Arkansas defense has chance to prove worth against Alabama
Nick Saban's defense vs. Bobby Petrino's offense seems like top storyline
But Arkansas' defense has a chance to make a statement in this game
If Razorbacks hope to contend in SEC West, now is the time to prove it
Despite his small stature, Tramain Thomas has built a reputation with his teammates. At 6-foot, 204 pounds -- though that's probably an inch and maybe 10 pounds of generosity -- he packs enough powerful ferocity to have earned the nickname "T-Pain." They say it's because, well, "He'll hit you." That's the succinct explanation from Arkansas wide receiver Joe Adams, who long ago learned to keep an eye out on the practice field.
"He'll come down and lay the wood," Adams said, adding that Thomas suddenly arrives, as if from nowhere.
It's part of the reason Thomas is considered one of the best safeties in the SEC -- but if you didn't know, it's OK. The senior admits he's still looking for a signature moment, and a proper introduction to most of college football.
"This weekend would be a good time for it," Thomas said.
Yeah, wouldn't it? Arkansas plays at Alabama on Saturday in an early showdown in college football's toughest division. We're told to watch the SEC's best offense (at least statistically, through three games) against the SEC's best defense (same caveat, though not many would argue about Alabama's defensive credentials). Arkansas is averaging 47 points, Alabama is allowing six. Something's gotta give, and most people figure it'll be the Razorbacks.
But Thomas wonders if that storyline misses a key matchup. We know about Alabama's defense. And if we've paid much attention to Arkansas during September, we know the Razorbacks mostly did what they were supposed to do against three nonconference cupcakes (excusing Troy's rally last week). We know about Adams' fantastic punt return in the season opener against Missouri State. And we know Tyler Wilson is working to replace Ryan Mallett at quarterback while bemoaning the preseason loss of running back Knile Davis, whose knee injury probably dropped the Razorbacks a notch below Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.
But what about Arkansas' defense? "It's overshadowed," said Thomas, and he believes it's a reason the Hogs should still be considered contenders in the SEC West. But he also knows that in Petrino's fourth season, the defense is still looking for a signature moment. As Petrino has rebuilt the program, the popular perception has been that the Razorbacks can run and pass and pile up points -- Adams is one of the stars of what might be the nation's best receiving corps -- but that the defense has too often allowed plenty of highlights, too.
Perception? Numbers suggest it's reality. While the offense took off, especially in the last two seasons with Mallett, Arkansas fielded the SEC's worst defense in 2008 and 2009, at least by the numbers. Last season, the Hogs ranked fifth in the conference in total defense (allowing an average of 347.9 yards) and first in opponents' third-down conversions (33.5 percent). While fairly pedestrian, the numbers reflected huge improvement. Not coincidentally, Arkansas won 10 games and reached the Sugar Bowl, its first BCS bowl game. Seven starters return from that unit, and Petrino's emphasis on defensive recruiting, especially along the line, has resulted in a deep group that more closely resembles a typical SEC defense. Arkansas is allowing only 87.7 yards and is one of six teams that hasn't given up a rushing touchdown.
"We've got guys that have great speed, guys who fly from sideline to sideline," said Adams, who goes up against the defense in practice. "We play the run better than we did a couple of years ago."
Still, that's not the storyline. At least not until kickoff.
"The focal point is Petrino's offense against (Nick) Saban's defense," Thomas said. "But we've also got to come out there and play. Their offense is also playing. We've got to keep those guys under wraps."
Ah yes, Alabama's offense. Especially with a new quarterback in AJ McCarron, the Crimson Tide's formula remains simple: Pound away with big, strong, fast running backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy; in three games, Alabama has 12 rushing touchdowns. When the defense has been softened up, 'Bama takes shots off play-action. No one's going to confuse Saban's offense with Petrino's, but it can be brutally effective -- just ask the Razorbacks, and ponder the recent history of the series. In the last three games, all wins by the Tide, Alabama has nine touchdowns that covered at least 20 yards (actually, it's 11 touchdowns, but that's if you count two defensive scores).
"You're caught in a double-edged sword there," Arkansas defensive coordinator Willy Robinson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "You've got to load the box and stop the run, and then all of a sudden you've got to be able to hold up against their skill outside."
That's been a difficult task. It doesn't get any easier with the news that defensive end Jake Bequette will miss the game with a nagging hamstring injury. And the pressure on any defense is ratcheted up because of what's usually happening on the other side of the ball -- you know, in the featured storyline. "They've got a great defense," Thomas said. "We've got to go out and match what they're doing."
A year ago, Arkansas grabbed a 20-7 lead in Fayetteville, but Alabama fought back into the game. As its defense intercepted Mallett twice, the offense pounded away, gaining 227 yards on the ground. And the Tide escaped with a 24-20 victory that still irks the Hogs. That third-down percentage the Hogs were so proud of? Alabama converted 57 percent of the time.
"We'd hold 'em until third down," said Thomas, clearly frustrated at the memory. "They'd make a big play. We've got to make 'em earn it."
Thomas has earned his way. He was lightly recruited out of Winnie, Texas, and came to Arkansas in part because he knew there was a chance to play right away. He did so as a true freshman on a defense that wasn't very good, and became a starter as a sophomore when the numbers were worse. A year ago, as the Hogs improved, he started 13 games, recorded 83 tackles -- many of the bone-cracking variety -- snagged four interceptions and forced four fumbles. Looking back, he knows he played too soon, like several other teammates. "We probably shouldn't have played," Thomas admitted. "But we grew up together -- and we're ready to make a name for ourselves. We want to go out and be a dominant defense."
This weekend would be a good time for a proper introduction.