Arkansas football: 5 things that will define the Razorbacks' defense in 2021
This past season was an interesting one for the Arkansas defense.
The Razorbacks started as one of the hottest units in the SEC but cooled off considerably as the season came to a close. It was the first year for head coach Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom, so the growing pains were to be expected.
In 2021, the Razorbacks return all starters except for defensive lineman Jonathan Marshall.
The expectation is that spells drastic improvement, but only time will tell. If each returning player can make small improvements, it will bring the group up as a whole.
Here are the five things that will define this defense in 2020:
1. The return of Grant Morgan
Morgan was one of several Razorback seniors who took advantage of the NCAA extending everybody an extra year of eligibility. His return means Arkansas brings back 3 of the top 5 tacklers in the SEC from 2020.
He and fellow linebacker Bumper Pool have an opportunity to become one of the most feared defensive duos in the conference. They combined for 14 tackles for loss this past season and should build upon that number in 2021. The Razorbacks are in a great position defensively for next season and it starts with these two, the unquestioned leaders of this unit.
2. Who will replace Jonathan Marshall?
Marshall is the only starter who needs to be replaced. He finished with 35 tackles (6.5 for loss) and 1 sack before being taken by the New York Jets in the 6th round of the NFL Draft.
Marshall was easily the most productive defensive lineman, so he won’t be easy to replace.
Eric Thomas Jr. had a decent showing in the spring game, with 2 tackles for loss and a sack. Enoch Jackson Jr. is another candidate, having finished with 5 total tackles, 2 for loss and 1 sack.
Whoever it ends it ends up being will have his work cut out for him. The defensive line has the most question marks out of any position group.
3. Progression in Barry Odom’s second season
Missouri finished last in the SEC in total defense during Barry Odom’s first season as head coach. By his final year, the Tigers were up to 3rd, behind only Georgia and Florida.
Although Odom isn’t the lead man at Arkansas, it’s fair to expect similar results for the Razorbacks’ defense. It’s clearly his defense.
Arkansas finished 11th in total defense in 2020, pretty low considering all the early season buzz the group was getting. With another year to soak up the schemes and familiarize themselves with Odom’s style, look for the Razorbacks to take a leap forward this year defensively.
4. Jalen Catalon’s sophomore growth
Technically, Catalon is still a redshirt freshman despite being in his 3rd season with the program.
He finished 5th in the SEC in total tackles last season with 99. He also managed 3 interceptions to go with 4 passes defended. That was in his first season as a starter.
Essentially, Catalon has a lot of room to grow, which is scary for the rest of the conference.
He has star potential and could be one of the best defenders in the SEC in the next few years. We’re about to learn just how good of a player he can be. Was last year his peak or is there more room to improve?
5. Can they keep forcing turnovers?
Arkansas developed a bit of a reputation for forcing miscues last season.
The Razorbacks ranked 3rd in the SEC in turnovers per game with 1.8. A lot of that came from a couple of games that could be considered outliers, but they still came against SEC opponents. Arkansas finished tied for 2nd with 13 interceptions.
Hudson Clark burst onto the scene against Ole Miss, but what will the former walk-on’s first season on scholarship have in store? Clark and Catalon each had 3 picks last season.
It will be a difficult task to maintain their status as one of the most stingy defenses in the SEC. However, with as much as the Razorbacks return, it shouldn’t surprise anybody to see them near the top once again.