The Arkansas Razorbacks won’t overwhelm you with complicated defensive schemes. Reggie Herring’s philosophy is totally opposite from that of LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who shows multiple sets and blitz packages every single game. Herring keeps it simple and sweet and it works just fine for the Razorbacks who face Florida Saturday in the SEC Championship Game.
What works for the Razorbacks is that old school philosophy of just lining up and getting after people. The idea is to play tough, hard football with relentless effort. The Razorbacks are the number 29-ranked defense in the country (299.8 yards per game) and that puts them middle of the pack (sixth) in the defensive minded Southeastern Conference.
Take away a disastrous game one against Southern Cal in which they gave up 50 points and 472 total yards and Arkansas would rank third in the SEC in scoring defense and fourth in total defense. Since that horrendous start to the season, the Razorbacks have buckled down and turned into one of the top groups in the country.
“I think they’re one of the hardest playing groups which is the greatest compliment to a coach,” said Florida Coach Urban Meyer after Wednesday’s practice. “[Florida assistant coach] Doc Holliday worked with Reggie Herring at NC State and he’s often told me about him and I saw them last year. Their record wasn’t great but they played awfully hard. They’re one of the hardest paying defenses which is one of the great credits to a coach.”
The Razorbacks don’t use a big blitz scheme. Generally, they rush their front four and bring one linebacker on a blitz in pass situations. In the secondary, they play things straight man to man probably 95 percent of the time.
Meyer said that the secret to the Arkansas success is that they can “play man coverage and still hang in there. They’re a man coverage team that that allows you to do a lot of stuff.” By playing it straight man to man, the Razorbacks rely on corners that can stay with their man for long periods of time until the front four can get pressure on the quarterback and force a mistake. The Razorbacks are tied with Florida for fourth place in the SEC with 29 sacks on the season.
“They get after you with their front four and they say we’re going to be able to cover you long enough for our defensive line to get pressure,” said Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen, who added that the Arkansas corners are “as good cover corners as we are going to play against this year and not just one, but the whole group.”
Florida hopes to test the Razorbacks’ ability to cover one on one with a receiving corps that is one of the best in the country, headed by Dallas Baker, who leads the Gators with 54 catches for 872 yards and nine touchdowns. Baker has moved to fifth all-time (145 catches) in pass receptions in Florida history and ranks sixth (2,188) in receiving yardage. Baker figures to match up against Chris Houston, who has a touchdown return among his two interceptions and a team-leading 12 pass breakups.
Jemalle Cornelius, hampered by nagging injuries the last four weeks, is healthy once again and he excels against man coverage. Cornelius has 29 catches for 473 yards and four touchdowns. Healthy for the first time since the LSU game, Cornelius caught four passes last week against FSU. He figures to be more of a factor in the passing game against Arkansas.
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Meyer was pleased with Florida’s practice effort for the second straight day. He was encouraged by the return of freshman wide receiver/tailback Percy Harvin, injured in the third quarter of the Florida State game.
“Percy looked fast and good,” said Meyer.
Against FSU, Harvin carried four times for a career-high 86 rushing yards including a 41-yarder for a second quarter touchdown.
Tailback DeShawn Wynn practiced Tuesday and it looks like he will be ready to play Saturday although his action could be limited due to a nagging shoulder problem.
Linebacker Earl Everett ran but did not practice Wednesday. Meyer anticipated that Everett will be more of a participant in practice Thursday.
Meyer sees a team that is showing some edge for Saturday’s game and that’s something he likes very much.
“I’m not one of those guys that likes to see loose and goose and all that other stuff,” said Meyer. “I like to see a little edge the way you walk around, the way you move, a little urgency to you. I wouldn’t say we’re relaxed. I’d say there’s a urgency … a very good practice the last two days.”
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Meyer’s only comment about the competition that is taking place once again to find a placekicker that can hit a field goal in a game is “it’s going.”
Since any field goal attempt over 20 yards is an adventure based on Chris Hetland’s 3-12 performance so far, the Gators are making contingency plans for third down situations when they are deep in opponents’ territory.
“We’ve actually adjusted some play calls where you have two downs to get a first down and we’ll adjust a call … it’s getting close to that point,” said Meyer. “It depends on the third down and where it is. Third and four and third and five would change your call.”
The Gators might be going for it on fourth and two or fourth and three situations that would normally call for field goal attempts but that would probably be the limit.
“You don’t want to go fourth and five, fourth and eight,” he said. “The percentages are against you.”
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Mullen said that quarterback Chris Leak is totally focused this week on getting that elusive championship. Leak was the top high school quarterback in the country four years ago. He came to Florida expecting to win a national championship but this is the first chance he’s had at winning a conference title.
“I think that knowing him he wants to win a championship more than anything else,” said Mullen. “That is the number one most important thing to him over anything else. That’s his whole focus.”
Mullen said that Leak should be judged among the top quarterbacks ever to play that position at Florida.
“He has to be right up there with all of them,” Mullen said. “There have been so many great quarterbacks here. He’s another one in a line of great ones and hopefully there will be a lot more in the future.”
On the season, Leak has completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 2,540 yards and 21 touchdowns. In his career he has 10,811 yards and 86 touchdown passes. He needs just 75 yards to move past Danny Wuerffel as Florida’s all-time leader in that category.