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Previewing the 2019 Season: Defense & Special Teams

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The Hogs might be pretty good on the front seven and on special teams. Wait, what?

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day
It’s Sosa Agim’s time to shine on defense.
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t read Part 1, introducing the stats and previewing the offense, be sure to check it out.

Arkansas isn’t paying John Chavis more than $1 million per year to have a good defense, but it is paying him more than $1 million per year to avoid the common pitfall of an innovative, offensive-minded head coach: a bad defense.

Mississippi State’s defense was crazy-good in 2018 and Ole Miss’s was crazy-bad.

At this point, though, Chavis’ defense is ahead of Chad Morris’ offense. The Hogs weren’t great last year: they ranked 10th in EV per defensive play, but that beats the offense (13th) and, more importantly, they were across-the-board better than the 2017 unit coached by Bret Bielema and Paul Rhoads. They got sacks at the highest rate since 2011 when Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright were rushing the passer and were above-average on third downs. The run defense still wasn’t great, but it was the best in three years and continued the reversal since the disastrous 2016 unit that got Robb Smith shown the door. And they managed it without classic 4-3 defensive ends as part of the switch back from a 3-4. This offseason, Chavis and his staff worked hard to bring in a small army of defensive ends to provide immediate relief, while the two best players in the front seven –Sosa Agim and De’Jon Harris – are back.

It’s not all good news, though. The pass defense, absent sacks, was really awful and now must replace its top cornerback and safety. And while the defense was strong against Tulsa, LSU, and Texas A&M, it got blitzed in three very winnable games: Colorado State (only the fourth quarter), Ole Miss, and, most egregiously, Vanderbilt. Situationally bad defense has been a problem at Arkansas for several years.

Harris has become another Martrell Spaight: a box-score-stuffing, run-stopping linebacker. The Razorback defense was very bend-don’t-break in 2018 (it had to be given its massive deficiencies in the secondary) and had a hard time disrupting the opposing run game, which put a lot of pressure on the linebackers. That strategy mostly worked, at least compared to a lot of other things Arkansas tried to do last year.

It’s also nice to see some improvement for a second straight season:

Robb Smith’s tenure (2014-2016) kinda went downhill, didn’t it?

Linebackers

  • Key Returnees: MLB Martrell Spaight, WLB Bumper Pool, N D’Vone McClure
  • Key Losses: WLB Dre Greenlaw
  • Key Additions: Zach Zimos
  • 2018 Grade: B
  • 2019 Projection: B

The loss of the veteran Greenlaw hurts, but Pool played a lot and started several games when Greenlaw got hurt last year. He had some freshman moments but mostly showed why he can be a good SEC linebacker. The Hogs don’t have a ton of depth, but have moved McClure to linebacker, where he’ll probably back up Pool. Arkansas mostly uses base nickel, but Hayden Henry returns to start if the Hogs use a true 4-3. Zimos was Arkansas’ only offseason addition at the position.

Defensive Line

  • Key Returnees: DT/DE Sosa Agim, DT T.J. Smith, DE Gabe Richardson
  • Key Losses: DT Armon Watts
  • Key Additions: DE Collin Clay, DE Mataio Soli, DE Zach Williams, DE Eric Gregory
  • 2018 Grade: C
  • 2019 Projection: C+

Agim, the former five-star recruit, has been solid in Fayetteville, but hasn’t yet shown that he can be a first- or second-round pick. Now’s the time. Watts had the senior-year breakout last year, but Arkansas’ defense takes a big step forward if it has a true disruptor up front. That’s been missing since Darius Philon and Trey Flowers in 2014.

At the end position, Clay and Soli were four-star recruits over at 247 Sports, and four new defensive ends have joined the program, leaving veterans Richardson and Dorian Gerald needing to show out to hold onto their starting jobs.

While I still think Arkansas is a couple years away from a truly good defensive line, added athleticism and the return of Agim made me bump the projection to C+.

Despite an improved pass-rush, the secondary continues to be victimized. The 2018 pass defense was (slightly) better than the awful 2015 one. It didn’t start the year great, giving up nearly 400 passing yards to Colorado State. The pass D did manage a mostly-good start in SEC play, holding Jarett Stidham and Kellen Mond to very pedestrian performances. Then Tua happened. Alabama averaged an astounding 1.4 EV per pass attempt. Basically every other dropback was the equivalent of a field goal drive. Alabama had the best passing team in the country (0.52 EV per attempt) and this was their best performance by a mile.

