FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith was pressed into first-team duties last season when Jake Bequette went down with a hamstring injury against New Mexico.
He started three games and earned valuable experience before quietly resuming his backup role when Bequette finally returned. But this summer, with Bequette in New England’s training camp, Smith knows more responsibility falls squarely on his shoulders.
“I always joke with people that, you know, I can’t hide behind Jake Bequette anymore,” Smiths said last week. “I’m a starter now.”
Smith and sophomore Trey Flowers are Arkansas’ next wave of first-team defensive ends with Bequette beginning his pro football career and Tenarius Wright now playing linebacker. The young duo did log enough playing time last season thanks to injuries to both starting defensive ends. So they feel comfortable stepping on the field. But now they’re also in the leadership position for a group which includes junior college transfer Austin Flynn and a handful of talented newcomers.
“Last year I was with the freshmen,” said Flowers, who also started three games in Wright’s place in 2011. “I looked up to the ones and I said, ‘I can’t wait to be in that position.’ Now I’m in that position.”
Arkansas is counting on both, too, to help anchor a line it regards as the team’s defensive strength this season. Bequette and Wright were a talented duo when healthy the past two seasons, causing problems for opponents en route to 24 1/2 combined sacks.
Smith and Flowers combined for 4 1/2 last season. The best part of the stretch? It was a learning experience for both.
“We didn’t play very good defense while those two guys were out,” defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell said of Bequette and Wright.
But there’s no doubt Arkansas is confident in the duo after another season in the program. The biggest proof came in the spring, when the Razorbacks decided to shift Wright back to linebacker to help fill another need.
Flowers — who has bulked up from 245 pounds to 260 — said Wright’s move has helped him gain more confidence. The way he sees it, the change wouldn’t have taken place if Arkansas had big concerns at defensive end without Wright.
“It was a good sign,” Flowers said. “It showed that the coaches have faith in us.”
Still, Caldwell said his new starters will have plenty to prove on the field for Arkansas to live up to its preseason expectations.
“Chris has really got to step up,” Caldwell said of the 6-foot-3, 251-pound Smith. “Trey Flowers has got to do well.
“Those guys have got to do well.”
Smith and Flowers won’t be alone in trying to match the production Bequette and Wright provided. The Razorbacks have opened preseason practice with a four-man rotation which includes junior Colton Miles-Nash, who appears to be done flip-flopping positions after being shipped between tight end and defensive end throughout his career, and Flynn.
Arkansas is confident it will be able to go even deeper, too, with redshirt freshman Darrell Kelly-Thomas and a freshmen class which has drawn plenty of praise from the coaching staff for their looks alone. Smith called the foursome of JaMichael Winston, Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis, and Taiwan Johnson “pretty” on Sunday. Caldwell added they were the “best-looking kids” he has ever coached as freshmen.
“They’re very impressive,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a group with as much length and height that can all run.”
Either way, the production at the position starts with Smith and Flowers this season.
The two feel much more comfortable with the role after being pressed into action in 2011.
“We got thrown into the fire last year when we lost Jake against New Mexico and we lost Tank at Alabama,” said Smith, who wrapped up his 2011 season with a pair of fourth-quarter sacks in the Cotton Bowl. “So we kind of know what it is. We got that game experience. We know how to play and everything like that.”
So now they have to prove they can produce consistently like their predecessors.
“I had the advantage of starting a couple games last year,” Flowers said. “But this is going to be the first year that I’m looking forward to starting.”