Better or worse? Previewing Arkansas' new-look defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 2nd in a series previewing every SEC West team’s defense. Next: Auburn.
It’s easy to talk about how bad Arkansas has been over the past 2 seasons.
Easy, but tiring. Still, it’s necessary to project progress from one season to the next. So please endure a brief trip back to the doldrums before we get into the defense’s chances for improvement in 2020.
Defense was no exception to Arkansas’ shortcomings in 2019. They finished ranked 110th in the FBS and last in the SEC in total defense. They gave up an average of 36.8 points per game, not only a distant last in the SEC but also 124th in the country and last among Power 5 programs. Some of the struggles can be blamed on injuries to key players, but a lot of it was dysfunction in the program.
Chad Morris, who failed to win an SEC game in his nearly 2 seasons, became the scapegoat. He was fired last season following a 45-19 loss to Western Kentucky.
In his place, Arkansas hired Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
Pittman has made many moves that already have endeared him to Razorbacks fans, but perhaps the most important were his coordinator hires. Pittman hired Kendal Briles, former Baylor offensive coordinator and son of Art Briles, as his offensive coordinator. Due to Briles’ history of leading high-octane offenses, the hire was well-received.
Defensively, Pittman hired Barry Odom, who spent the past 4 years as the head coach of Missouri. Odom’s value is twofold. He is obviously a savvy defensive mind – the Tigers made improvements on defense in each of his four seasons. Last year, Missouri ranked among the top 3 in the SEC in yards and 1st downs allowed. Granted, Mizzou didn’t face LSU or Alabama, but the Tigers allowed just 19.4 points per game.
But Odom’s value also comes from his experience. Having been a head coach, he can help Pittman traverse the waters in his inaugural season. Pittman will likely run into many obstacles he never anticipated, but Odom will have lived through it before.
The Razorbacks have a lot of key players to replace, but perhaps an overhaul is what the defense needed. Odom said in late April the team would likely run a multiple-scheme system. With Arkansas still yet to hold a practice amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely not much has changed.
When practice does resume, this group has plenty of work to do considering last year.
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Arkansas wasn’t nearly as bad as one might think at getting to the quarterback last season.
The Razorbacks had a sack rate of 6.1 percent, which ranked 73rd in the FBS and ahead of SEC foes such as Auburn and South Carolina. Not great, but not the worst. Arkansas actually did a better job on passing downs (downs when it is reasonable to expect a pass), when its sack rate rose to 8.8 percent (52nd in the FBS). The Hogs finished with 21.0 sacks, which might seem modest, but they also faced the 2nd-fewest pass attempts in the league.
Unfortunately, the Razorbacks lose their top 5 leaders in sacks from last season. That includes McTelvin Agim and Jamario Bell, defensive linemen who combined for 9.5 sacks. They also have to replace linebacker De’Jon Harris, who led the SEC in tackles through the regular season in 2018 and 2019.
That is no easy task. Junior linebacker Bumper Pool looks like the most obvious candidate to emerge as a leader of the defense. He finished 2nd on the team in tackles last season with 94, including 6.5 for loss. The Razorbacks also brought in Oklahoma grad transfer linebacker Levi Draper. Although Draper was mostly a special teams player for the Sooners, he figures to have a bigger role in this defense.
The defensive line will be relatively young and most of its experience will come on the ends. Dorian Gerald is back for his senior season after a strained artery in his neck caused him to miss all but one game of 2019. Mataio Soli, the end who replaced Gerald on the depth chart last year, is the only returning starter on the line.
Defensive tackle is wide open. Agim’s loss will certainly be felt here. The Razorbacks are likely to lean on freshmen, with redshirt freshmen Taurean Carter, Enoch Jackson and Marcus Miller all poised to fight for time. Hopefully, they’ve added weight in offseason workouts. Sophomore Nicholas Fulwider could find himself in the mix, too.
For now, I’m projecting Arkansas as worse simply because of how much it loses. Development will be important. The Razorbacks could easily end up matching their production from a year ago.
Run defense: Better
It should come as no surprise that Arkansas had one of the worst run defenses in the country in 2019.
The Razorbacks allowed 222 yards per game on the ground, which was 122nd in the FBS and, you guessed it, last in the SEC. The aforementioned losses on the defensive line and at linebacker make things seem even bleaker. Still, minor improvement seems possible. Odom’s Tigers ranked 32nd in rushing yards allowed per game last season and an even better 22nd in 2018.
It’s going to be tough, both the youth of this group could end up being a positive. They are more likely to embrace Odom’s plan and also have more time to develop over the season. It’s hard to imagine Odom won’t make the run defense slightly better in his first season and moving forward. The bar, after all, isn’t high at the moment.
Passing defense: Same
Arkansas was at least better at defending the pass last season, ranking 69th overall.
But the Razorbacks lose another key piece from their defense in the secondary. Safety Kamren Curl, who had 76 tackles and a team-high 2 interceptions, declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season. Arkansas already wasn’t great at forcing turnovers, averaging just 0.5 interceptions per game last year, tied for 106th in the FBS.
Joe Foucha will step in to lead at safety after Curl’s departure. Foucha had a solid sophomore season in 2019, finishing with 87 tackles, an interception and 4 passes defended. Myles Slusher, a 4-star recruit, has been talked about as a freshman who could make an immediate impact at the other safety spot, but redshirt freshman Jalen Catalon is the favorite at the moment.
The good news is Arkansas returns both starting corners. Juniors Montaric Brown and Jarques McClellion combined for 2 interceptions and 7 passes defended. However, with as much as the passing defense struggled last season, McClellion’s spot in particular is not set in stone.
Arkansas is going to be inexperienced in a lot of spots on defense. But with how last year unfolded, it isn’t likely to get any worse at least.
Special teams: Same
Punter Sam Loy returns for his senior season. He led the Razorbacks to a 61st ranking in punt efficiency according to Football Outsiders. He punted 56 times last season for an average of 39.5 yards per punt, which was the lowest in the SEC.
He should resume the role in 2020.
Unlike on offense, Arkansas has a lot of growing to do and replacements to make on defense. In many cases, the Razorbacks will lean on freshmen in starting roles. There will be painful moments this season because of it. Mistakes will be plenty. But that is part of getting better.
Even amidst the inexperience, Arkansas can take solace in its leadership. Odom’s record of improving defenses should give fans optimism that Arkansas will slowly see its way out of the dark. The questions make the defense more interesting, and there should be no shortage of storylines throughout the year. This season won’t be easy, but the Razorbacks will be better because of it.