Jim Harris: Despite Fans’ Worry, Bielema Improves Razorbacks Defensive Staff


Southern Miss at Arkansas Bielema practice shot

Passionate Arkansas Razorback fans who express their feelings on message boards and radio talk shows, not to mention simply out among the general public, seemed to harbor much angst from the moment defensive line coach Charlie Partridge left the Hog staff for a head coaching job until Thursday, when UA head coach Bret Bielema completed the rehiring process of most of the Razorbacks defensive staff.

Hog fans wanted proven big names as the various positions that came open starting with Partridge’s departure. Later in December, defensive coordinator Chris Ash split for a job on Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State. When Ash’s replacement was finally named following the completion of the latest recruiting class, another Hog assistant, cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, made an at-best lateral move to Purdue.

That left just one coach, Randy Shannon, who mentored last season’s linebackers, remaining from Bielema’s first UA defensive staff.

Fact is, after the season the defense had in 2013, Bielema would have been lauded had he fired them. Only Partridge’s unit played up to expectations, while Shannon had absolutely nothing to work with except for former special teams players and non-letter winners. Ash and Johnson oversaw a unit of safeties and cornerbacks, some with pretty good prep credentials and good experience on previous UA teams, that showed little progress over 12 weeks and stole defeat from the jaws of victory in the regular-season finale at LSU, allowing the Tigers to cover 99 yards in the final two minutes, 49 on the deciding play with slightly more than a minute to play. The bungling by the back line of defense at Rutgers earlier in the year was just another win left on the table for Bielema’s first team.

It turns out, Bielema didn’t have to fire anyone, just as Frank Broyles back in the day seemed to make needed coaching changes by finding his assistants head coaching jobs elsewhere. (Yes, that may sound skewed to younger fans these days, but it’s true; for example, defensive coordinator Charley Coffey, following the blowout loss to Texas in 1970, knew he wasn’t coming back for Broyles after that debacle, but the head man managed to help Coffey land the head coaching job at Virginia Tech.)

It’s for sure that Broyles, had he been told by an assistant coach that the defensive problems were too great to overcome and would cause irreparable harm to said coach’s career and reputation, would have found that assistant a new job somewhere else. It’s probably just as sure that Bielema, informed by Ash of his own concerns at rebuilding the UA defense, urged his protégé to float some applications out in the coaching world. Meyer was all too willing to hire Ash, but as we’ve learned since then, Ash will be co-coordinator in name only while Luke Fickle will call the defenses in Columbus.

As for the likeable Taver Johnson, who came aboard for Bobby Petrino though he never got to coach a game with the man, he would have been blind to not have seen he wasn’t part of the A team when new defensive coordinator Robb Smith was hired. Why, Bielema couldn’t even designate Johnson for anything more than helping Smith with the secondary or handing “nickel” coverage. No shock, then, that Johnson interviewed at Purdue later the same day as Smith had been introduced to the Arkansas fan base by the head coach, and two days later Johnson was gone.

Rory Segrest, late of Samford but with five years of NFL coaching at Philadelphia, was hired earlier as Partridge’s replacement. The biggest loss, it seemed, when Partridge jumped to take over at Florida Atlantic was felt in recruiting circles with the coach’s Florida connections — which not coincidentally helped land him the FAU job. Shannon, with all his Florida connections, picked up a lot of that recruiting in January, and Arkansas still landed five solid commitments from the Sunshine State while letting a possible sixth go because of academic concerns.

Still, the worry among the fan base and in some media comments was whether Segrest  and Smith could bolster the recruiting, which is still a priority for defense again with this next signing class. Smith came from one year as linebackers coach with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and before that had spent a year coordinating Rutgers’ defense. Before that, he’d assisted Greg Schiano at Rutgers and had been a coach and later coordinator at Maine.

None of that screamed “sure-fire SEC recruiter” to help the Hogs land studs from SEC territory, though Bielema and Smith tried to say all the right things to allay fears — Smith said he’d “recruited in the South,” while Bielema assured fans that Smith would be attacking on defense with a philosophy “designed to stop SEC offenses.”


It took until Thursday for all the answers to be revealed and for the worried Hog Nation to relax. Johnson’s replacement would be the acclaimed TCU cornerbacks coach Clay Jennings, who had produced more than handful of all-conference defenders with the Horned Frogs (not to mention Jennings had worked with Jordan Babineaux in Jennings’ one season moving up the coaching ladder at Southern Arkansas). Better still, the Texas native has been regarded as TCU’s top recruiter and has built relationships throughout the state of Texas in stops at Houston and Baylor as well.

And remember, the one area where recruiting seemed to be seriously lacking in Bielema’s first two classes was the Lone Star State. Arkansas signed just two players from Texas in the latest class.

So, now, this is where we are: Arkansas has a more-proven-by-all-accounts and higher regarded defensive coordinator in Robb Smith, and an outstanding teacher to continue the defensive line improvement in Rory Segrest. Shannon, a former head coach and defensive coordinator at Miami who was a hoped-for replacement for Ash by many, was elevated basically to Bielema’s right hand on defense as senior associate head coach, given an $80,000 bump in pay and will continue to work with the linebackers. Jennings, with a terrific resume and the knowledge gained from working alongside TCU’s defensive wizards Gary Patterson and former Hog Dick Bumpas, will work with Smith on the back four. The craziness of having corners and safeties meeting separately — how could there ever have been any chemistry in the secondary? — is now in the ashes. That goes along with standing around and reading and reacting like a scout team defense, as most hope, with the newly configured defensive staff and its plan of attack.

At this time last year, the staff assembled by Bielema was being considered the best in Fayetteville since the Lou Holtz era, if not the Broyles days. And even Broyles’ excellent coaches in 1973 could win only 5 games, while the 1967 group managed just 4 — the point being that even the greatest minds can only do so much with the talent on hand. And, as bad as the Hogs were at stopping teams, the offense finished 11th out of 14 teams, and that was two spots worst that the defense. So 2013 wasn’t all on the defense.

We’ll hold off on pronouncing this new defensive crew the best Arkansas has brought together since the glory days, but rest assured it will be better than last year’s.

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