- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas' defense ended last season on a tear, allowing single-digit points in three of its final four games, so naturally the Razorbacks had reason to feel good about where they were heading into spring football.
That's when defensive coordinator Robb Smith decided to check the ego of his collective group.
"At the beginning of spring ball, Coach [Smith] pulled up a clip of every bad play to show us what we could've corrected and what simple mistakes we made," junior defensive end JaMichael Winston said. "It was very eye-opening."
The point of the exercise? To let the defensive players know that the level of play at the end of the 2014 season was a starting point, not the end destination.
"We went out there and got better at the bad before we even took a look at the good," Winston said.
The play of the Hogs' defense was one of the key reasons for the team's turnaround from 3-9 in 2013 to 7-6 and a bowl win in 2014. The dominating performance against Texas in The Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, where the Razorbacks held the Longhorns to a puny 59 offensive yards en route to a 31-7 victory capped an impressive first year for Smith as Arkansas' defensive coordinator.
In 2015, Smith's unit is more comfortable, having already spent a year in his system. The focus is now on details rather than what to do or where to line up. Improving on last season's performance without key players that have moved on via graduation or the NFL draft -- like defensive linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon or linebacker Martrell Spaight -- is part of the challenge that awaits.
"That's the fun part of college football, right?" Smith said. "You've got to get the next guy ready."
Smith's first year running the Razorbacks' defense offers evidence that good things await. Spaight wasn't necessarily viewed as an SEC star at this time a year ago, but by the end of the year he led the conference in tackles (123) and was a key factor in the Hogs' success.
This season's defense might not have a ready-made big name like Flowers, who bypassed the 2014 draft to return for his senior season, but what it does have is plenty of talent, including solid depth on the defensive line, good cornerbacks and linebackers whom Smith is comfortable with.
Winston, who recorded three sacks in the Red and White spring game last month, had a strong spring and is emerging as a leader. So is defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson. Linebacker Brooks Ellis, who moved from middle linebacker to Spaight's vacated weakside linebacker spot, is someone whose strengths are similar to his predecessor's, according to Smith. And with experienced cornerbacks D.J. Dean, Jared Collins and Henre' Toliver, Smith feels the secondary could be a strength for the defense.
To take the next step, however, attention to detail is critical.
"[Our experience has] really given us the opportunity to focus on the finer details of the package," Smith said. "Last year it was step A, B, C and D, now we can talk about L, M, N, O. 'When this happens, this is what you should expect to see.' I think our guys have worked hard at that, and we have to use that as an advantage for us next season."
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is excited about the possibilities for the Razorbacks on defense this season. They retained two of Smith's three assistants -- secondary coach Clay Jennings and defensive line coach Rory Segrest. Former linebackers coach Randy Shannon took a job at Florida, but the new linebackers coach, Vernon Hargreaves, last worked under defensive coordinator David Gibbs at Houston and Gibbs is someone Bielema said "believes in a lot of the same things," defensively as Bielema does.
Most importantly, with a nice raise, Bielema was able to retain Smith, whom he first crossed paths with at Iowa from 1999-2001 when Bielema was the linebackers coach for the Hawkeyes and Smith was a graduate assistant. The two kept in close contact, then Bielema hired him before last season, to minimal buzz outside of Northwest Arkansas. By the end of the season, plenty of people took notice of Smith thanks to Arkansas' defensive performance (the Razorbacks finished second in the SEC in yards allowed per game and 10th nationally in scoring defense).
"Robb is a very intelligent man," Bielema said. "He's got a way of doing things that's unique to him, but that's what makes him stand out."
Smith is pleased with his situation in Fayetteville. He has a confident, talented group and the Razorbacks seem to have momentum heading into the fall. But the details are what nag at him, and what he focuses on the most -- especially when viewing all the close losses the Razorbacks suffered in 2014.
"We've got to be mentally tough, we've got to be physically tough," Smith said. "Now we have to be detail-oriented in everything we do, because when you're mentally and physically tough but you let some of the details slide, that's a 17-10 loss to Mississippi State or a 14-13 loss to Alabama, or a fourth-quarter collapse at Missouri or Texas A&M. That's why the details are so important, and that's what we've tried to spend a lot of time on this spring."