It’s been very well noted that the Razorbacks have struggled along the defensive line in recent seasons. With McTelvin Agim and TJ Smith exhausting their eligibility it is now time to find some new blood to start and fill out the depth chart. With 17 days left until the season opener against the Georgia Bulldogs there is still plenty of time to find your starters and role players.
Arkansas received a late night present back in February that Clemson graduate transfer defensive tackle, Xavier Kelly would commit to Arkansas and play his final year of eligibility for the Razorbacks. Kelly was a big time signee in the 2016 class. He was a top 100 prospect and top 10 defensive tackle in his class out of Wichita, Kansas. Kelly played in 29 games in his three seasons under Dabo Swinney’s Tigers. He recorded 2.5 sacks and played mostly in a reserve role and special teams on a loaded Clemson Tigers’ defensive line.
Kelly has a chance to really help improve the Razorback defense as they finished last in the SEC in rushing defense at 221.50 yards per game, last in tackles for loss per game at 5.08 and 12th in the conference with 1.75 sacks per game.
Kelly met with the media after Tuesday’s practice and was able to share how things were going since joining the team this summer, how the culture has changed at Arkansas and who he thinks could provide quality depth on the interior position of the defensive line.
“Everything is going great here,” said Kelly. “We have a lot of great characters on the team.”
There is no doubt that Arkansas has plenty of goofball’s in the locker room. Like Trey Knox who infamously sang “Friends In Low Places” during the Ladies Football Clinic last summer. How about watching any of Rakeem Boyd’s Instagram live stories or Treylon Burks who is a laid back, good old boy off the field.
The culture is what most fans are worried about heading into the 2020 football season. When adversity hits how will his teammates react? He went into detail here:
“We have a lot of great guys that work hard,” said Kelly. “Coming to practices and workouts everyday we have a lot of guys that want it. A staff that wants it as well. We are getting better each day. One step at a time.”
How do you change a culture of a program? You look for difference makers. So much of what you do off the field sets the tone for what you can do on it. Getting to class on time, being great time managers, taking in coaching, being a team player and doing all the little things right. “Everyone plays a small role,” said Kelly. “When everyone comes together we become one unit.”
Becoming one, as a whole will pay dividends. That probably will add up to winning more ball games as well. This will be an important factor as we approach football season and if the Razorbacks will compete during their SEC only campaign.
A saying that has come in the Razorback program during the last half decade is “Why NOT Arkansas?” And that is not just a question but a statement that was included in today’s meeting with Kelly. He went on to say, “I got to watch film with Coach (Derrick) Leblanc. He’s a smart guy, very knowledgeable about the game. That’s when I knew who I wanted to play for,” said Kelly “Just the way he coaches he is very technically sound. I got to meet the guys on my official visit and got a good vibe.”
When things went south, Arkansas never seemed to have the upperclassmen leadership needed to keep the ship sailing. This year, it seems they have found one at the anchor of the defensive line with Kelly. Every snap, every tackle, every stop will be crucial during every game for Arkansas fans to see a change in the culture of this program. A couple of friends of mine of the Preston family in south Arkansas came up with a saying by their late father. “Don’t quit.” That is a mindset that Kelly wants to bring to the Hogs this coming season.
“Leading by example. Just doing the right things when no one is watching,” said Kelly. “Right is right even if no one is doing it. My approach is controlling what I can control and lead by example.”
The way to find those leaders is looking inside the heart of the locker room and finding who those guys are. Who has the instincts of when there back is against the wall? Arkansas has seemed to find that vocal leader and that is why head coach Sam Pittman made mention of Kelly being a leader earlier during the offseason. It was that easy.
Kelly had the opportunity to sit behind several first round NFL Draft picks during his time at Clemson and shared some of the things he learned as a Tiger. One of the first things he mentioned was extra effort. As I wrote earlier this week, Pittman was looking for effort all over the depth chart and on the field last week and during the scrimmage.
“Coming in and watching film. Doing the extra workouts. Doing extra work separates you from everyone else,” said Kelly.
Finally, he mentioned a trio of guys behind he and Jonathan Marshall that could add quality depth at defensive tackle.
“Isaiah (Nichols), he’s great! He’s getting better each day. He’s very technically sound and good with his hands,” said Kelly.
“TC (Taurean Carter) is very good. He is strong and explosive. I also think Nick (Fulwider) is strong and getting better each day,” said Kelly.
It is not like Arkansas has not had the amount of talent in order to be better on the interior defensive line. Whether it be coaching, scheme or focus something has not been right for quite sometime.
In the recent past Arkansas signed this group of defensive tackles:
Four-star Bijhon Jackson
Three-star Armon Watts
Four-star Hjalte Froholdt
Four-star Jeremiah Ledbetter
Three-star Daytrieon Dean
Four-star Austin Capps
Four-star Briston Guidry
Three-star Billy Ferrell
Three-star Taurean Carter
Three-star Enoch Jackson
Three-star Marcus Miller
Four-star Xavier Kelly
Plenty of quality highly rated players but not enough production. That will hopefully change under this very experienced Razorback defensive staff.