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Defensive improvement crucial for Razorbacks

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. | Before Bobby Petrino provided his update on Arkansas' much-discussed quarterback competition, he spent some time talking about defense.

Perhaps that was a coincidence. Or maybe the Razorbacks' coach realizes his team must improve on both sides of the ball.

"I'm very impressed with our front four. I think we have the chance to be a good defensive line." Petrino said while recapping spring practice in a Thursday news conference. "I do feel like we are going to need one or two guys to come in and add depth and size on the defensive front. Our linebackers are much better. A year of experience and understanding the defense helped us play a lot faster there."

The Razorbacks figure to score plenty of points this year — Petrino has an impressive reputation as an offensive strategist, and expectations are high for quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson. However, Arkansas allowed 31 points a game last season, by far the worst mark in the Southeastern Conference.

The Hogs hope that will change in 2009. Nine starters return on defense, one more than on offense.

With spring practice now over, Petrino still wants to see more progress.

"I think we are getting there and there isn't any doubt about that," Petrino said. "I think sometimes we didn't show our speed on defense. This week and next I take time to meet individually with each player. Sometimes their 40 time doesn't relate to how fast they are playing on the field."

Arkansas took its lumps early last season, allowing 139 points in a three-week stretch to Alabama, Texas and Florida. Things improved later in the year.

Jerry Franklin is back after leading the team in tackles as a redshirt freshman. He's joined at linebacker by Freddy Burton and Wendel Davis, who combined to start 13 games last season. Up front, Malcolm Sheppard and Adrian Davis are back after combining for 11.5 sacks a season ago.

In other words, this is largely the same group of players as last year. Arkansas hopes an extra year of experience will make all the difference in the world.

"Being in the system over a year I think has helped us a lot. It was a new system to us last year," Adrian Davis said.

Arkansas did lose Jamar Love and Dallas Washington from the secondary. Petrino singled out cornerback Isaac Madison as the secondary's most improved player this spring.

"His consistency, understanding how to play the position and working at the details of his technique really improved," Petrino said.

Petrino says there will be plenty of competition at safety — among current players and junior college additions who will join the team. Safety Elton Ford, who started eight games as a freshman last season, is recovering from a neck injury.

"Elton is doing real well. He's got a couple appointments coming up with doctors," Petrino said. "He's done everything the doctors have said. Our anticipation is that he'll be ready to play in August, but that's still yet to be seen."

Arkansas was rebuilding in 2008 and went 5-7 in its first season under Petrino. Now, the Razorbacks hope to prove they're moving in the right direction. If these Hogs improve substantially on defense, their future will indeed be bright. Sheppard, safety Matt Harris and the two Davises are entering their senior seasons, but this is still a relatively young group.

"I think we finally came together this spring," Adrian Davis said. "I thought we came out and practiced hard and played physical the whole spring."