FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas secondary was battered and bruised last season, suffering through another difficult season in the Southeastern Conference.
But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said last week he doesn’t think the group is void of talent. He’s hoping some changes this offseason will help instill confidence when the Razorbacks begin spring practice next Sunday.
"I just I think our kids in the back end especially, just kind of needed to take a deep breath, let’s move forward," Bielema said. "Because there’s some players back there with some ability. I just want to see them kind of approach it a little bit different as well as learn the game, maybe, through different eyes and I’m excited about that."
Arkansas will begin its work next week with two new coaches in the secondary after defensive coordinator Chris Ash – who worked with the safeties – left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson also left last month for a position at Purdue.
So Bielema hired Robb Smith, who was an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013, to run the defense. Clay Jennings left Texas Christian to become secondary coach with the Razorbacks. Both will work with Arkansas’ defensive backs.
Bielema said he already likes the "flavor" Jennings has brought to a group of cornerbacks that includes returning players like Tevin Mitchel, Will Hines, Jared Collins and D.J. Dean. At safety, the Razorbacks lost senior Eric Bennett, but Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines will lead a group that also has young talent like redshirt freshman D’Andre Coley expected to compete for playing time.
"I think coach Smith has brought a little bit of a confidence and swagger to the kids and tried to make it a little more simplistic on defense," Bielema said. "I think the kids have really bought into it."
Center of Attention
Arkansas has big shoes to fill at center with Travis Swanson preparing for the NFL Draft. Bielema said he expects two players to jockey for the job.
"Between Luke Charpentier and Cordale Boyd, both those guys look really good," Bielema said. "We think those guys will battle it out here in the spring."
The competition may not be over after spring practice, though. Bielema indicated some of Arkansas’ newcomers could get a chance to win the job, including Frank Ragnow and Sebastian Tretola.
"But those two, Ragnow and Tretola have had some work inside," Bielema said.
Former Arkansas place kicker Zach Hocker was among the 14 Razorbacks prepared to participate in pro day last week. But Hocker ended up watching all afternoon because there weren’t any special teams coaches who attended the workout.
"If there was going to be a special teams coach who had shown up and was going to watch me kick then I would have," Hocker said.
It’s not a bad omen. Hocker was one of four former Razorbacks who participated in the NFL Scouting Combine last month. He went 13-for-15 on field goal attempts during his on-the-field workout in Indianapolis.
Hocker also will have chances to meet with teams in the next month.
"Most of the time it’s individual workouts and that’s what I’m waiting on," Hocker said. "My first workout is in a week. So between now and the draft I’ll be working out with different teams and coaches."
Making an Impression
Arkansas hasn’t started spring practice, but one of the Razorbacks’ newcomers has already left a mark during offseason workouts.
Bielema said Jared Cornelius, who enrolled early and will go through spring practice in preparation for his first season, is "going to turn everybody’s head."
"Jared Cornelius (has) been one of the most impressive players the entire spring to this point," Bielema said.
Cornelius is expected to help Arkansas at a position that lacked depth last season. Outgoing seniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton are gone as well, leaving Keon Hatcher, D’Arthur Cowan and Eric Hawkins as the leading returners. Arkansas also will have Demetrius Wilson back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
Ford on Ballot
Former Arkansas coach Danny Ford is among six former Football Bowl Subdivision coaches on the ballot for the 2014 College Football Hall of Fame.
Ford coached the Razorbacks from 1993-97, leading the program to its first SEC Western Division title in 1995. It was the program’s only winning season under Ford, who went 26-30-1 and was fired after a 4-7 season in 1997.
Ford coached at Clemson for 12 seasons before his five-year tenure with the Razorbacks. He went 96-29-4 during his career at Clemson, leading the Tigers to the national championship in 1981.
Ford joins Mike Belotti, Darryl Rogers, Jim Carlen, Pete Cawthon and Billy Jack Murphy on this year’s hall of fame ballot. The 2014 class will be announced in May with induction ceremony set for December.