Reasons For Cautious Optimism on Razorback Defense
After sporting arguably and statistically the worst defensive unit of all Power 5 teams in college football, the Arkansas Razorbacks are aiming to turn things around in 2020 with the help of a new defensive signal-caller, a fresh influx of talent and a group of underdog athletes that are hungry to win games and improve the program.
The infamous football adage ‘defense wins championships’ seems to have somewhat become a belief of the past as the game has adapted to a more wide-open, outscore-the-opponent type of fanfare. Despite that – teams that can’t stop a cold still don’t typically raise the lipstick-shaped CFB Playoff Championship trophy at the end of the season. Even an offensive juggernaut like the 2019-20 LSU Tigers could strike fear in opposing offenses when they felt like it. Fans in Fayetteville (Ark.), however, had a much different (worse) defensive experience during the recent Chad Morris era on the Hill.
By the numbers, Arkansas trotted out one of the most incompetent defenses in the entire sport in 2019. After the season ended, the Razorbacks were dead last in the SEC and Power 5 in three of the four major defensive categories. Arkansas allowed 36.8 points per game in 2019, giving up 30+ points in nine of 12 contests, 40+ points five times and 50+ points on three separate occasions. On the ground, the Hogs surrendered a whopping 221.5 yards per game, but don’t worry – they made up for it by giving up 229.2 yards per game through the air as well. As a total defensive unit, the Razorbacks – led by former defensive coordinator and current middle school assistant coach at West High School (TN) John Chavis – forfeited 450.7 total yards per outing, placing them at 110th nationally. For those counting at home, that’s not good.
Let’s not beat around the bush, Arkansas’ defense was abysmal last season. Proven by the numbers and emphasized week in and week out by the eye test, the Razorbacks failed to even slow down an opponent outside of a few rare glimpses of promise.
Luckily for Razorback nation, in walks newly-minted defensive coordinator Barry Odom, fresh off a stint as the head man at Missouri. Odom, who ironically coached his final game with the Tigers against Arkansas in Little Rock, was happily brought on by new head coach Sam Pittman, despite Odom fielding multiple other intriguing coaching opportunities. Odom not only offers head coaching experience – something Pittman lacks himself, but he did his head coaching in the vaunted SEC which just so happens to be the conference that claims Arkansas.
From 2012 to 2014, Odom served as the defensive coordinator for the Memphis Tigers before parlaying that performance into the head coaching gig at Mizzou from 2015 to 2019. In both stints, Odom proved not only that he was a capable defensive mind but also that he could groom a nationally-relevant defense even in places with lesser-known talent. In his three years at Memphis, Odom’s defenses ranked 80th, 44th and 11th in the nation, respectively. In just his first year at Missouri, Odom fielded the number five defensive group in the country, ranking in the top 10 in both total and passing defense. After a fairly dramatic fall-off the next two seasons, Odom brought the Tigers back to the 50th and 17th ranked defenses, respectively, in his final two seasons.
Running a base 4-3 multiple scheme that also involves some odd fronts and coaching the safeties himself, Odom brings Arkansas a proven commodity and program builder on the defensive side of the football. In addition to that, the coaching staff around Odom appears to be much-improved in 2020. Odom managed to bring over Derrick LeBlanc from Kentucky to coach the defensive line, former JUCO head coach Rion Rhoades to coach linebackers and former Missouri assistant Sam Carter to aid him in the secondary.
With the addition of Barry Odom to run the defense and a more-than-capable staff surrounding him, the Razorbacks could be improved on defense based solely on coaching.
Another reason for optimism on defense is the emphasis the last two recruiting cycles have put on that side of the football. Despite his flaws, Chad Morris was able to recruit well while at Arkansas, bringing in the No. 23 class in 2019, including 12 defensive players. Those signees included defensive backs Devin Bush, Greg Brooks Jr. and Malik Chavis, safety Jalen Catalon, defensive ends Mataio Soli, Zach Williams and Eric Gregory, defensive tackles Enoch Jackson, Taurean Carter and Marcus Miller, and linebacker Zach Zimos.
On the back-end, Bush was away from the program for awhile under Morris, but after Pittman was hired, decided the re-join the team and should compete for playing time this season. Brooks was thrown into the fire early as a freshman, starting all 12 games. Despite getting picked on at times, he was able to make noticeable strides as the year went along. After a minor surgery, Catalon seems to have moved up speculative depth charts this offseason and could easily be the starter alongside Joe Foucha this Fall.
Up front, Soli returns after starting 11 games last season, most of which saw him don a club-like cast on his hand. Despite playing through injury, the first-year Hog racked up 19 total tackles and hopes to build upon that production as a sophomore starter. Both Williams and Gregory got playing time and should have a shot to see the field again this year.
Because linebacker is the largest question mark on the Razorback defense, redshirt freshman Zach Zimos should have ample opportunities to push for playing time in the middle fo the field. After sitting out a season, the 6-4 ‘backer has added some much-needed weight and muscle
Defensive recruiting wasn’t lost on Pittman either as the new head Hog signed 11 more defenders in the 2020 class which finished in the top 30, according to 247 Sports. 4-star safety Myles Slusher headlines the defensive haul and – like Catalon – will at least be in the two-deep at safety when the first kickoff comes around.
