FAYETTEVILLE — There’s one play from the Southern Miss game Arkansas senior Chris Smith remembered to illustrate his point Wednesday.
The defensive end said he made a move to the inside, trying to slip into Southern Miss’ backfield. Defensive tackle Byran Jones, who was lined up next two Smith on the interior, noticed and reacted by cutting outside.
Smith said it wasn’t a stunt called for by the defensive staff before the snap. Instead, it was instincts between veterans who understand how to read each other.
"Coach was like, "Did y’all plan that? Did y’all talk (about) that?’" Smith said after Wednesday’s practice. "Naw, we just … That’s what we do. That’s a chemistry thing. We’re just a family. We’ve been playing with each other three, four years."
Arkansas (3-0) was counting on its veteran front to lead the way this season and the group hasn’t disappointed as the Razorbacks prepare for its biggest challenge to date at Rutgers (2-1). The starting four of Smith, Jones, Trey Flowers and Robert Thomas have teamed together at the line of scrimmage to make big plays, helping Arkansas stand as one of the SEC’s top defenses after three weeks.
Smith accounted for three sacks in last Saturday’s win against Southern Miss, frustrating quarterback Allan Bridgford. There were other plays, too.
Flowers grabbed an acrobatic first-quarter interception after sliding back into coverage on a third-down play. Thomas made one of the game’s key stops, slipping into the backfield to stuff a 1st-and-goal run play from Arkansas’ two-yard line.
"They’re playing aggressive and getting hits on the quarterback really," Arkansas safety Eric Bennett said. "You can’t ask much more from your defensive line."
The performance has been enough for Bielema to refer to the front as a "freak show" during a Yahoo! Sports radio interview earlier this week. Arkansas linebacker Jarrett Lake said there’s no doubt they’ve been the team’s strength so far.
"They’re doing everything they can to affect each category," Lake said. "You talk about interceptions, they’re leading the team in interceptions. Tackles for losses. Sacks. They’re doing everything they’re supposed to do."
Consider these facts: Arkansas has accounted for two of the SEC’s three defensive lineman of the week winners so far this season (Smith and Trey Flowers). The line also has two of the Razorbacks’ four interceptions (Flowers and defensive end JaMichael Winston). Smith is tied for the NCAA lead in sacks (4 ½), while he and Thomas rank among the SEC’s top 10 in tackles for losses through three weeks.
Flowers had the big performance in the opener with two sacks and a forced fumble, while Thomas accounted for a career-high 3 ½ tackles for losses at Samford. Then Smith set his own career high with three sacks against Southern Miss.
"The thing that makes you win is big-time players make big-time plays," Flowers said. "So we all know that we’re playmakers and we’re able to make those plays."
Smith said the credit goes to defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who has helped the group’s growth since his arrival. He called Partridge "a hell of a coach" in terms of teaching technique and getting players to become betters students of the game.
One example: Partridge has urged Smith — known more for his speed rush much of his career — to mix up his pass rushing moves. Smith’s development played out last week, when he collected sacks on consecutive plays. Smith used his speed to blow by USM’s tackle on the first sack, then used a spin move to get the next.
Partridge said he’s glad the group is paying attention and enjoying the pay off.
"I still feel like we have a long way to go to feel like their games are complete, but they’ve taken the coaching well, they’re working really, really hard," Partridge said about his group. "I’m pleased with where they are after three games, but hopefully we make progress throughout the entire season."
Partridge is expecting a big test from the Scarlet Knights’ offensive front, which has proven to be a big and physical group this season. The Rutgers line has paved the way for running back Paul James, who leads the NCAA in rushing
So stopping the run will be the defensive front’s first priority Saturday. Success will give Smith, Flowers and others a chance to pressure the quarterback.
Flowers said the line is confident it will continue to make a big impact.
"That’s the type of thing we love — a running team where you’ve got to be in position to make a play every down," Flowers said. "So we’re striving to make plays. Stressing to make plays. We’re hoping to make plays on Saturday."