FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas safety Eric Bennett battled with nagging injuries throughout a disappointing 2012 season.
Teammate Rohan Gaines learned plenty of lessons the hard way, starting every game as a redshirt freshman.
The combination didn’t exactly make for a memorable year in an Arkansas secondary that allowed 285.8 passing yards a game. But as the Razorbacks inch closer to 2013, Bennett said last season’s struggles didn’t shake their confidence.
“This year is our second year together,” Bennett said of the starting safeties. “So we’re real comfortable playing back there together.
“I feel like we can be two of the top safeties in the nation coming up this year.”
That remains to be seen. For now, Arkansas is counting on its safeties to be among the team’s strengths when it plays Louisiana-Lafayette on Aug. 31.
Bennett and Gaines are preparing for their second season together as a starting duo at the back end of Arkansas’ defense. Bennett is one of the most experienced and intelligent members of the unit, entering his third year as a starter. Gaines has become one of its best young talents, showing plenty of potential as a playmaker after finishing second on the team with 75 tackles last season.
Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash — who coaches the safeties — has said since the spring they’ve worked well together. So plenty has been placed on their shoulders and Gaines said it’s a responsibility they welcomed with open arms.
“We’re ready to be the best, and it’s about time that we get the respect that we deserve,” Gaines said.
The good news: Bennett is in much better position to make it happen after struggling with injuries last season.
His problems began in preseason camp — when Bennett was sidelined for much of practice — and continued throughout the year. He still managed to play in 11 of 12 games, but Bennett wasn’t himself during most of them.
Still, he didn’t want to use it as an excuse after finishing with 40 tackles.
“It was hard for me,” Bennett said. “I was just trying to go out there and give my team 100 percent, whatever I had. So I went out there and played through injuries and everything. We were just out there trying to get wins last year.”
Ash noticed in the spring, saying there were plenty of “negative things” about Bennett’s performance when he watched film. He didn’t know about the injury history, so Ash was surprised with the veteran’s steady play in the spring.
It has carried over to preseason practices. Safety TQ Coleman, who spent time with the first-team defense while Gaines was sidelined with a minor knee injury earlier this preseason, said Bennett has been a steadying voice at the position.
“If I mess up on something, he’s able to help correct me because of his knowledge of the game,” Coleman said. “It’s real comfortable out there when you’ve got Eric Bennett on the other side of you.”
Gaines agreed, describing the senior as a calming force for the secondary.
His personality works well with Gaines, who admittedly is a little different.
“Eric is more calm, cool and collected and keeps me calm,” Gaines said. “I’m the one who gets him hyped up. So it just goes back forth.”
Gaines — who was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team last season — caught Ash’s eye last spring as well because of his strong play. Ash said at the time he was a “really big fan” of Gaines because of his work ethic, football IQ and attitude.
He missed nearly a week of preseason practice because of a bruised. So Ash said Gaines still working his way back to form this week after missing valuable time.
But Bennett said he’s confident Gaines will be ready for a big season.
“He has made big strides every day,” Bennett said. “He’s working on details, back peddling, his technique. All types of stuff. I’ve seen Rohan grow from coming straight out of high school to where he is right now. He’s become a great player.
“He can improve and become one of the best players in the nation.”
Gaines said he and Bennett communicate well because of their experiences last season and believe it will pay off in their second season together as starters.
Bennett said it’s one of many reasons both are confident they’ll have a big year.
“It’s a new feeling this year,” Bennett said. “This year, we’re not going to give up any big plays. We can’t have mental errors.
“That’s the two big things we’re focusing on is no mental errors and no big plays.”
A Closer Look At ... SAFETIES
Best of the Bunch: Eric Bennett — Bennett struggled with nagging ankle injuries in 2012 and it had an obvious affect on his performance. In fact, defensive coordinator Chris Ash was not impressed when he watched film. But Bennett is healthy now and the veteran has become a key to Arkansas’ defensive efforts under the new staff.
Watch Out For: TQ Coleman — The junior college transfer was heading to Wisconsin before Bielema left. So he followed the coach to Arkansas and is working with the second-team defense behind Gaines. Coleman is known as a hard hitter and has shown it in scrimmages. He’ll get a chance to prove it to opponents soon.
Biggest Strength: Bennett and sophomore Rohan Gaines team to give the Razorbacks a solid tandem for 2013. Bennett is a savvy veteran. Gaines is an improved youngster. The Arkansas’ secondary struggled last season, but Gaines and Bennett should lead the group to noticeable improvement this fall.
Biggest Question: Arkansas has numbers in the secondary. But is it quality depth? Ash is confident Coleman has developed into a strong No. 3 safety, but the jury is still out on the rest of a group that includes Alan Turner, Jerry Mitchell, Davyon McKinney, Kelvin Fisher Jr and Korliss Marshall.
Projected Starters: Eric Bennett, Sr., (40 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss in 2012); Rohan Gaines, So., (75 tackles, forced fumble in 2012)
Other Contributors: TQ Coleman, Jr., (N/A), Alan Turner, Jr., (14 tackles, INT in 2012), Jerry Mitchell, Sr., (6 tackles), Davyon McKinney, So., (11 tackles)
That Figures: 21 – Games started by Bennett during his career. The number is second only to defensive tackle Byran Jones (29) among Arkansas’ defensive players. The Razorback are confident the senior’s knowledge and experience will be valuable at the back end of its defense in 2013.
Quotable: “TQ Coleman has gotten a lot of reps with the ones. He’s provided us a lot of depth. I’ve been pleased with his progress and improvement throughout the course of camp. But right now our ones are Rohan and Eric, and TQ and Alan are the backups. I think the way they’ve progressed, they’ve closed the gap and I think they can be quality backups.” — Ash on Arkansas’ depth chart at safety.