2008 Arkansas Preview - Defense
Arkansas DT Malcolm Sheppard
Arkansas DT Malcolm Sheppard
Posted Apr 11, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Arkansas Razorback Defense

Arkansas Razorbacks

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Arkansas Preview | 2008 Arkansas Offense
- 2008 Arkansas Defense | 2008 Arkansas Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Arkansas Preview | 2006 CFN Arkansas Preview 

What you need to know:
This should be interesting for defensive coordinator Willy Robinson. The defensive line might be the best in the SEC if everyone plays up to their talent level, with Ernest Mitchell and Malcolm Sheppard a rock-solid tackle tandem, and Adrian Davis and Antwain Robinson two of the league's best ends. And that's where the fun stops. The linebacking corps is a mess following arrests and the booting of Freddie Fairchild, but if nothing else, it's full of speedsters. The secondary has to replace all four starters, but it shouldn't be all that bad if the pass rush can help the cause.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ernest Mitchell, 66
Sacks: Ernest Mitchell, 3.5
Interceptions: Jerell Norton, 5

Star of the defense: Senior NT Ernest Mitchell
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior LB Elston Forte
Unsung star on the rise:
Redshirt freshman DE Jake Bequette
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Antwain Robinson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Mitchell, 2) DE Adrian Davis, 3) Robinson
Strength of the defense: Speed, line
Weakness of the defense:
Linebacker, secondary experience

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: In one of the biggest surprises of the spring, 6-5, 265-pound redshirt freshman Jake Bequette turned into a major-league force at the end. He got better and better as the off-season went on, and now he's expected to be a steady all-around player, considering his age, and a stalwart on the line for the next four years. While he's a good pass rusher, he's not an elite one yet and will have to keep developing.

It'll be an ongoing battle for time on the other side with 6-4, 238-pound junior Adrian Davis listed as the starter ahead of Antwain Robinson ... for now. Davis started in nine games last year after starting out his career as a linebacker and made 65 tackles with three sacks and ten tackles for loss. A pure speed rusher, he's quick off the line and is great at generating consistent pressure.

Starting again on the inside will be the tackle pair of Malcolm Sheppard and Ernest Mitchell. The 6-2, 305-pound Mitchell, a senior, made 66 stops as the run clogger on the inside, but he also showed the quickness to get into the backfield with 3.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and a whopping, for a tackle, 10 quarterback hurries. He came into last year known for being big and tough against the run, and he did even more than expected. Now he has to get healthy after suffering a torn ACL late last year.

Sheppard, a 6-3, 277-pound junior, is even quicker and faster than Mitchell. An elite athlete for his size, he made 42 tackles with 10.5 tackles for loss, and now he has to learn how to close on the quarterback. He led the team with 16 quarterback pressures, but he only came up with half a sack.

Projected Top Reserves: This finally, finally appears to be the year when senior Antwain Robinson plays into his NFL measurables. A million-dollar talent with $3.75 worth of production, he came up with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, along with 35 tackles, but those numbers should double considering he's the team's most athletic pass rusher. At 6-2 and 258 pounds, he has good size, a big-time burst, and the quickness to be an ideal inside linebacker in an NFL 3-4 scheme. He came up with an interception with seven broken up passes on the year, and now he appears ready to flourish under the new coaching staff.

About to become a major player on the outside is 6-5, 253-pound sophomore Damario Ambrose, an SEC All-Freshman selection who came up with 13 tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss as he came on late in his true freshman season. He's the team's new star pass rusher.

6-1, 305-pound senior Cord Gray is a big veteran who might not be the best pass rusher around, but he's a run stopper when he gets the chance. He made 20 tackles as a sophomore as a key reserve, but he didn't do much of anything last year. Now he'll be counted on as a big reserve behind Mitchell.

