Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash didn’t think much of senior Eric Bennett’s performance during the 2012 season. He said there were a "lot of negative things" about the safety, who missed plays, was beaten several times and out of position plenty of others during the Razorbacks’ disastrous season.
So when spring practice started, Ash admitted he didn’t know what to expect from Bennett as he lined up the Arkansas defense. But he has been pleasantly surprised as the Razorbacks move closer to the spring-ending Red-White Game on April 20.
"I’ve been more than pleased with what Eric Bennett has done," Ash said. "He’s been a great player. He’s been a great student of the game. He’s been very coachable."
Most of Bennett’s troubles last season stemmed from ankle and hamstring injuries that plagued him most of the season. He was first injured during preseason camp, but managed to play in 11 games and finished ninth on the team with 40 tackles.
Bennett is healthy this spring and working with sophomore Rohan Gaines on Arkansas’ back line. He made a key play in last Saturday’s scrimmage, getting in position to intercept a pass from quarterback Brandon Allen in the end zone.
Ash said it was similar to a play that led to a deep touchdown pass in the first scrimmage. This time Bennett helped support cornerback Tevin Mitchel, who was fooled by a double move from Demetrius Wilson, and made the interception.
"Eric Bennett responded the right way and he made the play," Ash said.
Ash said it’s one highlight in what has been an "outstanding spring" for Bennett.
"He’s never wrong," Ash said. "When he’s out there, he’s always making the right calls, always getting aligned right. 99 percent of the time he’s in the right position.
"If you can do that you’re going to make yourself hard to beat. From my understanding, that might not have been the case last year. But he’s done that so far this spring."
Ahead of Schedule
The installation process for the defense was behind schedule after the first two weeks of practice, when Ash said it was evident players were "swimming" trying to keep up with the new schemes and terminology. But that has changed recently.
"We’ve been able to get back on schedule with our installation," Ash said Thursday. "Actually, we’re probably a little bit ahead of it now after what we did (Thursday)."
Ash credited the linebackers in particular, for being a major part of the improvement. Ash said the group — which was been one of the biggest question marks this spring — has made the biggest strides recently.
"We’re catching on," Arkansas Austin Jones said. "We’re learning it really fast."
Cornerback Carroll Washington said the defense plans to keep taking steps over the final three practices before next Saturday’s spring game.
"You want to keep growing and keep growing," Washington said. "The more you grow, the better you’ll get. We’re not there yet. We’re far from being there. So as long as these guys keep on being eager to learn, we’re going to be good."
The Arkansas defense was ravaged by injuries last season with starters like Bennett, Tevin Mitchel, Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright missing games.
But Ash said the Razorbacks have been fortunate this spring, keeping nearly everyone healthy and on the practice field as they install the new defense.
"We’ve been very lucky with that," Ash said. "That’s obviously one of the reasons we’ve improved is because guys have been on the practice field. They’ve been getting coached. They’ve been getting a lot of reps. That’s been fun to see.
"Have not had that, honestly, in most of my coaching career. At some point in the spring, that injury list gets really long and we go into those staff meetings, and the trainers come in go through the injury list. It’s been fairly small."
Linebacker AJ Turner’s broken wrist has been the biggest injury to date. It has limited Turner, but he was able to get a few snaps in last week’s scrimmage.
"He’s been cleared to get back out there and he was able to get in there and get some reps, which was good," Turner said. "He’s still way behind from a mental standpoint just because of all the time that he’s missed. But he did get out there and practice."
Arkansas has wrapped up the past two weeks by holding significant scrimmages (74 and 101 plays) on Saturdays. But Ash indicated a potential change of pace this week.
"We’re not going to have a full scrimmage like we had the last two Saturdays," Ash said. "It’s going to be more of a practice with a little bit of a scrimmage."
Ash said the tentative plan is to work on red zone and goal line situations in Saturday’s scrimmage work. The defense struggled in goal line work last Saturday, allowing five touchdowns on six possessions inside the four-yard line.
"We’re going to do goal line for the second opportunity, so my hope is that we’re better than we were last week," Ash said. "If we are, then I’ll be happy with that."