That seems to break the secondary, which mixed two good performances (Tulsa, LSU), one mediocre performance (Missouri), and two atrocious performances (Ole Miss, Vanderbilt) over the rest of the year. Looking inept on the final drive against Ole Miss was probably the low point of conference play.

Secondary

  • Key Returnees: FS Kameron Curl, CB Jarquez McClellion
  • Key Losses: CB Ryan Pulley, SS Santos Ramirez
  • Key Additions: CB Devin Bush, S Jalen Catalon, CB Gregory Brooks Jr.
  • 2018 Grade: D-
  • 2019 Projection: D+

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the addition of three four-star recruits and the continued growth of Curl and McClellion could trigger the biggest improvement of any unit on the entire team. I’m hesitant to bet on it, though, since there’s such a long way to go. The ceiling of the defense will be defined by the secondary.

There are two theories of special teams: the offensive theory and the defensive theory. The defensive theory is probably the most prevalent; it says that special teams is a liability, a disaster waiting to happen, and the best strategy for special teams is to work to minimize mistakes. This means emphasizing coverage while having returners just try and get fair catches and touchbacks.

This was Bret Bielema’s philosophy, and it carried over to the 2018 team. The Hogs have been very good at kickoff coverage for several years now. The kickoff team seems to intentionally kick the ball high and short of a touchback, and the return team runs down the field to try and tackle the guy short of the 25-yard line. Punt coverage generally tries to do the same, but has been more up-and-down over the last few years.

The offensive theory was employed by Bobby Petrino; it says that special teams are a great opportunity to showcase great athletes and overcome any disadvantages that you have on offense or defense. Petrino’s teams were explosive on special teams: in 2011, the Hogs led the country in non-offensive touchdowns, with Joe Adams recording four punt return touchdowns and two different kickoff returns (Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade) housing a kickoff. The 2010 team rather infamously blocked a punt during the Sugar Bowl*.

*I must inform you that Ohio State has vacated the Sugar Bowl so whatever you think you saw after the blocked punt did not, in fact, happen.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the offensive theory is the way to go for Arkansas. The Hogs have serious disadvantages on both sides of the ball, but getting one Joe Adams or one Dennis Johnson could really help the Hogs narrow the gap. Building a dominant special teams unit is much easier than building a dominant offense or defense. Obviously, you have to get the talent, but creating the mentality is step one, and I just didn’t see that during the Bielema era. Another drawback of the defensive theory, in addition to the lost opportunity to create big plays, is the fact that you can work on being great at preventing big special teams plays over and over and then, BOOM, Christian Kirk takes a kickoff back for a touchdown to give Texas A&M a win and suddenly you wonder why you even bothered. Special teams over the last few years has suffered from the same problem as the defense: it’s situationally bad. As long as you’re going to give up plays like that, you might as well try to create a few yourself.

Special Teams

  • Key Returnees: K Connor Limpert, KR De’Vion Warren, P Reid Bauer
  • Key Losses: None
  • Key Additions: P Sam Loy
  • 2018 Grade: C-
  • 2019 Projection: B-

I would have bumped special teams up to a C if Warren could have stayed healthy all year. His 14 returns averaged 28.5 yards (4th in the FBS) and the Hogs started around the 30 when he returned the kickoff.

Limpert was also fantastic. He hit a 54-yard field goal and was one of just two FBS kickers to make a field goal in his team’s first 11 games. His 24 attempts weren’t easy, either: at 35.8 yards, his average attempt was the 13th-longest in the Power 5.

So Arkansas has a solid placekicker, kickoff coverage unit, and kickoff returner. That’s a good place to be. Punting is the key issue. All of actual punting, punt coverage, and punt returns were bad in 2018. Sophomore Reid Bauer replaced Blake Johnson during last season. Johnson was the worst punter in the country among punters to start multiple games. He ranked lower than at least six quarterbacks who pooch-punted. Bauer was not significantly better, ranking 98th in the FBS with a 38.9 average yards per punt. Averaging 40 yards per boot should be a requirement in the Power 5. Maybe he’ll get better; if not, former Vanderbilt punter Sam Loy will take his job.

I expect punting to get back closer to the FBS average, while kickoff returns, coverage, and placekicking remain above average at least. I’m holding overall expectations to B- because I’m still not sure about punt returns and punt coverage, but I can see potential for a big year.