Arkansas: Ed Orgeron

Ed Orgeron was a graduate assistant at Arkansas from 1986 to 1987, when he was the assistant strength coach and helped coach the Razorbacks' defensive line.

Wally Ake writes his name, "Coach Ake," on the classroom whiteboard, and soon enough, the questions start to flow.

One after another, the middle school kids near Rogers, Arkansas, ask their substitute teacher about his 42 years of coaching college football.

Where did you coach? Who have you coached? Did you coach some NFL guys?

And then the stories get going, often surrounding Ake's six seasons as the defensive line coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks from 1984-89.

Sometimes Ake will remember a fiery Cajun, a graduate assistant who commanded respect from defensive linemen who were not that much younger and soaked up enough knowledge to become one of the more respected position coaches in the country.

Those memories come easier on weeks like these, when Ed Orgeron and his LSU Tigers will play at Arkansas at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

"You wouldn't forget about Ed," said Ake, 68.

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Arkansas is where Orgeron's coaching career in Division I football began. It's where he made $25 every two weeks ("a lot of cash," Orgeron says now with a grin), lived in the dormitory and saw white gravy for the first time. It's where he earned a reputation as a motivator and a disciplinarian, including the time he made summer campers do bear crawls up and down a hill after they pulled the fire alarm at 4 a.m. for the final time.

Most of all, it was the launching point of a career that winded from Miami to Baton Rouge, built on lessons learned in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

"I loved it up there," said Orgeron, 57. "I absolutely enjoyed my time up there for two years. Learned a lot of football. That job got me to the University of Miami and on and on and on, and I used those connections the rest of my life."

Fresh off graduate assistant stints at Northwestern State and McNeese State, Orgeron was at first hired by Arkansas in 1986 as an assistant to legendary strength coach John Stucky, who was one of the first trainers to embrace Olympic lifting in his workout programs.

But Orgeron wanted to coach, and his time under Stucky didn't last long.

"He's a forward guy," Ake said. "He was in the weight room, and he said, 'I'd like to work on the field.' I said, 'Heck yeah.' "

The 'Eagle'

The Razorbacks had just come off a 10-2 season in 1985 — the program's second season under former coach Ken Hatfield — and had fallen just short of a Southwest Conference championship because of a 10-6 loss at Texas A&M.

At the time, Arkansas was a power team. It grinded opposing defenses with Hatfield's flexbone offense, and it barricaded offenses with a 3-4 defensive scheme under former defensive coordinator Fred Goldsmith.

Goldsmith's defense had its own wrinkle. Sure, there were times when the Razorbacks would run out of their base formation, using three down offensive linemen and four linebackers. But more often Goldsmith used what is called an "Eagle front," which Ake said looked more like the 4-2-5 defense Texas Christian uses today.

The Eagle front had two inside linebackers and essentially four defensive linemen: two defensive ends, a noseguard and a standing lineman, the "Eagle," who lined up outside the offensive tackle. 

The Eagle front — which rose out of the 5-2 defenses that the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears used in the 1950s — was somewhat perfect for the offensive innovations that were coming out of the University of Houston at the time.

The Razorbacks never lost to the Cougars under Hatfield, from 1984-89, which spanned across Bill Yeoman's veer option-run attack and Jack Pardee's pass-happy run-and-shoot.

Arkansas maintained gap control with its linemen and linebackers, while the Eagles had the ability to roam. The position could be more athletic, too, like Kerry Owens, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound former Razorback who was named to the 1988 All-Southwest Conference team.

"It gave us flexibility," Ake said. "The guy was already standing up, and we could put him out in (pass protection) position and we didn't have to sub all the time. We felt it was an advantage."

This is the front that Orgeron learned, and if you review the film from LSU's 19-3 win over Mississippi State on Oct. 20, it appears the Eagle front was used to limit quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs to 260 yards.

Ake said there were many moments in the Arkansas coaches office with Orgeron, who would come in and ask questions — as inquisitive as the middle schoolers Ake teaches today. Their conversations covered defensive alignments, lineman techniques and coaching philosophy.

"Not sure if I gave him any good advice or not, but I gave him the answers to what he asked," Ake said. "It made you stop, 'Well, why do I do this? If I can't give him an answer, it ought to make me think about what I'm doing.' "

Perhaps most impactful of all were their discussions about lineman techniques — the sort of things Orgeron would later teach players like Miami's Warren Sapp, an eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle, and Sedrick Ellis, an All-American tackle at Southern Cal.

Leverage was key, Ake said. After that first step got in the ground, linemen had to be explosive with their hands, grabbing control of their opponent's breastplate, in order to get separation and move toward the play's flow.

All of this had to be done with a flat back, hips trailing behind the pads, while keeping your play-side arm and leg free.

"The key was, we had to get into and out of a block," Ake said. "We had to get that separation immediately or we were going to be in trouble, because we didn't have the biggest guys around."

Goldsmith had never really had powerful linemen. Those techniques were developed when he was coaching with Hatfield at Air Force from 1979-83, including one of the more tricky ideas that Goldsmith said Orgeron took with him when he left Arkansas.

Instead of directly engaging the center when the ball snapped, the noseguard would watch where the running back moved, and then shoot the gap in that direction.

"That would take you out of a lot of the blocks," said Tony Cherico, Arkansas' noseguard from 1985-87. "A lot of teams didn't realize that's what we were doing at the time."

Orgeron worked mostly with the noseguards, Goldsmith said, and Cherico said the Larose native instilled in them the toughness he gained growing up in the Louisiana bayou.

"One of the biggest things was the mentality: You can do whatever you want, but you're not going to break me," said Cherico, 53, now a defensive line coach at Bentonville (Arkansas) High. "The mental toughness of it. We took pride in whatever we did. Whether it was a workout, or whatever. 'You can't break me.' One of the things we learned, was if you can get in an offensive lineman's dome, you own them."

'He never forgot where he came from'

On a Saturday afternoon at the Orange Bowl, Goldsmith met with his former assistant before the 1988 regular-season finale against Miami.

The time Goldsmith visited with Orgeron — who was in his first season as defensive line coach at Miami — was short, and the yards the No. 3-ranked Hurricanes were about to yield to the No. 8 Razorbacks would be just as few.

Miami beat Arkansas 18-16, dominating the line of scrimmage by allowing just 186 total yards and six first downs.

Orgeron was on his way.

Goldsmith said Orgeron's kept up with him over the years, and Orgeron said that Hatfield remains "a personal friend." 

"The thing about Ed," said Goldsmith, 74, who is retired and living in North Carolina. "He never forgot where he came from."

Cherico said his brother-in-law went to school with Orgeron at Northwestern State, and his wife's family knows Orgeron by his nickname "Bébé." He said Orgeron has sent him lineman technique videos over the course of his coaching career.

"I can call him anytime, and if I ask him to send me something, he's always good about that," Cherico said. "A lot of the drills I use still go back to what he taught."

"It's been enjoyable watching Ed grow," said Hatfield, 75, who is now a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. "The way he's handled everything. I think he's learned much. He's maintained that spirit, the competitiveness, the tempo in his life."