FAYETTEVILLE — New Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads knows best the deepest part of his Razorbacks defense.
Rhoads is new as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator but not new to Arkansas.
The former Iowa State coach (2009-2015) and former University of Pittsburgh and Auburn defensive coordinator coached the Razorbacks secondary last year for Bret Bielema while Robb Smith, now Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, coordinated the defense.
An Arkansas secondary that struggled against the pass in 2015 improved under Rhoads in 2016 but a Smith coordinated defense that did especially well stopping the run in 2014 and pretty well stopping the run in 2015 got run over big-time in 2016.
Think of the secondary and pass-defense comes first to mind but the secondary is vital to run support, too.
Considering that senior first-team free safety Josh Liddell of Pine Bluff Dollarway operated second-team team strong safety and second-team nickel back in last Saturday’s scrimmage just to enhance his versatility, indicates the secondary’s potential.
For with senior De’Andre Coley and fourth-year junior Santos Ramirez, customarily alternating strong safeties, mixed and matched as the first-team safeties, the Razorbacks secondary scrimmaged seldom missed a beat.
Statistically, Coley, 10 tackles, and interception and a fumble recovery, especially excelled. And Bielema, the only coach addressing media after the scrimmage, praised Ramirez, too.
“I really am happy with the growth of Santos Ramirez,” Bielema said. “I think maturity-wise, coachability, all those things are very, very positive.”
In the April 8 scrimmage Ramirez logged six tackles, one preventing a touchdown, and broke up a pass.
Returning cornerbacks Ryan Pulley and Henre Toliver have excelled and Rhoads now coaches two he counted on but didn’t have last year, Kevin Richardson and Britto Tutt.
Well, Rhoads had Richardson for one game. The now senior from Jacksonville not only is Arkansas’ best nickel back but top reserve cornerback also capable of playing safety.
Richardson missed the 2016 season after tearing pectoral muscles during the season-opening victory over Louisiana Tech.
He has practiced full tilt all spring breaking up three passes and making five tackles during the April 8 scrimmage and last Saturday with more blitzes added, making a minus 8-yard stop among his eight tackles and breaking up a pass.
“ K. Rich we feel really good about,” Bielema said. “Obviously that nickel spot he does some good things and he’s a very explosive player. He’s a guy that can really play all five DB positions.”
Tutt was last year’s junior college transfer cornerback expected immediately help the 2016 secondary.
He couldn’t. A torn anterior cruciate ligament in an Aug. 18 preseason scrimmage ended Tutt’s 2016 season before it began.
Bielema and Rhoads have brought Tutt along slowly this spring.
He scrimmaged last Saturday for the first time and made six tackles for the second-team defense.
“I’ve liked Britto since he got here,” Bielema said. “Last year before he got injured he was a guy we were talking about. We just felt like last week he wasn’t quite there yet. So it was good to see him pull the trigger. He’s very intelligent and he’s a very long corner. He’s got great length in his arms and legs. He’s a guy that we’re excited to get in the mix.”
Junior Reid Miller also played some snaps at first-team free safety and third-year sophomore cornerback Nate Dalton worked some second team.
“The good news is that we probably played truly six to eight DBs and then Nate Dalton came in and did some good stuff,” Bielema said. “So there’s a handful before we even get these freshmen coming in. I think Korey Hernandez (the January enrolled freshman who has practiced but was held out of the scrimmage because of an injury) is in a position to help us. So we are probably a little bit deeper and better at that position.”
The more he can count on at every defensive position the better, Rhoads said.
“ I’m philosophically a believer in playing 22-plus guys as much as you can,” Rhoads said last Thursday of the second unit reservers spelling starters “ think it does a number of things. I think it keeps you fast. I think it keeps you conditioned, so late in the first half and late in the game you’re still playing fast because you’ve rested guys and played guys. And I think it keeps morale high. So as we compete for starting jobs, the bulk of the two deep knows they’re going to be called upon and used.”