Defensive improvement critical for Hogs

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- The faster pace this spring is just one of the things that gives Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino reason to believe that his defense will be improved in 2010.

He’s seen his defense play with more consistency, more instinctively and react quicker on the practice field.

And let’s face it: The Arkansas defenders are playing against some pretty talented playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.

“We’ve definitely made improvement, particularly in playing the fundamentals of good defense -- tackling better, running full speed to the ball, getting off blocks,” Petrino said. “That’s really, to me, what spring is about on defense. We’re not doing as much where we’re scheming things. We just want to find out who can and who cannot play defense.”

There’s also been a lot of experimenting, moving some guys around and shuffling the depth chart.

One of the big changes this week was Rudell Crim going from cornerback to safety, which immediately gives the Hogs more speed in the secondary.

A year ago, Arkansas was brutal against the pass. The Hogs were last in the SEC and 99th nationally. They gave up 22 touchdown passes, and many of those were big gainers.

In fact, the Hogs went eight straight games where they gave up a touchdown play of 60 yards or longer, and six of those were passes.

“We try not to focus on listening to the bad or the negative,” said junior cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. “But the simple fact is that we were who we were last year. We can’t hide that, but we use that to turn it into positive energy and try to become better.”

That positive energy has been more apparent than ever this spring on the practice field.

“These spring practices have been the best spring practices I’ve been around since I’ve been here, and that’s including when we had D-Mac [Darren McFadden] and those guys,” senior defensive end Damario Ambrose said. “Everybody out here is focused. Everybody knows what our goal is, and that is to show everybody how good we really are.

“We want to make sure everybody knows, especially on defense, that we’re going to show up every single game with a purpose, and that’s to work hard and win games.”

The Hogs are still thin at linebacker and can’t afford for somebody like Jerry Franklin to get hurt.

But their numbers on the defensive line and secondary are better than they’ve been under Petrino. A pair of incoming freshmen, tackle Byran Jones of Junction City, Ark., and end Chris Smith of Mount Ulla, N.C., may also be able to help right away.

“We played good defense at times last year,” Petrino said. “We were good against Alabama for three quarters. But we need some good things to happen, because I still think there’s a confidence level there that needs to be reinforced. We need a dominant performance early in the year, or two or three, so we feel it and then build on that confidence.

“I know they know we’re better just because of the way we’ve battled out on the practice field and how physical our scrimmages have been.”

Added Ambrose: "Everybody knows about the high-ranking offense, but we want to come out and show people that we’re a force to be reckoned with, not just the offense.

"We want to score some touchdowns this year."