Watch Out For ... more sacks. No team with Davis and Robinson, and now Ambrose, on the front line should only generate 23 sacks. There should be far more pressure as Robinson appears ready to go ballistic.
Pass rush. See above.
Stopping the run. For having so much talent and decent size across the front, the Hogs struggled a bit too much against the run. Only Missouri truly gouged the D, but it's not like the Hog front four stepped up and stonewalled any good ground game.
Outlook: This was supposed to be the strength of the defense last year, almost by default, and it's definitely the best unit of the bunch this year. It's not really even close. Robinson has to be the special player the NFL types think he can be, while Bequette and Davis should be good ones on the outside. Sheppard and Mitchell are good SEC tackles who won't make many mistakes.
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters: The linebacking situation is a nightmare, but one solid starter is back in 6-0, 219-pound senior Elston Forte. A starter for half the season on the outside, he made 51 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. The former defensive back isn't big, but he bulked up to be able to handle more work. While he saw most of his time on the weakside, he'll start on the strongside now that Freddie Fairchild has been booted off the team.

With Forte moving over, 6-1, 207-pound Ryan Powers will take over the weakside job after making 19 tackles and a tackle for loss as a spot starter. While the sophomore might be small, he has cornerback speed and he should be great in pass coverage and should show off sideline to sideline range.

Starting in the middle will be 6-2, 229-pound redshirt freshman Jerry Franklin, at least he'll be the man until the Wendel Davis saga plays out (more on that in a moment). Originally a safety, he bulked up , got stronger, and now should be a major factor in the middle once he figures out what he's doing. He'll make a ton of mistakes early on, but he'll also be a major playmaker with a little bit of time.

Projected Top Reserves: Freddie Fairchild, the team's leading returning tackler and supposedly the heart of the 2008 defense, was booted of the team after getting charged with suspicion of third-degree battery and false imprisonment. He's gone.

Even more bizarre is the case of junior Wendel Davis, who started one game making 39 tackles last season and was going to be a shoo-in at middle linebacker. He has to deal with a felony criminal mischief charge after allegedly punched a car in a strange altercation. While not out of the picture for this season quite yet, the 6-1, 224-pounder has to heal up the hand that punched the car, along with a knee. 

Also making things interesting is 6-2, 221-pound sophomore Freddy Burton, a promising strongside linebacker who made 23 stops in a reserve role. He got arrested for a DWI. A top special teamer, he'll be back on the team and will need to play a much bigger role behind Forte.

Sophomore Jermaine Love will be thrown into the fire working in the middle behind Franklin. The 5-11, 226-pounder was a backup and a special teamer last year making four tackles in seven games. He was a huge recruit for the program and was playing as a true freshman. Eventually, he might move to the outside to use his speed and range in space.

Watch Out For ... a lot of patience. This is hardly the linebacking corps the Hogs were hoping to have going into the season, but to go cliché, it is what it is. It's not like there isn't talent, but it's going to take a little while for everything to come together, if it does.
: Speed. By design, this isn't all that big a group, but everyone can run really, really fast. The linebackers are all bulked up safeties, and they shouldn't have a problem flying around to the ball.
Players. Arkansas has always been able to get by with small, productive linebackers, but this year could be a problem as there's little to rely on going into the fall. If there are any injuries, it's uh-oh time. The team might have to count on true freshmen Jelani Smith and Tenarius Wright sooner than expected.
Outlook: The corps was supposed to be Fairchild and Forte on the outside and Davis in the middle with Burton a main contributor, but things are going to quickly change. It's not like the original plan was going to be a big plus anyway, and now, unless Power and Franklin are stars from day one, this will be the team's weakest link by far.
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: All four starters are gone with the biggest losses at safety. Michael Grant made 75 tackles, picked off three passes and broke up 20 passes at free safety, and now there will be a battle for the job with 6-1, 191-pound junior Rashaad Johnson the likely main man. A good understudy last year, and the starter over the final four games, he made 53 tackles with three tackles and ten broken up passes. He has good size and is terrific in pass coverage.

