One-on-One With Bruce James: One Break May Decide Hogs, Bulldogs Game


Former Arkansas All-America defensive end Bruce James and our featured columnist Jim Harris return with a one-on-one. Someday, maybe even before next week’s finale for Arkansas against LSU, these guys are going to figure out how to do an audio podcast so you can just listen to their priceless back-and-forth, but since they both still have cassette recorders and vinyl records, you’ll have to read their conversation. This week, it’s all about the Arkansas going into the Mississippi State game, looking for a first SEC win of the season, and how the Hogs will match up with the Bulldogs.

Bruce knows all about Mississippi State; out of Moss Point High School in 1967, Bruce was offered the chance to play in Starkville (along with plenty of other offers from SEC schools).  The good news for Arkansas is that Frank Broyles won him over to come to Fayetteville, where the one-time fullback became an All-America defensive end.

Anyway, now Bruce gets to talk about the Bulldogs with Jim. Its all yours, boys.

Jim Harris: Let’s get right to it. How do you see Saturday’s game shaping up?

Bruce James: You know, Jim, it’s one of those games where somebody’s going to get some relief from a trying season. Obviously Arkansas needs a victory, having not won a conference game, and Mississippi State needs a win to stay alive for a bowl bid and its season has been overall a disappointment. Our strength is running the football. Their strength is stopping the run. Defensively we should be in a lot better shape because both of their quarterbacks are hurt. To what extent both can play is a big question. I don’t think either will play 100 percent, and even when they’ve played they have struggled throwing the football. We’re weak in pass defense, they’re weak in throwing the football. So, things kind of even out in the matchup. Then you have the home field advantage for Arkansas and our seniors wanting to go out a winner in their home state. So, one break, a fumble here, and interference call there, might be the difference in the ball game.

When you study the tapes of Mississippi State, you can see they have a good, solid football team. They held Oklahoma State to 21 points in the first game. They held Alabama to 20 points. Whether either of those teams played well or not, it tells you Mississippi State has good players in the right positions to play anybody a good, solid football game.

Bruce: So, let me ask you, Jim, with basically two weeks off what is the most important thing Arkansas coaches tried to do?

Jim: Besides recruiting? I’d like to think they got in some hitting and were able to reestablish some fundamentals within the players about tackling, how to break down and make a proper tackle. Of course, you really only had the coordinators in town last week while Bielema and other coaches were out recruiting, but then all the staff was back this week. I know that last week a lot of young players got a good look, a lot of the redshirts, and there were comments from the coaches about that. It also looked like the staff went out of its way to boost Tevin Mitchel’s confidence, if not the fans’ confidence, with some of the comments about his good week of work last week. And that’s great. That kid needs something good to happen. I know he has more talent that he’s shown lately, but he’s lost tons of confidence and he’s in the most visible spot out there to draw attention defensively. I’m sure these two weeks were spent shoring up some of the most glaring deficiencies as best they could.

Bruce: Do you think, along that same line, do you think we’re going to see new faces that can make a difference in the game?

Jim: Well, the good news is you’ll see Will Hines back with the defensive backs. I don’t know if he’ll start and he’ll surely not play a whole lot of snaps having missed 6 weeks with a broken hand, but I’m also certain he’s eager to get back out there and they need him. He was really coming on right when he got hurt at Florida. We’ve heard D.J. Dean might get the start at the other corner, though he’s still just a freshman and not overly big, and the corners will have to tackle physical running backs and maybe a big quarterback in Dak Prescott Saturday. Carroll Washington supposedly was banged up a little at corner, which tells me there was some serious hitting in practice in the past week, and Jared Collins has played a lot behind him. So there are people to step up at corner. At safeties, there’s just nobody there behind the starters to step up. And I know we’ve all been critical of cornerback play this year, whether it was missed tackles or apparently blown coverage. But don’t you think a lot of times, these corners should have gotten help from the safeties but didn’t, and all the fan sees is a cornerback chasing a receiver when he should have had help?

Bruce: I couldn’t agree with you more in regard to the safeties. We been very poor and had a lot of blown assignments, from the linebacker coverage to the safeties. I’ve seen a lot of mental mistakes. I would certainly agree that the safety play has not been winnable.

Jim: I hate that a lot of times we see one guy, a cornerback, like I said about Tevin, maybe miss a tackle but then nobody else is around to help and everyone basically blames the cornerback. You’re supposed to have help, especially with how deep and safe Arkansas has played the safeties. For example, against Auburn, I know Tevin got all the blame for misplaying the pass to Sammie Coates that went for 88 yards. But man, he was out on an island as far away from civilization as anybody could be. It seems like somebody at safety blew his assignment, but we all end up seeing just one guy fall down and he’s the goat.

Bruce: You’re exactly right. He should have had help on that particular play you note. But one of the things I picked up in the spring, we had very poor, slow-reacting safeties and I still believe that.

Jim: I think it’s amazing that Arkansas has allowed a 78 percent completion rate to opposing quarterbacks. By that same token, I will also bet you without looking at past year’s statistics that Arkansas has fewer tackles by its back seven players behind the opponent’s line of scrimmage this year than in any previous season, certainly any that I can recall. Good defense always relies on more than just the ends making tackles for losses, not just getting to the quarterback but especially on running backs. Opposing running backs usually have had a head of steam going by the time they reach the second level. You never see a safety making a play up close to the line.

