As Arkansas and its somewhat new look coaching staff finished up its third and final spring practice of the week, there is a positive vibe bouncing around on the defensive side of the ball.
The Razorbacks, in their final practice before heading into spring break, worked out for the first time in full pads, much to the liking of the players.
“It felt good to get the feeling back and put the pads on,” senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel said. “It’s just been a while. It felt good to be around your teammates. Everybody’s excited about putting the pads back on.”
But while the players felt good, bouncing around on the practice field, the new defensive coaches were still getting a feel for the personnel at their disposal.
New defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who was named the head of the Arkansas defense shortly after Chris Ash’s departure for Ohio State, spent the week of practice getting another look at his players and evaluating them, something he didn’t do much of prior to opening of spring ball.
“I did a little bit just to get a feel for things, but I don’t want to cloud my vision of guys,” Smith said Thursday. “I kind of wanted to get a baseline a little bit, but I told everybody they had a clean slate once I got here. I didn’t want to do too much pre-evaluation.”
Smith spent 2013 as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ linebackers coach, and headed the 2012 Rutgers defense that finished as the No. 4 ranked defense in the nation.
New defensive backs coach Clay Jennings is also adapting to his new environment after leaving TCU. Jennings was an assistant coach at TCU from 2008-13 and he led the Horned Frogs to the top national spot in total defense his first three years on campus.
But despite coming aboard just a short time ago, the coaching staff has meshed well, and Jennings feels right at home.
“I’m comfortable. I’m home,” Jennings said. “Coach B and Coach Robb Smith are doing a great job as far as bringing me along. They’re helping me grow professionally as a coach, as well. And the kids, they’re doing a great job.”
And Jennings’ and Smith’s defense is getting back to full strength just in time for spring practice as key pieces return to health.
Junior linebacker Otha Peters, who has been plagued with injuries since his Razorback career began, has recovered from his broken right arm and groin injury and is back to being his normal self, players say.
“Otha’s flying around and making some plays,” senior linebacker Braylon Mitchell said. “I know he got one pretty big hit in. Just having him back and healthy is a blessing for this team, and for the linebackers it feels good having him back out there, too.”
And for Otha, his journey has been injury riddled, but he’s ready to make the most of the opportunity he has in front of him.
“Everything is fixed up now, and it’s my first year being a Razorback and being 100 percent healthy,” Peters said. “I feel like this should be a really good season for me.”
Peters has also made a uniform adjustment for this season, switching from his No. 5 jersey to No. 22, saying “I feel like No. 5 was a curse on me. I had to get out of that.” He also said his father wore No. 22 in high school and plans to wear it as a tribute.
Tevin Mitchel has also transitioned to a new jersey number, choosing the No. 23 for his senior season. Mitchel said the reasoning behind the change is the desire for a “fresh start” after a tough stretch of his career in which he battled multiple serious injuries.
But the mood around spring camp is positive even with new faces and changes being made. Players agree they accomplished a lot in their first week of practice, and head into spring break feeling good about the work they’ve put in.
“It’s crucial to get that under our belts, go on spring break, then come back and get the ball rolling, and keep working,” sophomore linebacker Brooks Ellis said.