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Alabama Football 2014: Previewing the Arkansas Defense

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Can an improved Razorback squad stem the Tide?

Just one SEC win, guys.  Please?
Just one SEC win, guys. Please?
Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

One week after falling victim to Ole Miss, Alabama hits the road again to face a much-improved Arkansas squad.  The Crimson Tide has outscored the Razorbacks 104-0 in the last two meetings, but the Hogs (3-2) have played competitively in their two losses against top 20 teams this season.  Saturday's game should be much more competitive, and with the Hogs looking for their first SEC win since 2012, Alabama will have a fight on its hands.

Defensive Line

Razorback head coach Bret Bielema added defensive coordinator Robb Smith to the staff in February, the fourth DC for the Hogs in four years, and the impact on the team's performance is already being felt.  Smith's 4-3 defense is designed to stop the run.  So far this season the Razorbacks have held their opponents to 139.4 yards rushing per game, an improvement of nearly 40 yards per game over last season.  Much of that credit goes to the young defensive line, where end Trey Flowers is the only upperclassman to start.  Flowers, a 6'3", 270-lb senior, hails from Huntsville, Alabama, where he played for Columbia High School.  He leads all linemen with 26 tackles this season, including four for loss and a sack.

The other three starters on the defensive line are all sophomores.  At nose tackle, 6'2" 255-lb Taiwan Johnson is a bit undersized, but his quickness has led to a lot of time in the opponent's backfield.  Johnson has amassed 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss already this season.  Tackle Darius Philon (6'2", 277 lbs), another Alabama native (Mobile), had his best game last season against the Tide (eight tackles).  Philon has 18 tackles in 2014, including five for loss, and 1.5 sacks.  He also had a rare opportunity for a defensive lineman, scoring a touchdown against Northern Illinois after Flowers caused a sack-fumble.

Finally, at the other end is JaMichael Winston, yet another Alabamian who played with Philon at Vigor High School.  At 6'4", 250 lbs, Winston is still filling out his frame, but he earned a starting job in the fall and has good pass-rushing speed.

Linebackers

Last season, the linebacking corps was the biggest weakness in the Razorback defense.  The Hogs did not have a single linebacker with starting experience at the beginning of the 2013 season and it showed.  This lack of experience led to misread plays, poor gap discipline, and especially sloppy tackling.  Improvement at linebacker was a priority in the offseason.

Under Smith's direction, senior linebacker Martrell Spaight is thriving, emerging as the team's top tackler at the Will position.  The 6'2", 231-lb Spaight has already nearly doubled the number of tackles he made all last season with 43.

Sophomore Brooks Ellis, who took over the starting middle linebacker (Mike) spot for the Hogs late last season, is also continuing to improve.  A sideline-to-sideline player, Ellis (6'2", 237 lbs) is physical and has potential to play at the next level.  He has already nearly matched his total tackles from last year with 31, and is second overall on the team.

At Sam is senior Braylon Mitchell (6'2", 234 lbs).  Mitchell is the most experienced linebacker on the team, having finished second on the team in tackles last season with 77.  Oddly, while Spaight and Ellis have elevated their game, Mitchell has been considerably less productive in the early going this year, garnering only seven tackles in the first five games.

Secondary

One of the testaments to the improvement among the front seven on the Razorback defense is the fact that senior free safety Alan Turner is fourth on the team in tackles with 24.  Last season, his 97 tackles led the Hogs by a wide margin.  Overall, however, the Razorback secondary is still struggling, giving up 263.8 yards per game through the air.

Yikes.

Turner (5'11", 210 lbs) is a third-year starter and one of the most experienced players on the defense, along with senior corner/nickel back Tevin Mitchel (6'0", 190 lbs).  Mitchel has started 37 games for the Razorbacks in his career.  While he has good ball skills, he has a tendency to bite on play fakes and subsequently can get beaten deep.

Joining Turner and Mitchell in the secondary are senior Carroll Washington (5'11", 190 lbs) and sophomore Jared Collins (5'11", 172 lbs), both at corner, as well as junior Rohan Gaines (5'11", 195 lbs) at strong safety.

Summary

No one would mistake the Arkansas defense for Ole Miss.  Giving up over 400 yards and 25.8 points per game, even Florida's defense looks good by comparison.  However, they have shown a decent amount of stiffness against the run, so the Tide will need to take advantage of the Razorback secondary to walk away from Fayetteville with a win.  Look for Blake Sims and the Alabama offense to do just that.