Razorbacks, with former TCU assistant Clay Jennings taking over the secondary and Rory Segrest coming from Samford to handle the defensive line.
More than any coaching technique on the field, Jennings said the new coaches have spent much of their time learning their new players away from the field — in an attempt to rebuild the shaken confidence of Arkansas’ defense.
“Guys have to know how much you care before they really care about how much you know,” Jennings said. “It’s a two-way street, and there has to be a level of trust, belief and accountability within from me to them and them to me.”
Senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel said the bonding efforts of the new coaches were aided by the fact they each played the game and were aware of the difficulties at times in balancing school, football and life.
“They made us become together,” Mitchel said. “They made us become a unit, and not just people over here and there. We’re all together; we’re all family.”
The Razorbacks open their season at defending SEC champion Auburn next week, a difficult challenge to start the season. It’s one, however, linebacker Brooks Ellis — who talked about Arkansas’ “quiet confidence” — is looking forward to.
“We just want to go out in that first game and show people who we really are, because only we know how good we are, and only we can change what happened last year,” Ellis said.