Jim Harris: Departure of Chris Ash Easy To Understand, And Probably for Best


Arkansas’ two football coordinators took divergent paths this week.

Razorback offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, appearing on a statewide radio interview, conceded that his offense in 2013 didn’t take care of its part of the equation in helping the Hogs better their eventual 3-9 overall record, 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference. He promised improvement beginning with spring drills.

Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, meanwhile, took a new job.

Both have two-year contracts and a buyout, so Ohio State, Ash’s new employer, will need to help Ash pay $100,000 to the UA coaching pool.

For Ash, the much younger of the two coordinators, it was a move of survival. He had to feel that another year coordinating Arkansas’ defense to the depths it plunged in 2013 would ruin his reputation as a coordinator. The guy has professed a desire to be a head coach soon; he’d be lucky to be a BCS position coach if Arkansas repeated last year’s results.

It’s hard to see vast improvement in ability from last season to next. Sure, some freshman recruits are being promised early playing time, but this will be competing in the SEC, where opposing coaches exploit every weakness, and inexperience will be one of Arkansas’ chief concerns again in its back seven.

Arkansas loses one starter, Jarrett Lake, off a beleaguered linebacking corps. Returning are late season starter Brooks Ellis, who had to learn on the run as a true freshman, and rising senior Braylon Mitchell among the players who saw most of the playing time. A healthier Otha Peters would be critical to any success by next season’s linebackers.

Gone from the back line will be safety Eric Bennett, who seemed to be slowed the past two years by injuries but who battled through them to play every game last fall. We never saw the same Bennett from 2012, but he also had the likes of Tramain Thomas and Jerico Nelson to help him along in that Cotton Bowl season.

We also haven’t seen the same Tevin Mitchel, who shined as a freshman at cornerback, since a neck injury and a ruptured spleen knocked him out of the 2013 season. Just the same, we only saw glimpses of corner Will Hines last year, and he gamely tried to go in the final two games but was rushed back and couldn’t help. Young spot corners, D.J. Dean, Carroll Washington and Jared Collins, who were forced into more action than expected because of injuries,

Ash, who personally coached the safeties, can point to Alan Turner’s vast growth through last season as a highlight of his work in Fayetteville. Turner, who led Arkansas in tackles, will be a senior next year.

Up front, Arkansas loses All-SEC end Chris Smith, the team’s sack leader, and tackles Robert Thomas and Byran Jones. The Hogs return talented Trey Flowers at end along with the promising Deatrich Wise, and rising sophomore tackles Darius Philon and D Hodge, who took leaps in establishing themselves as starters late in the year.

With what’s returning, and asked to play the same mostly unaggressive scheme they employed last year, it’s easy to see that Ash might have been concerned about 2014’s defensive prospects. On the other hand, if he felt that there was little chance to improve much, he needed to go.

A Razorback recruiting writer, Danny West of Hawgsports.com, produced a list of high school seniors in which Ash was the lead recruiter. The key targets, all well within Arkansas’ nearby recruiting zone, were potential 4-star players at safety and linebacker, and Ash had drawn a big zero there as well. One player committed to Texas Tech over Arkansas. Talk about foreboding.

At Ohio State, Chris Ash will walk in as coordinator (he’s supposedly “co-“ coordinator in title only; he’ll call the shots) with a program loaded with prospects. Ohio State’s most problematic area defensively was its secondary. That seems contagious all around football these days with more teams converting to spread attacks, but the Buckeyes were ranked in the low 100s nationally. Ash will likely have the physical, fast safeties and solid corners who can press receivers at the line to play a little more recklessly in Columbus that he and Bret Bielema thought they could with Arkansas in 2013.

Watching parts or all of about 35 bowl games during the holidays and 70 other teams playing defense left us with the belief that all Ash and Arkansas trotted out was a “scout team” defense last fall, one that allowed the opposing offenses to dictate what they wanted to do. Obviously, this was especially true during the South Carolina-Alabama stretch when those teams both managed to score on eight of their first 10 possessions. In fact, those teams might have not have that kind of success against their own scout teams.

This shouldn’t all fall on Ash, for Bielema is also heavily involved in what kind of defense he wanted to play last season. But, while we know the need for better players is serious, we also don’t believe the players they had to work with were THAT BAD. They were too often put in situations to fail.

To wit, what’s with man-to-man press coverage on fourth-and-12 at Rutgers, rather than guarding the sticks? Rutgers threw over it for a touchdown that keyed the Scarlet Knights’ rally from 17-points down.

How many times did Arkansas have teams in third-and- short and play the corners 8-10 yards off the ball? How easy was it for the likes of Florida and Ole Miss to get receivers in space under those deep drops and break short passes for big plays? In Arkansas’ insistence to play the secondary deep and safe, the Hogs still gave up the long ball, the final blow being that 49-yard touchdown pass in the final two minutes at LSU that killed what could have been one of the program’s biggest wins (not just for Bielema, who hadn’t won an SEC game up to that point, but for the program all-time).

In older days, that alone would have probably gotten the defensive coordinator and/or secondary coach fired as soon as the plane reach Fayetteville. In fact, most proven Razorback defensive coordinators have felt the axe after disastrous seasons on that side of the ball.

Ash, of course, could have stayed. And, Arkansas’ problems weren’t merely on the defensive side of the ball. But the Razorbacks in their best days — with the exception of that amazing two-year run of 21-5 in the second half of Bobby Petrino’s short tenure — relied on good, solid defense. It didn’t have to be dominant, but it had to be sound.

It’s time for someone else to try.

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