Much of the offseason talk is focused on Chad Morris’ offense, and rightfully so. But the big change on the defensive side of the ball may determine how quickly Arkansas’ football program rises from the SEC West cellar.
John Chavis brings a tried-and-true approach that is in many ways the opposite of what Arkansas fans have seen for the last several years. Gone are the bend-don’t-break schemes of Robb Smith and Paul Rhoads in favor of an aggressive defense.
Chavis has a long history. A former Tennessee player, he was the defensive coordinator under Phil Fulmer from 1995 to 2008, winning the 1998 championship. When Fulmer was sacked after the 2008 season, Chavis jumped to LSU. (Bobby Petrino poached Chavis’ defensive ends coach, Steve Caldwell, who had a great run in Fayetteville from 2009 to 2011 and has now been reunited with Chavis.) Chavis coordinated some elite defenses in Baton Rouge from 2009 to 2014, including the 2011 defense that reached the BCS championship game. Instability at the head coaching position drove Chavis to jump ship to Texas A&M, where his three defenses from 2015 to 2017 produced mixed results.
For this piece, I’m going to focus on Chavis’ time at Texas A&M, as it is his most recent work.
Here’s a brief scouting report of Chavis’ A&M defenses:
- Havoc-producing defenses are Chavis’ hallmark. We track a useful stat called “havoc rate.” It’s the percentage of plays that include a tackle for loss, a defensed pass, or a forced fumble. Chavis’ Aggie defenses ranked 8th, 16th, and 40th in havoc rate. By comparison, Arkansas’ only top-40 havoc defense was the 2014 unit (7th).
- Chavis’ defenses are very good against the pass. A strong pass defense would be a welcome change in Fayetteville. Arkansas hasn’t had a truly strong pass defense since Reggie Herring’s 2007 unit led the FBS in yards per attempt (5.5) and completion percentage (49 percent).
Chavis’ defenses force lower passing efficiency through pressure and aggressive use of safeties. Pressure is an obvious one. The Hogs got a taste of what a Chavis-coached defense wants to do during Caldwell’s first stint with the Hogs. In just three years, he turned Jake Bequette from a tight end to an all-SEC defensive end, developed Tenarius Wright into a solid player, snagged Chris Smith from juco, and recruited Trey Flowers. Pretty impressive. Arkansas’ 2010 defense recorded 95 tackles for loss and 36 sacks, while the best defense since (2014) managed 81 tackles for loss and 24 sacks.
The use of safeties is also obvious. Chavis coached Tyrann Mathieu — the “Honey Badger” — at LSU, and saw his top Texas A&M safety (Armani Watts) taken in the fourth round by the Chiefs in May. Watts recorded 10 tackles for loss, four interceptions, and five pass break-ups during the 2017 season. That kind of havoc is standard for a Chavis-coached safety.
- Chavis’ defenses are often gashed for big runs. Pretty much the only thing Arkansas has consistently done well over the last few years is Chavis’ major weakness. It’s essentially a trade-off: defenses that focus their safeties and defensive ends on creating havoc behind the line of scrimmage can be hurt by running games that are able to beat the pressure. The good news here is that his defenses also tend to make a lot of run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, so the deadly “five yards on every handoff” that Arkansas fans have had to put up with for the last few years is probably not going to be an issue moving forward. If nothing else, Chavis’ defenses will make the offense very inconsistent.
Here’s the chart of defensive performance over the last three years. Remember that Success Rate (SR) is a measure of efficiency, and isoPPP is a measure of explosiveness. We’ll review terminology more once the season gets underway.
The big questions for 2018
- Who’s the playmaking safety? Arkansas was Safety U for a while during the early Nutt years. Kenoy Kennedy led the 1998 and 1999 teams, while his successors — Tony Bua and Ken Hamlin — ended their careers as the top two leading tacklers in school history. The decline in safety play around 2004 coincided with a general decline in the consistent quality of Arkansas’ defenses. Chavis will try to bring that tradition back, but he needs a playmaker. Perhaps the move of Kameron Curl to safety will free up senior Santos Ramirez, the top havoc-creator on the team in 2016 and 2017. Ramirez has a great closing speed and the ability to strip the ball on the run.
- Who will pressure the quarterback? If you haven’t read my January 2017 article evaluating every Arkansas defense since 1998, I’m shamelessly plugging it again, because it backs up this point. From the piece:
Bielema has expressed a desire to use more 3-4 defense. Using a 3-3-5 nickel for passing downs is certainly understandable, but a base 3-4 will be incredibly difficult to implement. Some kind of race-built 3-4 that scatters speedy linebacker/safety hybrid players all over like Burns’ 4-2-5 might could work, if done right. And by “done right”, I mean it has to produce more pressure.
Robb Smith struggled to recruit good pass-rushing defensive ends, and his best ones ended up being the ones he inherited (Trey Flowers and Dietrich Wise) rather than recruited. By 2017, Bret Bielema felt like he had to use a 3-4 because he had run out of good 4-3 ends. And in 2017, while running the 3-4, Arkansas fell to 101st in havoc rate, which is basically fatal in the SEC.
Chavis inherits Randy Ramsey, a great athlete who has done everything but run the video board during his time in Fayetteville. He’s gone from linebacker (pre-2016) to undersized defensive end (2016) to good outside pass rusher on a bad defense (2017) and now back to defensive end as the Hogs move back to the 4-3. He could be a game-changer, but there aren’t a whole lot of other options, at least based on past production. Chavis has been recruiting up a storm on the defensive front, but those recruits aren’t on campus yet.
In the long-run, Chavis’ style of defense is almost certainly the style that can be successful at Arkansas. I’m cautiously optimistic about this year’s defense, but given the massive changes that must be made, it’s best to keep expectations fairly low.