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Advanced Stats Season Preview, Part 4: The Defense

Arkansas’ defense fell apart in 2019, but new DC Barry Odom is bringing a new look

Missouri v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Welcome back to our season preview. Check out Parts One and Two, covering trends of the last decade, and Part Three, covering the offense.

Now we come to the defense. Arkansas’ defense was, to put it mildly, horrendous in 2019. The 2008, 2013, 2016, and 2017 defenses all have a claim on the title of “worst defense in Arkansas history” and the 2019 defense blew them all out of the water in terms of stink.

(Confused by any of these stats? Check out the Advanced Stats Glossary.)

The Hogs were 106th in Defensive PAN per game, worst in the SEC and second-worst in the entire Power Five, barely edging out Rutgers.

As you can see from the graph, the Hogs have only had four bowl-level defenses since 2006 and none since 2014. A significant turnaround will take years, but the Hogs need to be more competitive immediately if they want to avoid going 0-10.

The 2019 defense was merely bad against the run and historically awful against the pass. It gets worse, as the Hogs are losing their best playmaker at all three levels of the D. The good news is that they are also losing John Chavis, and new defensive Barry Odom has had a number of good defenses in recent years at both Memphis and Missouri.

Depth and playmakers are limited in the defensive front, so perhaps it’s a good thing that Odom is switching to a base 3-2-6 defense. It’s about time. Saying you’re a 4-3 base is useless when you never get to play base against spread offenses. The 3-2-6 with three high safeties has been all the rage in college football recently. I diagrammed the well-known “Broken Stack” look after the Hogs showed it as a third-down look against Portland State last year. Now similar looks will be Arkansas’ base. To pull it off, the Hogs will have to have a ton of depth in the secondary, which they seem to have. Lots of team speed is needed, and it’s not yet clear if the Hogs have that.

The Run Defense

Overall run defense was bad, but the biggest problem was that good runs turned into great runs far too often. Safeties Joe Foucha and Myles Mason were supposed to be run support specialists, but they consistently took bad angles and missed open-field tackles. Linebackers De’Jon Harris and Bumper Pool were better, but they weren’t quick enough against runs to the edge. The Hogs just had way too much give and was not very disruptive at all.

The defensive line, to its credit, did not have a similar problem. Led by Sosa Agim, the front was very disruptive, ranking in the top 25 in short yardage defense and stuff rate. It was also decent at pressuring the quarterback.

Arkansas Defensive Line

Position Name 2020 Year 247 Rank Tackles TFL Sacks Interceptions PBUs
Position Name 2020 Year 247 Rank Tackles TFL Sacks Interceptions PBUs
DT Sosa Agim .987 (*****) 39 8.5 5 0 0
DE Gabe Richardson .788 (**) 33 5.5 2.5 0 1
DT TJ Smith UNR 20 4 2.5 0 0
DE MATAIO SOLI SO .897 (****) 19 1.5 0 0 0
DT ISAIAH NICHOLS SO .860 (***) 17 1 0.5 0 0
DE Jamario Bell .914 (****) 17 5.5 4.5 0 0
DT JONATHAN MARSHALL SR .860 (***) 17 4.5 0.5 0 0
DE Collin Clay .898 (****) 17 0.5 0 0 0
DE ZACH WILLIAMS SO .889 (***) 12 0 0 0 0
DE DORIAN GERALD SR .884 (***) 1 0 0 0 0
DT XAVIER KELLY (Clemson) SR .954 (****) 6 0.5 0.5 0 0
DE ANDY BOYKIN FR .876 (***)
DE ERIC THOMAS FR .850 (***)

In losing Agim, Gabe Richardson, TJ Smith, Jamario Bell, and Collin Clay, the Hogs are losing 75% of their TFLs and 90% of their sacks in 2019. Ugh.

There’s still some good young players here, starting with end Mataio Soli . The former four-star recruit and son of 90s Razorback great Junior Soli started 11 games last season and while he took some lumps, he showed a lot of potential. The downside for him is that he’s a weakside defensive end, a position that exists in a 4-3 but not in the 3-man front the Hogs are moving to. So I’m not sure exactly where he fits in.

