- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- One of the first speeches Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino shared with his team last season centered around holding the proverbial rope.
Everybody takes a shot at holding that rope -- the offense, defense and special teams.
When one unit is struggling, the other may have to hold it a little bit longer.
That’s just part of being a team.
Don’t be surprised in 2011 if Arkansas’ defense ends up holding that rope as much or more than the offense, which is more a reflection of how much the Hogs have progressed on defense than it is a warning of any slippage on offense.
“Everybody believes on defense now, and we have guys who’ve been in this system for a long time,” said senior Jerico Nelson, who doubles as a safety/linebacker for the Hogs.
“We got better on defense last year and stepped up in some games. But in the games we needed to step up in, we didn’t. We lost all three of those games -- Alabama, Auburn and Ohio State. We have to learn to start fast and continue to play fast, and that’s what we’ve done this spring.”
When Petrino first arrived at Arkansas, spring practice was one big fireworks show for his offense.
There were big plays all over the field, quick-strike touchdowns and not a lot of defense.
This spring has been different. The defense has won a lot more battles than it’s lost, which is the way it is at most championship-caliber programs in the spring -- particularly in the SEC.
“A lot of it is the maturity of the guys here and going through what we did together when we were younger,” said senior middle linebacker Jerry Franklin, who had a career-high 100 tackles last season and is bidding to become the first player in Arkansas history to lead the team in tackles for four straight seasons.
“We’re older now and have blended together into a good defense. But we don’t just want to be a good defense. We’re trying to become a top 10 or top 5 defense in the country. We have the guys to do it and the game plan to do it. We just have to go out and get it done.”
Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, who took his share of heat those first two seasons, deserves a lot of credit for staying the course. He put his entire system in and didn’t deviate from that system even when the Hogs were giving up points in bunches.
That first season, they went one three-game stretch against Alabama, Texas and Florida and gave up a combined 139 points.
Even during the second season, the Hogs finished 89th nationally in total defense and went eight straight games where they allowed a touchdown play of 60 yards or longer.
But last season, a lot of those defenders grew up, and Arkansas improved to 36th nationally in total defense. Just about all of those guys are back, too.
“It’s gratifying to see them so confident with each other and playing faster,” Robinson said. “We stuck with our system. We didn’t try and change our system. It wasn’t like there was a discontinuance for them, so they were able to get better at what they were doing.”
Robinson went into this venture with his eyes wide open, too.
Soon after arriving from the St. Louis Rams, even his wife, Susan, could tell that the defensive personnel wasn’t anywhere close to what it needs to be to compete for championships in the SEC.
“Our first spring here, my wife, who had grown up in Pennsylvania and knew a lot about football, sat down there and said, ‘You guys look like a high school football team. That doesn’t look like a college team. I don’t know how you’re going to compete in the SEC because I’ve seen those people, too,’ ” Robinson recounted.
“We just had to work our rear ends off, and our strength staff has done a great job.”
The Hogs now look like an SEC championship-caliber defense in their front seven in terms of their size and depth in the defensive line and their athleticism and speed at linebacker.
That’s keeping in mind, too, that their two best defensive tackles, Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones, were out this spring while recovering from injuries.
“You see in those championship teams that they all have good offenses, but what separates them is that every one of them has a great front seven,” said senior defensive end Jake Bequette, who led the team with seven sacks last season.
The Hogs also possess experience and skill in their secondary, although Robinson thinks they might be a cornerback or two short in terms of depth.
“Without a doubt, we feel like we can be playing for our conference championship in Atlanta,” Robinson said. “We feel that in all of our hearts. We’ve taken a step every year, and our kids are really driven to do that. We had so many freshmen playing for us our first year on defense. That was scary, but it helped us on down the line.
“Our offense has carried us for so long. We’re at a point now, though, where our defense should be able to hold the rope for a lot longer.”
3dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
4dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney