FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive back Kelvin Fisher Jr. said he only got an hour in the meeting room before making his debut at safety last week.
The redshirt freshman was a cornerback his first year on campus. He entered preseason camp expected to compete for playing time at the position this month, too. But when Arkansas suggested a move to safety to help provide some depth at the position, Fisher simply didn’t have time to ease into his new position.
"So the first day I made a ton of mistakes because obviously I didn’t know the defense from the safety position," Fisher said last week. "But like I was telling my fellow teammates, I just figured out a way to figure it out."
It’s a learning curve Arkansas has to accept as it tries to build depth at one of the team’s biggest question marks in preseason camp. The Razorbacks entered the month with plenty of inexperience at safety and haven’t been helped by the fact returning starter Eric Bennett is on the sidelines because of a leg injury.
His absence has left the position – for the most part – in the hands of very young players like Fisher and relatively inexperienced upperclassmen.
It’s a challenge for a defense that knows it must produce if Arkansas has any hope of competing for a national championship this season. But defensive coordinator Paul Haynes is confident the crash course for young players will pay off in time.
"Every rep that they take, they’re going to get better," Haynes said. "That’s how we look at it. We’re going to keep going in there, keep grinding it out. They’re talented, they’re talented kids. And they’re smart kids that want to be great.
"Any time you’ve got that, you’ve got a chance."
The safety depth chart looks like this for now: Senior Ross Rasner is working alongside redshirt freshman Rohan Gaines in Arkansas’ first-team base defense. When Rasner pushes down to the star linebacker spot in the nickel, Gaines and sophomore Alan Turner (four special teams tackles in 2011) form the back line.
Fisher and junior Jerry Mitchell (11 tackles in 2011) have been working together with the second-team defense at the safety spots, while freshman Defonta Lowe also is being considered for playing time in a backup role as well.
It means five of the six players working at the position for most of preseason camp have combined for 23 career tackles. Three of the six haven’t played a down.
"The more reps that guys get out there, the more comfortable they get, the more depth we have," said Mitchell, who has 19 of those tackles. "That’s a good thing."
It appears Gaines has benefitted from the opportunity most so far this preseason.
The Georgia native worked with the scout team last fall, but is closing in on an important role with the defense this fall. Rasner and Bennett, when healthy, are expected to form the first-team base defense duo at safety. Gaines could be on the field alongside Bennett when Rasner moves into star position in the nickel package.
Gaines still has to win the position, but Haynes said the redshirt freshmen seemed to be "kind of pulling away with it" after making plays in last Tuesday’s scrimmage.
"I’m a quick learner," Gaines said of his strengths. "I learn on the run. Anything (Haynes) tells me once, I’ll learn it. I’ll try my best to learn it, and I like to hit."
The Razorbacks appear confident Bennett will be fine despite missing the bulk of camp because of a leg injury. He has been at practice nearly every day, working with the strength and conditioning staff on the sideline while the team works on the field.
He started all 13 games next to Tramain Thomas last season and finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles and pulled in three interceptions. The Razorbacks will count on Bennett’s experience and leadership when he does return to full speed.
But, until then, Fisher and the rest of the young group of safeties are busy trying to prove Arkansas still will be in good hands at the position this season.
"It definitely wasn’t easy at first, but now I’m starting to get the hang of it," Fisher said. "It has been fun at practice just to be over top and play a different position."