Bruce: And that reminds me, in talking about what I expect Miss State to do offensively. Ladaruis Perkins, the people in the southeast Arkansas and around Lake Village are probably aware of him because he came out of high school from Greenville St. Joe, a small Catholic school down there. I look for him to be difficult for us to defend. He’s  one of these backs who’s versatile, can catch the ball, runs well. I look for them to isolate him on shart passes, to break tackles, becqause we are poor tacklers. Regardless who the quarterback is, you’re going to see the short passing game from Mississippi State trying to take advantage of our weakness.

Jim: Do you think Arkansas’s defensive backs have allowed too much cushion this year? I know they want to keep it all in front of them, but teams have been able to break plays on the short tackles in front of them. Are the defensive backs too deep to make a play on the short passes?

Bruce: No, I think they’re probably at the right depth. It’s true they can’t tackle, but if they don’t allow some cushion to these SEC receivers, they get behind you and score on you that way. It’s kind of you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Anytime you have a person in front of you, you have a chance to make the tackle. If you let him behind you, I can promise you we’re not going to catch him, as slow as we are.

Making them go the length of the field is a sound philosophy with the talent we have. But you have to make a tackle. Not only are our people — the safeties, corners and the linebackers in particular — poor tacklers, they overrun the play, don’t get in a hitting position, don’t break down, don’t wrap up. For whatever reason, it doesn’t leave the practice field and get in the game.

Jim: I’m looking at this team’s results and thinking how you were a freshman in 1967 when Arkansas struggled all season and finished 4-5-1. Of course, the freshmen weren’t eligible, but do you remember how the varsity approached that season and what the coaches did to try to turn that season around. I know it finished a little on an upbeat before a loss to Texas Tech in Little Rock, but then you guys had that 28-5 run over the next three years. Did you see what the team did during that struggle to try to win?

Bruce: Not really. When I was being recruited by Coach Broyles, he told me and I remember he told my parents, he said they weren’t going to have a good football team that coming fall. But he also said the group he was recruiting which I was a part of was one the best groups he’d ever recruited, and he even said “I think there is enough talent in this recruiting class to play for a national championship.” Being from Mississippi and not around other players he was recruiting, I didn’t know who these other players were, but I thought, “That’s pretty good for me.”

In your freshman year when I played, you were totally isolated from the varsity. The freshman had separate practice field, you were never around the varsity at all. Lived on your own floor in the dorm and didn’t live around the varsity. All I knew about the varsity was what I  saw on Saturday. I was really isolated but what I could see in games was we were lacking in a lot of positions. And as you remember, during the next year, everybody who became true sophomores or redshirt sophomores all became starters on the defensive line.

Jim: So, to compare this difficult season to a year like 1967, with a lot of good young recruits coming up, is it still apples and oranges?

Bruce: I think we’re comparing apples and oranges because when I was there the defensive coordinator changed. There had been a change from the “50” or normal base and it all changed the next year when I became a sophomore. Charlie Coffey went to the 4-3. We went from stand-up defensive ends to down players. But the head coach, the foundation of the program and the man who recruited all the players was there. He had recruited us with what he wanted to change his defense to and change his offense to.

Jim: And of course now you just have 85 guys, and freshmen can play, and in the case of this team they need several to play immediately. And there are people even wondering now why they haven’t taken the redshirt off some of these freshmen quarterbacks this year to have then ready to play.

Bruce: Let me make some outrageous statements: I think the worst thing that ever happened to college football was taking away the freshman year. Making freshman eligible. I know it had to happen because of scholarships and that kind of thing. But that year of playing freshman football like when I was playing, you matured, you learned the traditions of your school, you learned what was expected of you and learned how to progress your game from the high school to the college level and had to prepare.

Now these guys don’t have time to correct mistakes they learned in high school or spend a full year not playing varsity football and having the chance to learn how to block correctly or tackle correctly or learn technique football. You have to hit the ground and try to get that done in a few short weeks. You want to redshirt a freshman now but there are no freshman coaches and nobody working with those guys on technique. The athletes today are cheated in a sense that they don’t learn football the way they learned when you had a freshman year and a freshman team and spent all that time learning how to play at the school where you were there.

You’ve gone from having a year for those coaches to teach you what you have to learn when you get up to the head coach. That’s all gone out of football. A lot of these kids have bad habits from high school that never get corrected.

Jim: Now that a guy often has to come in and play immediately, when can a guy like that learn the things that maybe he didn’t bring with him from high school?

Bruce: It gets back to what I tell people. Some people can make tackles all day on a less-than-SEC receiver. Whey you’re playing the starters in the SEC, though, you’re playing probably a professional receiver. Take those Ole Miss receivers. All three of those receivers will be in the pros. Alabama, same thing. You can say that all through much of our schedule. LSU, for example. You throw a guy out there and he’s trying to make a tackle on a professional football player. He might have been all-world where he played in high school, but now he’s trying to tackle SEC players.

Just like our linebackers. And the thing about football players, some guys are going to get only so good and aren’t going to get any better. You can only coach them up so far. If the other team has better players, they’re going to beat you. This old adage that you can coach every player up, if that was true then everybody would go on to the pros. They don’t. There is a reason guys go to the pros; they get there because they’re just better. You could give Nick Saban this football team and I bet he wouldn’t win many games with them.

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