FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — When Arkansas demoted its leading returning tackler this offseason, the move didn’t make the waves one might anticipate given the player’s status. When he re-earned the starting job this fall, it made even fewer. Except to him.
Josh Liddell is back on the first-team defense as Arkansas’ starting free safety. As to whether he lost the job in the first place because of his own play falling or De’Andre Coley’s improving, it’s hard to get a straight answer. But as to how Liddell took the job back, that was all him. His head coach, Bret Bielema, said the practices this fall camp have been the best practices since Liddell arrived.
“This last fall camp, this is the best I’ve felt in my whole career here. Mentally. Physically. I feel comfortable.”
Liddell was going to see the field this season either as a starter or reserve. That’s part of why the demotion didn’t cause ripples. He, Cole and Santos Ramirez have been rotating through the two safety spots at regular intervals for the last year. Even the year before, when Liddell was a starter alongside Rohan Gaines, he and Ramirez split a lot of those duties.
Therein lies the rub. Liddell has been a starter since arriving in Fayetteville. A former quarterback at a high school of about 350 starting SEC football games less than six months after graduating. Not exactly for the faint of will. But like every year since, they were spot-starts. In a sense, Liddell is a three-year starter. On the other hand, he hasn’t spent an entire season as the No. 1 safety.
That changes now, he said. If a guy was starting as a freshman but not as a senior, and injury isn’t involved, something has gone wrong.
“Just improve and be the best version of myself, if that makes sense,” Liddell said. “My first goal this year is just to be the best player I can be each and every day. … I think I’ve been doing that these past 14, 15 practices.”
If Arkansas’ defense is going to be better, it has to get improvement from Liddell (and Ramirez and Coley, too, for that matter). His keeping a job means his play is satisfactory enough. Him losing his job, to Coley or any of the freshmen behind them on the depth chart, would mean his play is detrimental in some form or fashion.
And that was the case last year. Arkansas’ biggest weakness was through the middle of the field. Defensive tackle straight through to linebacker and then safety. Think about some of the biggest plays the defense gave up last year: Kenny Hill, Trevor Knight, Nick Fitzgerald. The quarterbacks handled Arkansas’ defense with their feet. Knight’s are especially memorable as those scrambles the Texas A&M quarterback had came right up the gut for touchdowns. Safeties were too regularly out of position.
Liddell, even without starting the whole year last year, finished second on the team with 63 tackles. Only Brooks Ellis, at middle linebacker, had more. The catch is, does a team really want its safety — the last spatial line of defense — getting the second-most tackles on the team? Either way it shows Liddell can tackle, but also that he had to, probably, too often.
Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Paul Rhoads is rolling with the same threesome, anyway, despite three incoming freshmen — one of whom is a 4-star recruit – and two redshirt freshmen who have spent a year in the system. Rhoads is banking on his upperclassmen, especially one in particular who has started every season, to come through.
“At the safety spot, that’s a more physical player, that’s a sure-tackling player. Really would like to see Josh become a more physical presence,” Rhoads, the man who demoted and promoted Liddell, said. “He’s got to play like the veteran that he is.”