FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas players have been showered with preseason publicity this summer.
Veteran quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg were among Razorbacks listed on preseason All-Southeastern Conference teams. Each is in consideration for national awards at season’s end, too. And the group — which also includes with offensive linemen Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey — has helped Arkansas become an intriguing title contender despite an offseason loaded with drama.
But the preseason notoriety also has provided a subtle reminder of Arkansas’ recurring question in its quest for a championship. Only one defensive player — linebacker Alonzo Highsmith — has garnered the same sort of preseason attention for the Hogs.
Linebacker Tenarius Wright said it was nothing new as he laid out the defense’s goal for the season.
“We’re really trying to make a name for ourselves as a defense,” Wright said at SEC Media Days last month.
Arkansas will continue working toward that goal today, when players report for preseason camp.
The Razorbacks will hold their first team dinner tonight, then open a month practices with separate workouts for newcomers (3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.) and veterans (6 p.m. to 8 p.m.) on Thursday.
Arkansas’ offense should wow fans in attendance during open practices largely because of its star power and experience at most positions. Don’t be surprised if the Hogs are paying more attention to the other side of the ball, though. Arkansas coach John L. Smith said it’s no secret the defense must contribute if the Razorbacks have any hopes of being a contender.
“The old adage of first one to 49 wins doesn’t work in this league,” Smith said at SEC Media Days. “We’re going to have to be one of those teams that plays defense or we’re not going to stand a chance.”
It proved to be one of Arkansas’ weaknesses last season. Despite a veteran core of seniors in defensive end Jake Bequette, linebackers Jerry Franklin and Jerico Nelson, and safety Tramain Thomas, the Hogs finished ninth in the SEC in total defense (362.8 yards a game) and eight in scoring (22.2 points).
So Arkansas parted ways with defensive coordinator Willy Robinson after the regular season and welcomed in Paul Haynes. The former Ohio State assistant ran the group in the Cotton Bowl, helping Arkansas limit Kansas State to 260 yards in the 29-17 win.
The Razorbacks got a better feel for Haynes’ plans during 15 spring practices. The new coordinator, who was also joined by former Ohio State assistant Taver Johnson as linebackers coach at Arkansas, said the biggest objective was familiarity with his system.
“Really going into spring the big thing was our guys learning the terminology,” Haynes said. “That is not an issue anymore. Our guys feel comfortable.”
They still have a lot to prove on the field with so many veterans from the 2011 team trying to work their way onto NFL rosters this summer.
Wright, who spent much of his career at defensive end, will be a key cog after moving from defensive end to linebacker in the spring. So will Highsmith, who missed the spring because of a torn pectoral muscle.
Young players like defensive end Trey Flowers and cornerback Tevin Mitchel will be expected to perform in starting roles around them. Even newcomers like linebacker Otha Peters will be needed to help a team with depth concerns at several positions.
But Haynes said the emphasis remains the same no matter who is on the field when the season begins.
“We will focus a lot on tackling. We need to stop the run,” Haynes said. “In any defense, those are two things you have got to do to be successful.
“Those are a couple of things we need to work on and make sure we are good at.”
Will it help Arkansas “make a name” for itself defensively as Wright suggested at SEC Media Days?
Arkansas won’t be able to answer that question until the season begins. But Smith and the Razorbacks understand the importance and are eager to get started when the team reports for preseason camp today.
“We have to be able to contribute on the other side of the ball,” Smith said. “For us to do our job over there is going to make us a championship team.”