Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

SPORTS >> Defense avoids TKO for Petrino

By NATE ALLEN
Special to The Leader

Had it been boxing instead of a football scrimmage, the Razorbacks’ defense never would have made it up from the canvas.

The fight would have been stopped.

But fortunately for the defense, in a Bobby Petrino supervised scrimmage, the fight goes on and on, and on.

That allowed the defense to establish itself before the end of the 165-play scrimmage last Saturday at Razorback Stadium for the glass half-empty/half- filled review that head coaches prefer for an intrasquad scrimmage.

Petrino got to praise the offense for its start and pan it for its finish, while oppositely panning and praising the defense’s ebb and flow.

“Offensively we started fast and made some big plays,” Petrino said. “We broke tackles and caught the ball and ran with the ball after the catch. And then the defense I thought came back in the middle to late part of the scrimmage and stopped the run. So offensively you are not happy that we could not run the ball well late in the scrimmage and defensively you are happy they were flying around and stopping the run. It comes down to consistency on both sides of the ball and starting and finishing strong.”

The offense’s start just reconfirms what’s already suspected. This offense, which scrimmaged without top injured running backs Michael Smith and Dennis Johnson, flashes the big-play potential of the Petrino-coached offensive juggernauts at Louisville.

But in a real SEC game, should the defense open like in last Saturday’s scrimmage, it’s just too much catch-up for most any offense to carry out.

“That was terrible the way we started,” senior safety Matt Harris said. “It was kind of getting hit in the mouth a few times, just waking us up. It took us a couple of series to get embarrassed. That’s one thing we’ve got to take from this film and change because there is no way we can come out like this. We have to come out a lot faster than that.”

At least they did come out of it, and at least they dominated last week’s April 1 scrimmage.

Neither occurred last spring.

In fact, after the D dominated last April 1 after getting scorched in the first spring’s first Saturday scrimmage, third-year sophomore linebacker Jerry Franklin of Marion said it was the first time he ever left the spring practice field thinking defense had truly triumphed.

So there’s a long way to go to instill the defensive can-do for them to believe they can do it.

“Our leadership still isn’t strong enough,” second-year defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “It’s got to continue to get better. Today we were getting that type of feedback but it took awhile. I thought as the day went on we got better.”

In addition to senior tackle Malcolm Sheppard, “he always gives you everything he has,” Robinson said. Robinson saw middle linebacker Wendel Davis exerting go-to senior leadership.

“I think Wendel is starting to get into it,” Robinson said. “He’s the guy who has started taking leadership in the huddle.”

Many seem to assume incoming JC transfer defensive backs Anthony Leon and Rudell Crim and touted incoming freshmen Darius Winston of Helena-West Helena and David Gordon will take command upon reporting for the August preseason.

In particular, junior cornerback Isaac Madison has stood out as a 2008 starter making strides to begin 2009 with a fresh start.

Madison intercepted a Ryan Mallett pass last Saturday and also drew Robinson’s praise for the April 1 scrimmage.

“He’s covering better and tackling better,” Robinson said. “Isaac has not only improved on the pass phase of it but watching him Wednesday he showed great courage on the tackling aspect.”

A former NFL defensive coordinator, Robinson, believes many cornerbacks mistakenly think pass-defense totally covers the corner’s market.

“If these kids have a long-term aspiration to be in the NFL and think ‘I don’t have to be a great tackler to be a great corner,’ they are getting bad information from somebody because that’s not true,” Robinson said. “But I think Isaac is improving.

“He’s becoming more conscientious day in and day out because he’s starting to see how good he can be.”

Trainer Joe Sheehan and his staff will monitor offensive guard Seth Oxner and tight end Chris Gragg this week. Both were injured during Saturday’s scrimmage.

Oxner, the third-year sophomore from Monticello, started last Saturday’s scrimmage as a first-team guard.