Isaiah Nichols and Jonathan Marshall played extensively last year. They’re probably competing for one spot in a 3-2-6 look. Clemson grad transfer Xavier Kelly is also part of the competition. And don’t forget about Dorian Gerald, a likely 2019 starter who missed the year with an injury but is back now. All four of those guys are likely the leaders for two starting spots, but it’s hard to say who will end up where. Given the amount of rotation here, finding “starters” is less important than finding multiple contributors at each position.

Defensive Line Grades

  • 2019 Grade: C+
  • 2020 Projection: C
  • Strengths: The depth is there to be competitive for full games.
  • Weaknesses: There are no proven disruptors on this unit

Arkansas Linebackers

Position Name 2020 Year 247 Rank Tackles TFL Sacks Interceptions PBUs
Position Name 2020 Year 247 Rank Tackles TFL Sacks Interceptions PBUs
MLB De'Jon Harris .855 (***) 101 6.5 1 0 2
WLB BUMPER POOL JR .895 (****) 94 6.5 0.5 0 5
SLB HAYDEN HENRY SR .796 (**) 31 2.5 1 0 2
SLB D'Vone McClure UNR 11 0.5 0 0 1
WLB DEON EDWARDS SR .849 (***) 5 2 0 0 0
LB ZACH ZIMOS R-FR .876 (***) 0 0 0 0 0
MLB LEVI DRAPER (Oklahoma) JR .945 (****) 3 0 0 0 0
LB JT TOWERS FR .832 (***)

It’s a similar story at linebacker. The most productive player is gone, and while the depth is there to fill two starting spots, it’s not clear whether the Hogs have any playmakers here. Pool has been up-and-down in his two seasons as a starter. He’s very smart and reads things well, but misses too many tackles for a weakside linebacker and just isn’t quite quick enough from side to side. He’s now a true veteran and the defense will be relying on his leadership to diagnose plays as everyone settles into a new scheme.

For the other spot, the “younger brothers of Bielema-era greats at different positions” club pits veterans Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry against each other for a starting spot. Both have played extensively over the last couple years, but neither has a career start. Both are smart players, but the sideline-to-sideline speed and pass coverage ability just hasn’t been there so far for them.

If the returnees don’t improve significantly, there are a lot of new faces who could steal snaps. The most likely candidate to steal a starting role is Oklahoma transfer Levi Draper, a former four-star recruit at Oklahoma who didn’t do much in two seasons in Norman. A fresh start could help him meet his potential. The new staff also signed three three-star recruits. Jashaud Stewart looks like a potential edge rusher, especially if he can get a little bigger. His pursuit skills are excellent.

My guess based on recruiting patterns, listening to coaches, and reading up on the 3-2-6 is that the Hogs will try to use extra DBs to mask deficient coverage skills of the linebackers. That will free the linebackers up to focus more on pursuing the run. We’ll see if that’s how it plays out.

Linebacker Grades

  • 2019 Grade: D-
  • 2020 Projection: D+
  • Strengths: Improved athleticism, good mix of experience and athletic newcomers
  • Weaknesses: Speed absolutely has to improve

The Pass Defense

Despite a decent pass rush, the pass defense was... oh man. Opponents weren’t able to bomb away on the Hogs (a decent year from free safety Kamren Curl had a hand in that), but they had 8-yard completions whenever they wanted to and it was missed tackle city on the back end, turning a lot of short completions into huge plays.

Improved speed will help cut down on missed tackles, and the new 3-2-6 look means the Hogs have six starting spots in the secondary to fill.

Finding some guys won’t be hard. The Hogs return every single contributor other than Curl from last year, and added several new faces.

