FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash has a good idea about which players will start for his defense when the season begins.
The veteran defensive line was set before practice began. So were the safeties. The Razorbacks have identified Austin Jones as their middle linebacker, joining Braylon Mitchell and Jarrett Lake with the starters. Meanwhile, junior Tevin Mitchel has shown he’s the team’s most consistent and experienced cornerback.
It leaves one spot open for debate as Arkansas wraps up the second week of preseason camp. So Ash issued a challenge to cornerbacks Jared Collins and Will Hines this week: Who wants to join the starting group?
"Right now it’s wide open," Ash said after Tuesday’s practice. "Neither one of them has been consistent enough. Neither one of them has stepped up and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to take this thing and run with it.’ Somebody’s got to.
"We’ve got to play with one of them and right now I’m not sure who it’s going to be."
Arkansas would like to get an answer when it scrimmages in Razorback Stadium today. The scrimmage is closed to the public. But inside, Collins and Hines will continue to fight for what now may be the last starting spot on offense or defense.
It’s a competition that began in the spring when Collins was one of the team’s biggest surprises, moving ahead of a returning starter in Hines. He earned the first-team title after spring drills and was still there when the Razorbacks opened practice for the only time this preseason last Saturday.
But he knows nothing has been decided yet. So today’s scrimmage could be critical.
"It could be the determining factor," Collins said. "You never know. You just have to go out there and play your hardest every play."
Collins, who redshirted last season, has not played a down for the Razorbacks. But he has impressed the new staff the past few months with his intelligence — he earned a 4.0 in courses last fall — and willingness to be physical.
Collins, like nearly every player, also got bigger in the summer. He added roughly 10 pounds and weighed in at 175 for preseason camp.
"He’s not that big, but he’s real aggressive, and he’s real fast," Arkansas safety Rohan Gaines said. "He has great feet and great eyes, and he’s a smart player."
Hines got to play immediately last season, helping Arkansas fill a void at cornerback after Mitchel went down with a neck injury in the second game of the season.
Hines started the final nine games and finished with 24 tackles. He also was responsible for two of the team’s 12 forced turnovers (one interception, one fumble recovery). It wasn’t always easy, but Hines said the experience was valuable.
"I probably had the worst game against Rutgers my first game because everything was so fast," Hines said. "But as the season went on, it slowed down.
"It was just like high school basically and it started getting fun."
The experience wasn’t enough for Hines to simply hold the first-team job this preseason. One reason: Position coach Taver Johnson said Hines had issues getting out of breaks, adding Hines needed more "knee bend" to play the position.
Collins isn’t flawless, either. But Johnson said the strengths and weaknesses both brought to preseason camp has led to a "very tight" competition.
"Both of those guys are doing a good job," Johnson said. "Both are right there. I couldn’t give a good answer who is where, but both are doing a good job."
Hines and Collins are fine with each other, too. The corners want the starting job, but consider it a friendly competition. Both know they’ll play this season.
So their aim is doing whatever it takes to make each other better.
"It’s bringing the best player out of both of us," Hines said. "So it’s really good for the team. … It hasn’t affected our friendship or anything. We’re still good friends."
One of them is going to land a starting job in a secondary that includes Mitchel, Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines. Collins said it would mean a lot to either player after competing for the position the past several months.
"It would basically just show me that he has trust in me," Collins said.
A Closer Look At … CORNERBACKS
Best of the Bunch: Tevin Mitchel — Mitchel’s 2012 season was marred by a eck injury against Louisiana-Monroe. But the starter returned to a struggling defense after missing four games and finished with 34 tackles and got his first career interception. The coaches are hopeful Mitchel can take another step in Chris Ash’s defense this fall, though, becoming a dominant cover corner as a junior.
Watch Out For: D.J. Dean — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has identified Dean as a freshman who is going to play immediately. The former high school cornerback has worked his way into the rotation and may get his first job as an extra defensive back in Arkansas’ nickel packages. Position coach Taver Johnson said Dean still has plenty to learn, but is smart, talented and a willing hitter. All are important for the role.
Biggest Strength: It wasn’t long ago Arkansas seemed to have cornerbacks who stood 5-foot-9 or less. But the Razorbacks have more size at the position now. In fact, Arkansas’ four top cornerbacks through camp — Mitchel, Jared Collins, Will Hines, Carroll Washington — are all 6-foot or taller. The extra size should give the cornerbacks a better chance to compete with some of the SEC’s big receivers.
Biggest Question: Can this bigger group make plays? Arkansas corners haven’t really been known for being productive when the ball is in the air the past few years. Case in point: Hines and Mitchel each had an interception last season. But they were the only corners to have one. Arkansas is stressing takeaways in practice this preseason and a good portion of the responsibility rests with the cornerbacks.
Projected Starters: Tevin Mitchel, Jr. (34 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBUs in 2012); Jared Collins, RS-Fr. (N/A)
Other Contributors: Will Hines, So., (24 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBUs in 2012); Carroll Washington, Jr., (N/A), D.J. Dean, RS-Fr. (N/A), Ray Buchanan Jr., RS-Fr. (N/A)
That Figures: 2008 – The last year an Arkansas cornerback had more than one interception in a season. Former Razorback Ramon Broadway collected a pair of picks as a sophomore, tying Jerry Franklin for the team lead.
Quotable: "We better bounce back. That’s something we remember, and something we understand that we gave up way too many big plays, too many yards, and sometimes it was just because of us, it had nothing to do with our opponent. So that’s what we’re trying to do right now, focus on the little things, focus on our details and what we’re supposed to do with our assignments. And if we do that, we’ll definitely improve." — Johnson on the struggles at cornerback last season.