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A Boy Named Sooie is commemorating the return of his weekly column (and exorcising his needling doubts about the upcoming season) by playing a little devil's advocate. Week one focused on the potential problems facing an offense that many believe will be one of the best in the country. Week two focuses on the potential redemption of a defense that many believe will be one of the worst in the conference. And Week Three will spit in fate's eye, casting about worst-case scenarios for every game on the 2010 schedule.
Most national analysts are assuming that the Hogs' defense will be at least somewhat better, and they're basing that assumption largely on age and experience. That's nebulous reasoning, but fair.
Conventional wisdom says that it is harder for young players to step into defensive roles, and Willy Robinson's had to ask that of a lot of guys over the last two years. As a result, more than 20 returning players, including eight seniors, saw significant action last season — and many the season before. This is a totally rebuilt defense coming into its own.
If you can believe the results of the first scrimmage, when the first team defense gave Mallett fits, then there's been major improvement on that side of the ball. The first team offense's dominant performance against backups in the subsequent scrimmage seems to suggest that it was no fluke.
However, if soft scrimmages, gut feelings and conventional wisdom aren't enough to quiet your fears, then there's at least some solace in rattling off a few excuses. Nobody likes those, but you can in fact spread the blame for the defensive struggles pretty evenly. I already complained about the offensive inefficiency, particularly conversion rates, but it's worth noting that as a result the Hogs' young and struggling defense spent, on average, over half the game on the field — and most of that time on its heels.
They rarely benefited from field position. In the five losses last season, the Hogs were forced to punt 35 times. That's the wrong kind of gaudy number, but it's even worse when you consider where it left the defense. Of those giveaways, only eight pinned opposing offenses inside their own 20.
The kicking game was even worse. Alex Tejada only managed four touchbacks all season — just one in a loss — and it usually wasn't even close: Opponents generally fielded the ball around the 10-yard line. And I hardly need mention the six times Tejada's missed field goals deflated the whole team.
With just a little help from the offense and special teams, the defense could improve dramatically. If you're at all confident that Tejada can turn himself around as a senior, then you have to think those excuses will iron themselves out. And it's one thing to score in three downs, but Mallett and company can do their part by cutting back on the fruitless drives, or at least stretching them out a bit.
Excuses aside, the real cause for hope is depth and experience. The Hogs have six very able players in the secondary, led by seniors Rudell Crim and Ramon Broadway, and no position benefits more from experience than the secondary. There's enough talent and experience to rotate corners, and Crim's move to safety should help limit the big plays that embarrassed them again and again last season.
The loss of defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard obscures the Hogs' depth along the line. There's been particularly good news from the preseason regarding the interior. Freshman Byran Jones is likely to see snaps, red-shirt sophomore Alfred Davis is getting into the backfield on the regular and disruptive DeDe Jones returns as our most experienced tackle. Plus, Steve Caldwell's ends have been among the best in the league for 14 seasons. There's no reason to believe a two-deep rotation including Jake Bequette, Damario Ambrose, Tenarius Wright and a handful of JUCO transfers won't continue the trend.
Those assets leave little room for excuses heading into the 2010 season. In fact, I can only light on two legitimate concerns: Jerry Franklin might be the backbone of this unit, but one key injury could leave the Hogs impossibly thin at linebacker. And that plus-15 turnover margin? It's bound to regress. If the Hogs want to field a defense worthy of contention in the SEC, they're going to have to make their own luck. I'd say they're in a position to do just that.Follow A Boy Named Sooie throughout the week at ArkansasExpats.com and on Twitter at @aboynamedsooie.