Better or worse? Previewing Arkansas' defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC defense continues with Arkansas. Later today: Auburn. Coming Wednesday: LSU.
For the first month of last season, it looked like Barry Odom had whipped the Arkansas defense into shape.
The Razorbacks were 2-2 and their defense played a huge part in the victories. He was being talked about seriously for the Broyles Award. Things didn’t quite work out.
Arkansas won only 1 game the rest of the way, and the defense couldn’t keep its incredible beginning form. Still, it was better than it had been.
Can the Hogs take the next step in Year 2 under Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom? Let’s take a look.
Pressuring the QB: Better
The Razorbacks weren’t exactly one of the most feared defensive lines last season.
They were tied for last in the SEC with just 14.0 sacks, down from 21.0 in 2019. They finished 116th in sack rate and 102nd in line yards (percentage of offense generated by offensive line) allowed. They also lose Jonathan Marshall, who was drafted by the New York Jets.
Thankfully, the Hogs return plenty of other capable pass rushers.
Defensive end Eric Gregory returns after leading the team in sacks (2.5) in 2020. Grant Morgan and Julius Coates (2 sacks apiece) also return. Other than Marshall, Arkansas won’t miss any significant pieces.
Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is that Odom has a track record for improving defenses. SEC fans should be familiar with his transformation of Missouri.
The bar for improvement is low and the Hogs have the pieces and scheme to clear it in 2021.
Run defense: Better
As you might have guessed from the previous section, the Razorbacks weren’t exactly leading the league in run defense last season, either.
Arkansas ranked 12th in the SEC, giving up an average of 192.1 rushing yards per game. They also allowed 21 rushing TDs, 3rd-most in the SEC.
On the plus side, they bring back 3 of the top 5 tacklers in the conference in Jalen Catalon, Bumper Pool and Morgan. Experience matters and they will have plenty of it.
Odom’s defenses at Missouri typically were stout against the run. The SEC West is a different breed, however, but it’s still reasonable to expect the Hogs to chop 30 or so yards off the 2020 total.
Pass defense: Better
Arkansas’ pass defense got off to a blazing start in 2020, helping the Razorbacks force 13 turnovers in their first 4 games.
This included a 3-interception performance from Hudson Clark, then a walk-on, against Ole Miss. The Hogs eventually cooled off, becoming an average pass defense. They ranked 9th in the SEC in passing yards allowed per game, but that was a bit misleading.
The Hogs excelled at keeping plays in front of them. On average, they allowed just 6.8 yards per attempt, the 2nd-best effort in the SEC. Nobody in the SEC allowed fewer big plays. Arkansas allowed just 1 completion longer than 40 yards all season and nothing longer than 50. By comparison, LSU — DBU — gave up 13 completions covering 50 yards or more.
Catalon is the star of the group and one of the top DBs in the country.
Clark and Joe Foucha also return and will play major roles.
Typically a team with this much returning talent improves. That should be the case for the Hogs, too, especially considering this is their first full, uninterupted offseason with Odom.
Special teams: Same
Reid Bauer returns after averaging 43.5 yards on 39 punts last year. That total was fine; the issue was nobody in the SEC punted more than Arkansas.
The Hogs averaged 6.2 punts per game. Only 4 Power 5 programs averaged more punts per game. That’s far too many empty possessions on offense and it helps explain why Arkansas’ defense spent more time on the field than any other SEC defense — almost 35 minutes a game. Only 1 Power 5 defense spent more time on the field.
Even though that’s an offensive problem, if it can be fixed, that clearly will help keep the defense a bit fresher.
Arkansas returns most of its key pieces on defense. They have another year to learn Odom’s system. Catalon is an emerging star. Morgan and Pool are tackling machines. It’s hard to see this unit not being better than it was in 2020.