For as long as I can remember, it feels like the defensive backs have been a big weakness for Arkansas teams. DB’s were just hanging on for dear life against the more athletic defenders of the SEC. Last year they weren’t a shutdown group in the SEC but they finished 7th in the SEC with 226 pass yards allowed per game. That doesn’t sound incredible but it was improvement of 40 yards per game from 2015.
This year the players responsible for that improvement are back. There are veterans who have performed well, some depth and versatility in the back, plus some very talented incoming freshman. After Paul Rhodes came in and improved things in the backfield, he’s now in charge of the whole defense but will still work with the DBs.
It all starts with the Cornerbacks, who have three guys with experience starting in the SEC. Ryan Pulley had his breakout in 2016, starting 12 games and breaking up 13 passes, which was 2nd in the SEC. Henre’ Toliver picked up 10 starts and 45 tackles in 2016 and is one of many seniors in the group. The third is team captain Kevin Richardson II, who missed almost all of 2016 injured, but had a big 2015 season. Richardson broke into the starting lineup in 2015 and is the main nickel corner right now. So despite being behind Pulley and Toliver, Richardson will see the field plenty in 2017.
Behind those three are Britto Tutt, who was impressing in 2016’s fall camp before an ACL injury shut him down. There is also freshman Chevin Calloway, a four-star who picked Arkansas over schools like Ole Miss, Texas, Iowa, and Nebraska. One of the best ways to determine how real the hype is for a recruit is where his other offers come from. Calloway had an offer from every SEC West school.
At the safety position there are also three guys with starting experience. Santos Ramirez, De’Andre Coley, and Josh Liddell have all started at least six games. All three also had at least 35 tackles in 2016. The three all had their ups and downs last year, most notably Coley’s issue with targeting penalties, but they were all part of an improved unit last year and should continue to do the same.
Rounding out the two deep here will likely be Montaric Brown. He hasn’t been on campus but the latest update was that he’s sent his paperwork to the NCAA and expects to be on campus soon. Brown and Calloway were the two highest ranked recruits of the 2016 class. While there is a lot of experience ahead of them, they’re too talented to not get at least a few snaps this season.
So what should expectations be for this group in 2017? They’re not as talented as the units in Florida, LSU or Alabama obviously. However there is depth and experience, two things that go a long way in the SEC. They should be a reliable group throughout the season. There are some real concerns about depth at the defensive line and linebacker spots this year, that isn’t the case with the defensive backs. Because of that I would expect Arkansas’ pass defense to improve for a second straight year.