Thursday Grid Update: 'Backers Improve

Randy Shannon

Chris Ash found plenty of positives after the 11th day of spring football drills at Arkansas. The defensive coordinator thinks progress might be ahead of schedule. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon thinks it's just a matter of learning a new system.

Chris Ash seemed happy Thursday. The new Arkansas defensive coordinator worried about the early days of spring when he "threw away" his installation schedule. Now, he's toying with the idea of putting in things that weren't on his original wish list for the spring.

"I've been really happy the last three or four practices," Ash said after Thursday's workout, the 11th this spring.

"I threw out some things on my menu early because we were just swimming at that point."

Ash, who handles the safeties, was highly pleased with the development of the linebackers in the last week.



"Our linebackers are getting it," he said. "They get the run fits, the pass drops. I've seen a lot of improvement there.

"Right now, I think we are actually a little ahead of where I wanted us to be. Now, we are getting the mental things. There's not a lot more that I want to put in. I had a menu of teaching and concepts, and we are ahead of that schedule. Now we are fine tuning."

Ash does not seem like the sort to praise individuals. He said he is more about "talking unit." But he did mention quite a few players that have impressed this spring on defense.

"If I was going to single out guys, I'd say the four defensive linemen have had a great spring," Ash said. "They've bought into technique. They understand how to play their gaps."

Ash also praised linebacker Braylon Mitchell "as the most improved" of the spring for the defense.

"There was not a lot of talk about Braylon when we got here, but he's been out there with the ones almost every day," Ash said. "In the back end, Eric Bennett has been Mr. Consistency. Rohan Gaines has stuck out, too."

When asked specifically about Bennett, Ash said, "He's done really well. He's had an outstanding spring. When we got here, I heard a lot of negatives, that he got beat a lot. I've been more than pleased with him. He's been a great player, a student of the game. He's never wrong. He's always got the right call."

Bennett took that as high praise. He reminded that last year was a struggle to stay healthy.

"I had two ankle sprains and it was hard for me to back peddle," Bennett said. "I had one sprain at the start of the season, then about after four or five games, I sprained the other ankle. I just couldn't do some things."

Bennett has worked entirely at free safety this spring after working in a right-left system last year. He much prefers staying in the back.

"I want to be the field general, as Coach Ash calls it," he said. "I want to be able to make the calls to get them in the right spot, even if it's a defensive lineman. Making the calls is what we've been able to do the last few days. Our communication has improved.

"We have spent a lot more time in team periods this spring. It's been long periods of inside run. That's helped us know the fits. You can learn it in the meeting room, but seeing it on the field over and over is where you get better. That's what we have done this spring."

Bennett may be a bit faster. He's lighter this spring, by about 10 pounds.

"I didn't really try to lose," he said. "I think I just lost it over the Christmas break. Maybe some comes back. But no one has said that I need to gain anything as far as weight."

Most players are bigger. Linebackers coach Randy Shannon is pleased that one of the undersized players in his meeting room has added weight. A. J. Turner, limited by a broken wrist this spring, has gained from 208 to 220.

"He's done it in a short time, so that's very positive," Shannon said. "He's gotten in a little more work on the spring as he's been cleared for more. But I'm being cautious about putting him out there in everything (with a cast). I wanted to be sure he's in a position to protect himself."

Shannon sees improvement and it's simple. He knows it's a case of another new defensive system.

"I think it just takes time to learn," he said. "Do you remember how long it took you to learn your ABCs. I think it's just like that. How many new systems have they seen in the last four years, several. That's tough.

"But I think we are to a point that we can pick up the pace. Now, they know what they are doing and they can quit some of the thinking and just have fun playing the game. I'm pleased to see them having fun.

"That goes for everyone, not just the linebackers. You have to get to the point where they all fit together and have fun. We are doing that now."

Shannon did not single out players. He said he's seen bright spot from many players. For instance, he said there are four middle linebackers making progress. He named Daunte Carr, Robert Atiga, Austin Jones and Otha Peters. He said all have had solid practices in the middle alone.

The linebackers had been mentioned as a possible weak link before the spring. Shannon laughed about that.

"I don't know about that, but I can tell you my job is to coach them up," he said. "This is not the NFL. You don't cut anyone or pick up any new ones off of waivers. Really, I've seen all of them do well. We are trying to look at them in as many spots as possible. We are mixing and matching to find their best spots."

Jones has made plays throughout the spring at both middle and strong linebacker. Ash likes the play of Air Force transfer.

"He's fun to watch," Ash said. "Every day, he's making plays. He didn't play a lot last year and I don't know why. He's smart and he's picked it up at two spots, mike and sam."

Jones isn't doing a lot different than last spring when he often was the defensive star in a scrimmage.

"I guess I just wasn't a fit last year," Jones said. "But I think I am a fit now. I'm just going out there and playing football.

"The way I look at it, maybe it was the opportunity for someone else in the previous seasons. Right now, this is mine.

"It's a lot of fun. I think it's clicking for us right now on defense. I think our communication has improved."

Shannon said he couldn't speak on what had happened in previous seasons, but notes that "none of our guys are looking back. They are moving forward. We've got some like Braylon who have gotten a lot better. Guys like Braylon and Austin, they aren't looking back. It's about the future."

One of the keys has been the squad health. Ash and Shannon both mentioned that as a big positive in a learning situation.

"We are healthy and that's one of the obvious reasons we've improved," Ash said. "We have gotten a lot of reps. To be honest, where I've been before, we haven't had that. You go in to see the trainer and he has a long list of guys who can't go. Sometimes in the spring, the injury list gets long. Having a short list has led to improvement."

The Hogs may be done with their heavy scrimmage work before the April 20 spring game. There will be some short scrimmage work, mostly with goal line and red zone packages on Saturday.

"It won't be a full scrimmage, more of a practice," Ash said. "It will be more red zone and goal line. I hope that part is a lot better than last week. I think that was more of a mental thing because there wasn't a lot of things we'd put in. We've had more work this week there."

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