LITTLE ROCK — Proclaimed the strength of the Arkansas’ defense for a couple of years, the front four is on the spot to be a force during its last go-around as a group.
The performance of defensive ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers and tackles Robert Thomas and Byran Jones is inexorably linked to the success of the back seven on the Razorbacks’ defense. The burden is a heavy one. Smith, Flowers, Thomas and Jones must provide sufficient rush on the opposing quarterback without enlisting one or more of the linebackers. They also need to obtain a standoff with the offensive linemen to free linebackers to make the tackle on a running play or shadow a running back involved in a pass pattern.
From there, the performance of the front four also helps the secondary. The must-do urgency on the ends and tackles emanates from the lack of experience of the linebackers listed as starters on the depth chart. They are, in a word, suspect:
—Middle linebacker Austin Jones. A senior, Jones worked with the scout team in 2010 and 2011. He played in two games last year and made one tackle.
—Weakside linebacker Jarrett Lake. A senior, Lake has never started. He has appeared in 27 games in three years and averaged a tackle per.
—Strongside linebacker Braylon Mitchell. A junior, Mitchell has never started. He has appeared in 17 games and made eight tackles.
The stats on Austin Jones, Lake, and Mitchell are not all-telling, but their lack of starts raises questions about how they will perform when it matters. The fact that Louisiana-Lafayette has a dual threat quarterback in Terrance Broadway and a decent running back in Alonzo Harris means they must be ready to play on Saturday in Fayetteville.
There would be more confidence in the starters if the No. 2s on the depth chart were more qualified.
Behind Austin Jones is Brooks Ellis, behind Lake is Daunte Carr, and behind Mitchell is Martrell Spaight. Ellis is a freshman, Carr is a junior who has played in four games, and Spaight is a junior college transfer who arrived on campus late, but has developed a reputation for delivering a blow. The fact that he is not starting probably means he is still playing catch-up.
Considering those resumes, it should be clear why the onus is on the front four. Smith, Thomas, and Byran Jones are seniors with a combined 51 starts and Flowers is a junior with 15 starts. By now, they should have seen everything available to an offense.
Smith, who is on a couple of preseason watch lists, and South Carolina’s Heisman Trophy candidate, Jadeveon Clowney, are the only returning players in the Southeastern Conference with nine sacks or more in 2012. On pass plays, Smith must command a double team — at the very least, the attention of a lineman and a running back.
Byran Jones, who was supposed to be one of the top 20 defensive tackles in the nation while at Junction City High School in southern Arkansas, was good enough to start five games for the Razorbacks as a freshman.
Under defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, the up-front guys are responsible for controlling the gaps and playing with discipline. He says the four-man front will be the standard on most first and second downs. On third down, he is prone to mix in some three-man fronts.
Behind the linebackers there is more experience, but some players become starters simply because they are the best available. Cornerbacks Will Hines and Tevin Mitchel started a total of 16 games last year; first-team safeties Rohan Gaines and Eric Bennett started a total of 19 games. Those impressive stats are tempered with the fact that Arkansas ranked 113th out of 120 teams last year, giving up 286 yards per game passing, including more than 13 yards per completion.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.