FAYETTEVILLE — His first two seasons at Arkansas, junior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard could get away with a mistake in practice. Often times, former defensive line coach Tracy Rocker would be too busy looking at the other defensive linemen to notice Sheppard’s errors.
That’s not the case this spring. While Sheppard and the rest of the defensive linemen are adjusting to new defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, they also are embracing the presence of two defensive line coaches.
Longtime assistant Bobby Allen has the tackles. First-year assistant Kirk Botkin has the ends. And the linemen are appreciating the increased attentiveness, even if their mistakes get noticed more often.
“You get way more attention, that’s for sure,” Sheppard said. “As a defensive tackle, it’s great. (Coach Allen) is on every little small thing. Like last year, Coach Rocker had to watch everything. But this year, it’s like we’re under a microscope. It’s great because it’s helping us all get better.”
Sheppard is the first to admit the defensive linemen have needed the increased attention. Adjusting to the new coaches, as well as to a new approach, has not been easy. Allen said that while showing drastic improvement, the defensive linemen have still not exhibited the ability to play without thinking too much.
The main cause for this, Allen said, is the fact that the linemen are learning plenty of new things this season. They’re being forced to think about moving into gaps instead of taking on the blockers right in front of them like in years past.
They’re having to notice more details about how the opposing front lines up, and then adjust accordingly. They’re even dropping back into pass coverage at times.
“It hasn’t been easy for them,” Allen said. “They’ve had their troubles, and they’ve gotten frustrated. But they’ve got the right attitude. So they’ll eventually get it.”
They better get it eventually because the defensive line was expected to be the strength of Bobby Petrino’s first defense in Fayetteville. Sure, the Razorbacks have to replace NFL-bound tackle Marcus Harrison and vocal end Chris Wade. But the Hogs also have plenty of talent up front.
On the outside, senior Antwain Robinson has moved ahead of junior Adrian Davis at one spot with two strong scrimmages, and sophomore Jake Bequette and Damario Ambrose are fighting for the other starting spot.
On the inside, the Razorbacks are a bit short-handed right now with seniors Ernest Mitchell (knee) and Marcus Shavers (shoulder) out for the spring. Sheppard, who has moved back from end for the last time, has tried to help out by becoming more vocal.
“I’m just trying to get better as a leader,” Sheppard said. “I know it’s my time to step up.”
He also has spent time assisting with the progression of Cord Gray, the senior who has filled in for Mitchell on the first team throughout the spring. Allen has noticed stark improvement in Gray, though he demands more.
“Cord has really improved against the run,” Allen said. “He’s an anchor there against the run, but he’s got to get better on his pass rush. The thing that’s good is that he’s at least getting quality work every day.
“Every snap he’s taking, it’s against (center) Jonathan Luigs, the Rimington Award winner. Hopefully, that will pay some dividends for Cord.”
If Gray doesn’t show more development, Allen will notice. Sheppard is sure about that.
“That’s the biggest thing about this spring,” Sheppard said. “We know we’re being watched.”
RED-WHITE SPRING GAME
WHEN: 6 p.m. TV: Cox Sports Television (Cox Ch. 119)
WHERE: Reynolds Razorback Stadium
RADIO: KXIO-FM 106.9; KEZA-FM 107.9; KKEG-FM 92.1; KFPW-AM 1230; KQBK-FM 104.7; KHGG-AM 1580; KHGG-FM 103.1; KDYN-AM 1540; KDYN-FM 96.7; KTTG-FM 96.3