FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Bret Bielema liked what he saw from Arkansas' new-look defense early during preseason camp.
In fact, the Razorbacks coach took such notice after the team's first scrimmage that he held a surprise staff meeting to let the defensive staff — led by new defensive coordinator Robb Smith — know just how excited he was about the progress.
The moment was a refreshing change for an Arkansas program mired in defensive mediocrity for the last few seasons, particularly last year when it finished 12th in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 30.8 points allowed per game.
"I wanted them to know the changes I saw on that film and in that stadium didn't just happen by chance," Bielema said. "I know our players did it, and we sell that on a daily basis, but our coaches made that happen."
Leading what the Razorbacks hope is a defensive resurgence this season is Smith, the former Rutgers defensive coordinator who spent last season as the linebackers coach with Tampa Bay in the NFL.
The fiery 39-year-old joined Arkansas in February, replacing former defensive coordinator Chris Ash after he left for Ohio State.
Smith is no stranger to coaching top defenses, having led Rutgers in 2012 when the Scarlet Knights were fourth in the country while allowing only 14.2 points per game.
However, he faces a difficult opening act with the Razorbacks — who have allowed more than 30 points per game in each of the last two seasons while finishing a combined 7-17.
One of Arkansas' biggest struggles last season was a lack of forced turnovers by the defense. The Razorbacks were last in the SEC in both turnover margin and forced turnovers (14), an area where Smith has spent much of his focus since the spring.
He's done so by preaching a simplified defensive approach and numerous techniques to force turnovers.
"If there was a turnover defense, you would call it every time," Smith said. ".. When you can play fast and disrupt the football when you get there, that's what's going to give you your opportunities for takeaways."