Pittman followed up an impressive defensive line class by Morris in 2019 by inking surprise 3-star Andy Boykin and JUCO defensive end Julius Coates, as well as 3-stars Jaqualin McGhee and Eric Thomas. Both Boykin and Coates look the part of an SEC defensive lineman, sitting at 6-3, 301 and 6-6, 270, respectively. Coates, who could fight his way into the two-deep early, has apparently already turned heads in camp with his size and athleticism.
In-state stud Jashaud Stewart highlighted a group at linebacker that also included fellow in-state athlete JT Towers, 3-star Jaccorrei Turner and speedy 3-star Kellin Burrle, another surprise late-addition. It’s likely too early to know how much any of them will contribute but considering the question marks at the position, it’s not out of the question. The aforementioned Slusher is joined by 3-star cornerback Khari Johnson and 3-star safety Nick Turner, who both add much-needed depth to an already solid secondary unit.
As most Hog fans have recognized with the basketball program, the ever-evolving transfer portal can be another key to success and Sam Pittman wasted no time taking advantage of it this offseason. Just on defense alone, Pittman brought over three legitimate contributors in defensive back Jerry Jacobs, linebacker Levi Draper and defensive tackle Xavier Kelly.
Jacobs, a native of Georgia, spent the past two seasons at Arkansas State before traveling to Northwest Arkansas to become a Razorback. During his time at ASU, Jacobs developed a reputation as a lockdown cornerback. Earning 2nd-team All-Sun Belt in 2018, Jacobs allowed just 6.3 yards per target, five receptions on 22 targets vs explosive routes and only three total TD’s in two seasons. While many have slotted Montaric Brown and Jarques McClellion to keep their starting jobs at corner, Jacobs has the potential to be a dark horse starter at the position.
The other two transfers, Draper and Kelly, were former 4-star recruits that signed with powerhouse programs and saw very little playing time before transferring to Arkansas. Draper, a transfer from Oklahoma, played in all 28 games the past two seasons, but most of his contributions were on special teams. Despite being ranked as the No. 4 inside linebacker in the nation, Draper was never able to crack the two-deep as a Sooner, collecting only three career tackles. Like Draper, Kelly comes from a championship program at Clemson. Unlike Draper, the defensive tackle from Wichita (Kan.) played a handful of meaningful defensive snaps as a Tiger. After redshirting his initial year, Kelly went on to accumulate 26 career total tackles, 2.5 sacks, two pass break-ups and a fumble recovery. Initially one might dismiss both Draper and Kelly for their lack of production and snaps at their former universities and it’s possible neither player translates at the SEC level either, but their experience at top-notch programs should help the Razorbacks in 2020, both on and off the field.
On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss the players that were part of last year’s defensive debacle based exclusively on statistics, but the talent on the roster – despite not being anywhere near where it needs to be – is not nonexistent. Arkansas has a number of talented players that were simply stuck in an ancient scheme with unmotivated leadership the past two seasons.
One of the returning staters that should fill a major role on defense for the Hogs is redshirt senior defensive end Dorian Gerald. A former junior college transfer, Gerald was poised to have a monster final year but suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against Portland State, forcing him to take a redshirt year. By all accounts, Gerald has fully recovered and is ready to retake his rightful place at starting defensive end opposite Soli. The 6-3, 265-pound end didn’t have eye-popping numbers in 2018, collecting 21 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, but he had seemingly figured things out before the scary artery complication in his neck. Arkansas lost former 5-star McTelvin Agim to the Denver Broncos, so Gerald will be relied on heavily to be the face of the defensive front.
Another large offseason loss for the Razorbacks was middle linebacker De’Jon ‘Scoota’ Harris. Signed as an undrafted free agent in New England, Harris leaves behind conference-leading tackling numbers and an uncoachable presence in the middle of the defense. Junior linebacker Bumper Pool, by far one of the coolest names in college football, will be expected to fill those shoes in 2020. Starting all 12 games alongside Harris last season, Pool finished just behind his counterpart at second on the team with a career-high 94 tackles.
Rounding out the back-end of the defense, formerly mentioned defensive backs Joe Foucha and Montaric Brown headline what many believe to be the strongest defensive group. Both Foucha and Brown have had their ups and downs on the Hill, but each of them has shown dramatic improvement as their reps have increased. While it’s not saying much, passing defense was Arkansas’ strongest defensive area in 2019 and should be even better this season.
Arkansas may be a few years away from even being in the neighborhood of that old ‘defense wins championships’ adage, but thankfully there’s another infamous saying that applies here – ‘there’s nowhere to go but up.’ While technically, things can always get worse and Arkansas is experiencing its fair share of disadvantages this offseason (brand new staff, no spring practice, altered fall camp, global pandemic, etc.), the Razorback defense should be an improved unit in 2020, even if it’s minimal. If the Hogs do display better defensive play this season, it’ll likely be in large part to the change in leadership, addition of multiple talented young players and underrated, forgotten defenders already on the roster.
I’ve been a Razorback since birth. From Jones to McFadden to Mallett to whatever you call the last two years, I’ve continued to eat, sleep and breathe Arkansas athletics. After being away from sports media for over a year, I couldn’t shake my Razorback fever. I’m pumped to join the Natural State Sports squad and help take it to the next level by providing the most fun and interactive Hog coverage around. Woo Pig.