It was such a good story that I really, really hoped it was true. The two principals in the story–Arkansas head coach Bret Beilema and defensive coordinator Robb Smith–assured me that it was, indeed, true. And it serves as the perfect backdrop for a 2015 season where the Hogs may not win the SEC West, but will have a lot to say about who does.
We all know that at the end of last season nobody wanted any part of Arkansas. The team that had lost 14-13 to Alabama and 17-10 to Mississippi State–both were No. 1 during the season–won three of its last four games, including back- to-back shutouts of Ole Miss and LSU. After a tough 21-14 loss to SEC East champion Missouri in the regular-season finale, the Hogs just destroyed Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl.
“By the end of the year we were a confident football team that believed in what we were doing,” said Beilema, set to begin his third year in Fayetteville.
Everybody knew Arkansas had the biggest offensive line on the planet and could pound opponents into submission with two 1,000-yard rushers–Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. What wasn’t as publicized was the minor miracle Smith pulled off with the Arkansas defense.
A couple of quick numbers tell the story. In 2013–the season before Smith arrived–Arkansas was 89th nationally in scoring defense (30.8 ppg). Last season under Smith, Arkansas was 10th nationally and fourth in the SEC in scoring defense at 19.2 ppg. The shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss marked the first time an unranked team had posted consecutive shutouts against ranked teams since 1942. Arkansas gave up only 45 points in its last nine games.
“When you play defense like that you have a chance to win every time you go out,” said Beilema.
And it all began with a noisy meeting in Miami hotel room.
Beilema had known Smith since the two were on the Iowa staff together more than 15 years ago. Smith, a former DC at Rutgers, was serving as linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs when Beilema reached out. to talk about the opening at Arkansas. Beilema was headed to Miami on a recruiting visit and would pick Smith up in Tampa on the the way.
“I was trying to sneak him into town so that nobody would know we were talking,” said Beleima.
The two men arrived in Miami too late to go out to dinner, so they ordered room service and began talking in Beilema’s room.
“We started talking about defense and some stuff that I believe in and the next thing you know we’re moving furniture around. I guess we started getting pretty loud,” said Smith.
“Because we’ve known each other forever we can say whatever we want to each other,” said Beilema. “He was making a coaching point and I thought we were getting stuck on the verbiage. I pulled a table out of the way and was shouting. It was just classic.”
Eventually there came a knock on the door. The neighbors had complained.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Smith.
Something else you can’t make up is the immediate difference Smith made in the Arkansas defense. In addition to the numbers above, Beilema pointed out that when it comes to explosive plays–a pass of over 25 yards or a run of over 20 yards–Arkansas cut that number from 64 to 31 during the 2014 season.
“The first thing Robb did when he came in was simplify our defense and basically cut the verbiage in half,” said Beilema. “Every week I could just see our guys getting more confident. And when you have those zeroes (shutouts) at the end of the season it makes you feel good.”
Now it helped greatly that Smith’s first Arkansas defense had difference makers like DE Trey Flowers (13.5 TFL), DT Darius Philon, and LB Martrell Spaight (led the SEC in tackles with 128).
“I would think about guys like Trey Flowers and what he had been through with three head coaches and four different coordinators,” said Smith. “And here I walk in with my song and dance. He embraces it and the other guys just bought in.”
The hope for Arkansas is that the defense can pick up where it left off last season. But Flowers, Philon, and Spaight were among the six starters that are gone for 2015. Arkansas also lost a good position coach in Randy Shannon, who left for Florida.
But there are some pieces in place. JaMichael Winston returns at the other end after starting 12 games last season. Sophomore Tevin Beanum is working at Flowers’ old spot after playing in 12 games as a redshirt freshman. JUCO transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter showed some athleticism in spring practice.
“Spring practice was the third time most of these guys have heard our language on defense and are getting some of the details,” said Smith.
With four of the five starting offensive linemen, both 1,000-yard backs, and a veteran quarterback (Brandon Allen) returning, there is every reason to believe that the Arkansas offense will not take a step back. The Hogs may actually throw it a little more under new OC Dan Enos, the former head coach at Central Michigan.
The expectations for Arkansas, which was 0-8 in the SEC in 2013, now go up. Beilema says he will embrace them.
“The great things being said about Arkansas now are because of what the 2014 team did,” said Beilema. “People assume it will happen again. We don’t assume that. But what is happening is definitely positive. Now it’s up to us make sure all of those good things turn into wins.”
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