Arkansas Secondary

Position Name 2020 Year 247 Rank Tackles TFL Sacks Interceptions PBUs
Position Name 2020 Year 247 Rank Tackles TFL Sacks Interceptions PBUs
S JOE FOUCHA JR .872 (***) 87 1 0 1 4
S Kamren Curl .861 (***) 76 4 2 2 2
CB MONTARIC BROWN JR .931 (****) 39 1 0 1 3
CB JARQUES MCCLELLION JR .849 (***) 34 0 0 1 4
S MYLES MASON JR .885 (***) 28 1 0 0 0
CB GREG BROOKS JR. SO .893 (****) 25 0 0 1 3
CB MICAHH SMITH SR .808 (***) 22 0 0 0 2
CB LADARRIUS BISHOP SO .874 (***) 22 1 0 0 1
S JALEN CATALON R-FR .900 (****) 6 0 0 0 1
CB DEVIN BUSH R-FR .906 (****) 0 0 0 0 0
CB JERRY JACOBS (Arkansas State) SR .816 (***) 21 0 0 0 2
CB MALIK CHAVIS R-FR .860 (***) 2 0 0 0 0
S MYLES SLUSHER FR .928 (****)
S NICK TURNER FR .868 (***)

The 3-2-6 defense (which will diagram IN DETAIL in a future piece, I promise) will include two cornerbacks, a nickelback, a free safety, and strong and weakside safeties.

Let’s break it down.

Corner and Nickel

The Hogs return both starters at cornerback, a position that while not great, wasn’t the main issue in the secondary last year. Hog corners could hang with outside receivers down the field (it was inside receivers that really killed the defense), though they did miss too many tackles. They also didn’t get enough interceptions: the three starters at corner and nickel each had just one interception in 2019.

Montaric Brown of Ashdown actually had a decent 2019 season and enters 2020 as the most proven member of the secondary. Jarques McClellion has started 23 games in his two-year career with mixed results. He had a rough 2018 but he was a true freshman starter at cornerback, so he gets a pass there. But his sophomore season wasn’t really any much better, and he still got picked on a lot.

If McClellion struggles, there’s a line forming behind him to steal the job. Jerry Jacobs had a great junior year for Arkansas State and is a low-risk grad transfer that Odom can throw in if McClellion struggles. LaDarrius Bishop still has improving to do in coverage, but his blazing speed can cover for what he lacks. He started the season finale against Mizzou. Rison’s Malik Chavis will be a freshman again after appearing in two games last year. And former four-star Devin Bush withdrew from the transfer portal to return to Fayetteville after Chad Morris’ firing, so he’ll be in the hunt for snaps here as well.

At nickel, Greg Brooks Jr. returns after starting every game of his freshman season at the position. Like McClellion in 2018, he took some lumps but showed that he definitely has the skillset to make it as an SEC defensive back. Senior Micahh Smith came in when Brooks needed a breather and is back to reprise that role in 2020.

Overall, all three starters return, as do their three backups, so expect big improvement here, although I’m sure what the ceiling is for this unit in 2020.


Now for the problem child. Curl was decent as a free safety, but Joe Foucha had a rough 2019 season. He was a missed tackle machine and was subpar in coverage. But he was also the best Arkansas had at the position, as Myles Mason also struggled when he came in for Foucha.

Foucha seems likely to take over the high safety look for this defense, which leaves Mason competing with redshirt freshman Jalen Catalon, a former four-star recruit, and incoming four-star recruit Myles Slusher of Broken Arrow, Sam Pittman’s first big recruit in last winter’s early signing period. Incoming freshmen Nick Turner and Jacorrei Turner are also in the mix, while some of the cornerbacks mentioned above are also working at safety.

It’s hard to tell what this group will look like in 2020 because we haven’t seen the three-safety base look yet. Will the extra defensive backs help the Hogs cover for the deficiencies that plagued them last year? We’ll see.

Secondary Grades

  • 2019 Grade: F
  • 2020 Projection: C-
  • Strengths: This may be the deepest secondary Arkansas has fielded in years, and athleticism is everywhere
  • Weaknesses: This was the worst-tackling unit I’ve ever seen last year. How much of it was coaching, and how much of it was lack of skill?

Up Next

Part Five will take a look at the Razorback special teams.