FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — New Arkansas Razorbacks defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads was asked during a Saturday news conference how many years he’s worked with 3-man fronts throughout his coaching career.
“Um, one,” Rhoads responded. “One specifically.”
After a brief pause, Rhoads grinned and added, “Don’t let that scare you.”
Rhoads was a well-respected and accomplished defensive coordinator for nine seasons at Pittsburgh and Auburn, then Iowa State’s head coach for seven seasons. Few would argue that Rhoads’ recent promotion to defensive coordinator was unwarranted or undeserved, but it does mean that he will be responsible for implementing a new system that he doesn’t have much experience with.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema began telling reporters last month — even before the Hogs’ Belk Bowl loss to Virginia Tech — that he planned to shift to a 3-4 base defensive system for the 2017 season.
Rhoads — who spent the 2016 season as Arkansas’ defensive backs coach and was formally introduced Saturday as former defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s replacement — has always been a 4-3 guy throughout his coaching career.
He installed a 3-4 base defense before his final season as Iowa State’s head coach in 2015, but said there are still things that he did throughout his career that can be incorporated into a 3-4 system at Arkansas.
“There are a lot of things that can be done, in that the expertise of the room as it gets finalized will be able to handle and help lead us forward,” Rhoads said. “But even as we tweak and get to our final scheme and thing we do out of that, you guys are going to get sick of hearing me talking about the fundamentals of getting that accomplished. That won’t ever go away.”
For his part, Bielema said he “grew up” playing in the 3-4 and that his first coaching job was as an inside linebackers coach in such a system. He said this shift will allow the Arkansas defense to be more multiple moving forward, and that the Razorbacks will still sprinkle in some 4-man fronts.
“We didn’t vary a lot from where we set the formation,” Bielema said of his 2016 defense. “I think that came back to bite us and we will do a lot of variation moving forward.”
One thing is for sure: Bielema felt changes in both defensive coordinator and defensive scheme were necessary following a mostly dreadful 2016 season on that side of the ball. The Razorbacks ranked 75th in the country in total defense and 94th in rushing defense.
Arkansas also must replace four key defensive linemen and middle linebacker Brooks Ellis next season.
Asked how realistic it is to expect a big turnaround next season, Rhoads responded, “I think we can play good defense. I think we can play better defense. I don’t know if I’m willing to put numbers on what exactly that is.
“I don’t know what other factors are going to play into it — offense, defense, special teams, quality of opponents and all that. Simply stated, we can play better defense and I believe we will play better defense.”