Taking over for leading tackler Matt Hewitt, who made 118 stops at strong safety, will be 6-0, 210-pound senior Dallas Washington, a career backup who has seen plenty of time over the course of his career making 22 tackles last season. While he hasn't been a starter, he has enough experience to be counted on as a leader with good speed and open field tackling ability.

Matterral Richardson will be the tougher of the two corners to replace, but Isaac Madison is rising player on the right side. The 6-0, 181-pound sophomore got on the field in 10 games of his true freshman season , but didn't do much. While he's not an elite prospect, he has good size and just enough speed to get by.

6-1, 197-pound senior Jamar Love is a crusty veteran by comparison to the other defensive backs with two starts last year making 22 tackles with four broken up passes. He's a big, fast, physical corner who was used as an occasional blitzer making three sacks. A strong special teamer, he'll be counted on more as the left cornerback.

Projected Top Reserves: While Rashaad Johnson will find a spot somewhere in the secondary, he'll be pushed for the starting free safety job by Matt Harris, a 6-2, 192-pound junior who is listed as a co-starter. He only made three tackles last year in four appearances, but with his size and tremendous athleticism, he was a big-time prep hurdler, he should quickly find a role. Harris, the son of former Dallas Cowboy star safety, Cliff, could eventually be a strong safety.

Making a big impact this spring was former LSU Tiger Darrell Glasper, a walk-on who showed off tremendous speed and playmaking ability at right corner. He's not all that big at 5-8 and 180 pounds, but he's a strong, sure tackler who'll see plenty of action.

Watch Out For ... the free safety situation, Harris and Johnson each have to be on the field at the same time, but Washington appears entrenched at strong safety. Replacing Michael Grant might not be easy, but these two should be able to do it.
The pass rush. It might not have been as good as expected last year, but the front four came up with a ton of pressure and should do even more. Nothing will help the secondary more than a hurried quarterback.
Starters. While there's a little bit of starting experience, technically, all four starters are gone and there's not a whole bunch of developed depth to count on. This group will have to prove it; it'll get picked on early.
Outlook: Things aren't as bad as they appear. Last year's secondary was replacing a few key starters and it finished second in the nation in pass efficiency defense. The secondary came up with more picks than in the past, 20, but it also got blasted in a a few games giving up 421 yards to Mississippi State, not exactly the New England Patriots throwing the ball, 364 to South Carolina and 327 to Alabama. In other words, last year's crew was good, but it wasn't completely irreplaceable. This year's starting four will be a bit worse, but will turn out to be fine.
Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Alex Tejada was a big recruit for the program last year, and he came through big time hitting 17 of 23 field goals as a true freshman. Bobby Petrino has said he trusts Tejada completely inside the 50, and while the range might not be elite, he really tops out at around 45 yards, he's solid.

Returning at punter will senior Jeremy Davis, a serviceable veteran who averaged 40 yards per kick putting 19 inside the 20. He first started out his career as a placekicker, struggled, and now is a reliable punter who won't hurt the cause.

Trying to replace Felix Jones on kickoff returns will be Jerell Norton, the team's top punt returner who averaged 7.9 yards per try. He has the speed and the potential to be good, but it's asking too much replace the 29.6 yards per try from Jones.

Watch Out For ... more of a push to be better at returning punts. Norton busted off a few good one, but Arkansas finished dead last in the SEC in punt returns, and he's better than he showed.
Tejada. He should only be better after a year under his belt. If he can hit just one 50-yard bomb early on, it'll give the coaching staff even more confidence in him.
Kick coverage. This was a huge problem over the last few years. After allowing 8.2 yards per punt return in 2006, the Hogs gave up nine yards per try last year. Worse yet, they allowed a whopping 23 yards per kickoff return. With the defense certain to be a bit worse, the Hogs have to win the field position battle whenever possible.
Outlook: The special teams will be a plus. The kicking game is above-average, and while replacing Jones won't be easy, there are enough speedsters to find a few good returners to help out Norton. The coverage teams have to be far better.
Rating: 7



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