Better or worse? Previewing Arkansas’ defense in 2019
Editor’s note: After previewing every SEC East defense last week, this is the 2nd in a series on the SEC West. Coming Wednesday: Auburn.
When I previewed whether the Arkansas offense would be better or worse in 2019 a couple of weeks ago, it was fairly easy. All of my projections concluded that the Razorbacks would be better on that side of the ball.
The truth was that the Hogs couldn’t be much worse on offense than they were in 2018, so improving shouldn’t be all that difficult. On defense, the picture isn’t quite as bleak.
The Hogs finished 11th in the SEC in run defense last year, allowing 167.8 yards per game. They also finished 11th in pass defense, giving up an average of 245.3 yards a game.
As John Chavis enters his second year as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator, that’s not a bad starting point. Yes, the Hogs will need to improve in both regards if they want to qualify for postseason play, but things could be much worse.
The difficulty lies in replacing some of the talent they lost this offseason. Four of the Hogs’ top 7 tacklers from 2018 are gone, including Ryan Pulley and Santos Ramirez in the secondary. LB Dre Greenlaw is also off to the NFL.
So, can the Hogs overcome those absences and put together a better 2019 campaign? Here’s a breakdown of how each unit should fare this fall:
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Greenlaw, Armon Watts and Randy Ramsey combined for 12 sacks last season, with Watts amassing a team-high 7. McTelvin Agim is the team’s returning sack leader, and he had 4.5 sacks in 2018.
Agim will move inside to the position vacated by Watts, who is now with the Minnesota Vikings, but it will be difficult for the Razorbacks to replace the outside pressure from the defensive end position. Three players are projected to be in the running for the defensive end spots — Jamario Bell, Gabe Richardson and Dorian Gerald — but they combined for a grand total of zero sacks last year.
There’s not a lot of experience returning to the defensive line, and that’s the group Chavis relies on to get to the quarterback. Agim will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He has the talent to take a big step forward, but he’s going to face a lot of double-teams until his teammates prove they’re threats on a consistent basis, too.
There are some interesting young pieces in place, but until they have more time to adjust to life in the SEC, expect the Hogs to finish with fewer than the 26 sacks they posted in 2018.
Run defense: Better
As mentioned above, I like Agim and I think he’ll fare pretty well at the defensive tackle position after moving over from defensive end. Behind him is ILB De’Jon Harris, who is the SEC’s returning leader in tackles.
This team’s run defense will go as Harris goes, and that’s not a bad thing. Harris had 118 tackles last year after posting 115 tackles in 2017. He’s one of the best inside linebackers in the SEC and looks ready to take another step forward this fall.
Likewise, Bumper Pool should be ready for more action after posting 29 tackles as a true freshman last season. It should also be noted that those 29 tackles came in only 10 games. With a full workload this fall, he’ll be a player to watch.
Yes, Arkansas lost Ramirez at the safety position, and that’s a big loss. Ramirez had the second-most tackles on the team in 2018, recording 87 takedowns. S Kamren Curl (53 tackles in 2018) will have to take a big step forward this fall as a pass defender and a run stopper.
However, the biggest reason to think the Razorbacks will be better against the run comes from my confidence in the offense. If the Hogs can score more points and stay competitive in games, teams won’t be running so much against them. Last year, teams often took big leads and then spent most of the second half (or at least the fourth quarter) running out the clock. If the Arkansas offense fares better in 2019, that won’t happen as often, and it’ll help the run defense immensely.
Pass defense: Worse
The Razorbacks had an SEC-low 5 interceptions last season, and they return exactly zero of them this fall. Pulley (3) and Greenlaw (2) accounted for all 5 and they’re gone.
Add in the loss of Ramirez in the secondary and some young guys at the corner positions needing to step up and it could be a rough year defending the pass. As mentioned, too, if the offense keeps games closer, the Razorbacks will need to find some guys to make some plays on the back end of the defense.
The interesting thing about the secondary is that there are some talented new guys coming onto the scene. In coach Chad Morris’ 2019 recruiting class, he landed 4-star defensive backs Devin Bush, Jalen Catalon and Greg Brooks Jr. If they are ready to contribute this fall, it’ll be a big boost for Chavis and the defense.
If they need some time to get up to speed, or struggle out of the gate, though, I’m not sure the Arkansas secondary is deep enough to keep up with the quarterback talent across the SEC.
Special teams: Better
Connor Limpert and Reid Bauer are back to handle the kicking and punting duties, respectively, and that’s a good thing. Limpert went 29-for-29 on extra points last year and hit 19-of-24 field-goal attempts. Look for that percentage to improve.
Meanwhile, Bauer enters his sophomore year after averaging 38.9 yards per punt last season. That was the worst average among all qualifying SEC punters. Still, he was a true freshman. With a full year in Arkansas’ strength training program, we should see those numbers improve in 2019.
As for the kickoff and punt coverage teams, there’s a ton of room for improvement. The Hogs gave up 2 kickoff return touchdowns and 1 punt return touchdown in 2018. Those 3 return touchdowns were the most in the SEC. Expect Morris to focus heavily on stopping big plays this fall, starting with the special teams coverage units.
The Hogs aren’t going to improve by leaps and bounds on defense until Morris’ new recruits have some time to mature and grow into their roles. However, under Chavis, this unit should fare a little bit better in 2019.
Yes, they lost a lot of talent, but there still are some playmakers, led by Agim and Harris. Those two are poised to have big seasons, and they’ll need to be the leaders of the defense, as well.
Add in the potential improvement of the offense, and the load will be lighter on the defenders. The Hogs ranked 10th in the SEC in time of possession last year. If they can improve upon that, the defense will be on the field less. In theory, fewer defensive possessions equals fewer yards allowed.
Arkansas also finished last in the SEC with a -10 turnover margin in 2018. Some of that was offensive incompetence, but turnovers also tend to rely a little bit on luck, too. Maybe the Hogs will get some more favorable bounces this fall. If they do, expect the defense’s numbers to improve slightly.