Arkansas defenders settle into new roles

Updated: October 9, 2003, 1:46 AM ET

LITTLE ROCK -- Once competitors at outside linebacker, Tony Bua and Jimarr Gallon both needed a spot on Arkansas' defense this year.

The seniors were too talented for one to be on the bench and no one else had their experience.

The No. 7 Razorbacks are off to a 4-0 start because Bua has found a home at free safety, with Gallon taking Bua's linebacker spot.

"Bua has done a great job of taking over a position he hadn't played since he was a junior in high school," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "He's done a very good job of not giving up the big play. ... He's getting everyone lined up properly and making the right calls for us."

Barring injury, Bua will become the school's career tackles leader some time this season.

At 5-11, 218 pounds, Bua doesn't fit the same mold of a menacing free safety that current NFL defensive backs Ken Hamlin and Kenoy Kennedy had the past seven seasons. But four games after taking Hamlin's spot, the senior is gaining more confidence in his switch from outside linebacker.

"I think after the Texas game I felt a lot better after playing those receivers," said Bua, who leads the team with 38 tackles. "It took a chip off my shoulder and I felt a lot better."

The senior made 240 tackles the last two years at outside linebacker, or wolf as it's called in Arkansas' scheme. Last year, when Bua injured a hamstring and missed a few practices before the start of the season, Jimarr Gallon made a push to replace him.

Bua didn't think too much of his job being in jeopardy, but coaches needed said Gallon needed to be on the field. Bua maintained his starting role after coming up with eight tackles, a blocked punt, a forced fumble and an interception in the 2002 opener against Boise State.

He had such a good season, with 131 tackles, he's on the watch list for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation's top linebacker.

But Gallon started five games at wolf, which made him the obvious choice to replace Bua for good this year.

Gallon (5-11, 195) started August drills with an injury just like Bua did in 2002. Gallon broke the ring finger on his left hand and missed the season opener against Tulsa.

With inexperienced redshirt freshman Desmond Sims on the field, the Golden Hurricane had some success running the ball his way.

"Our defense got better when Jimarr Gallon got back," Nutt said. "He's an excellent football player. He's very fast and quick, and he's a senior who's being a great leader."

With Bua and Gallon growing more comfortable in their starting roles, Arkansas (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) is preparing to stop Auburn (3-2, 2-0) at 11:30 a.m. this Saturday in Fayetteville.

By the numbers, the defense hasn't played great, ranking eighth in scoring in the SEC at 19.8 points per game, fifth in total defense at 319.5 yards and last in sacks with four in four game. However, the defense has made critical plays when called upon.

There hasn't been a bigger defensive stop this year than Gallon's interception of Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle on the first play of the second overtime of a 34-31 victory two weeks ago. It was his first interception for the Razorbacks.

"I don't think the quarterback saw me," Gallon said. "When the tight end broke on his route, I was basically on top of him. The quarterback threw it low and I just made sure I caught the ball before I ran with it."

Bua, who needs 62 tackles to pass Hamlin's record of 381, also made a big play against Alabama, recovering Shaud Williams' fumble in Crimson Tide territory. Two plays later, Mark Pierce's 2-yard touchdown cut Alabama's lead to 31-24 with 8:31 remaining.

The fumble recovery helped Bua atone for being out of place on Williams' 80-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter that put Arkansas in a 31-10 hole.

"I've just given up one big play so far and that's the worst feeling in the world," Bua said. "I don't want that to happen anymore and I'm just a lot more comfortable reading and playing fast."

Gallon, who is from Chesterfield, Va., played one year at Butler Community College before transferring to Arkansas in 2001. He played in all 11 games that year, starting four at cornerback.

In his first start, he made nine tackles and forced a fumble in the second of seven overtimes against Ole Miss.

This year, he has 20 tackles in three games. In the 38-28 victory over Texas, his forced fumble against Texas receiver Roy Williams helped turn the Razorbacks build a 21-7 lead.

"Jimarr stepped right in and we're containing the football and it's like we haven't missed a beat," Bua said. "He's making plays left and right. He's talking to the defense when everybody gets tired and he's doing what he does. Jimarr is just a natural leader."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index