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2021 Spring Football Preview: Defensive Line

Taking a look at Barry Odom’s defense heading into 2021

Alabama v Arkansas Getty Images

With the Alabama Crimson Tide winning the College Football Playoff at the beginning of January, we bid farewell and goodbye to the weirdest college football season in history. And while many might be taking a break from the gridiron after the Super Bowl on Sunday, there are still plenty of questions heading into Spring Football for second-year Head Coach Sam Pittman and his Razorback football team.

Recapping a Weird Year

2020 brought plenty of challenges for Sam Pittman. After being introduced as the Razorbacks 34th head football coach on December 8, 2019, he had eleven days to obtain a recruiting class up from 118th in the nation. He did that in phenomenal fashion, finishing at 30th nationally.

Directly following a strong recruiting push, Coach Pittman had his spring practice canceled due to COVID-19. With an entirely new staff and new systems to implement by both Kendal Briles and Barry Odom, things were looking bleak for a team that had won four games in two seasons. To be honest, the fact that the coaching staff was able to get as far as they did with only Zoom calls and volunteer workouts is a testament to the coaches in and of itself.

Transitions Heading Into 2021

This season, Coach Pittman finds himself looking to make a substantial jump from year one to year two on the back of a defense that, while much improved, still found itself struggling due to lack of depth. With Jonathan Marshall heading off to the NFL and Julius Coates entering the transfer portal, first-year defensive line coach Jermial Ashley will need to find a way to bring along the new guys and do it quickly. The defense did receive a boost in depth when Dorian Gerald, who has been plagued by injuries his entire time on the Hill, announced that he would be returning in 2021 for one more year:

Outside of Gerald, the Hogs boast a plethora of returning players, including guys like Eric Gregory, Mataio Soli, Isaiah Nichols, and Andy Boykin, who all should see a significant boost in playing time in 2021.

New Guys Coming In

For the 2021 recruiting class, the Razorbacks signed 3 guys who probably won’t play significant time in their freshman years and will add to the depth at a needed position in 2021.

Cameron Ball

Cameron was a signing day announcement for the Hogs in December of 2020. Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Ball called the Hogs over Georgia Tech and Arizona State. The 6’5” 300 lb. defensive tackle will join the Hogs later this year.

Jalen Williams

Jalen Williams is another guy committed to the Razorbacks on the same day that he signed and is a 3-star recruit out of Tylertown, MS. Williams called the Hogs over offers from Auburn, Baylor, and Florida State.

Solomon Wright

Wright went public with his commitment on July 17th of 2020, choosing the Hogs over Texas Tech and Iowa State. He is currently rated as a 3-star recruit, and at 6’0” and 270 lbs, has a lot of potential to turn into a strong contributor on this Razorback defense.

What I Want To See This Spring

Size

The most significant question mark that I have going into spring practice this year is size. The team as a whole looked bigger and stronger than in previous years, so I’m looking for Strength and Conditioning coach Jamil Walker to really beef the lineup. Getting to the quarterback was a substantial problem last season, as the lack of pressure let quarterbacks like Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond pick off the secondary all game.

Getting to the QB

As I mentioned previously, I want to see how these guys can get to the quarterback. The Razorback secondary was good last season, but when veterans and elite quarterbacks can sit in the pocket for upwards of four seconds, someone is going to get open. This lack of pressure led to younger guys like TJ Finley of LSU and Connor Bazelak of Mizzou having the games of their lives feasting on the Razorback defense.

For the Hogs to be competitive in 2021, the defense will have to put more pressure on the QB. 14 sacks in 10 games will not cut it. In their defense, the game against LSU saw almost every one of the defensive linemen out due to COVID. And in that game, they got to Finley once, along with six tackles for loss and four QB hurries.

Quality Depth

A big part of the problem late in the year getting to the quarterback was a lack of depth. Jonathan Marshall will absolutely be drafted in the upcoming NFL Draft, but one guy can only do so much.

Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom loves to keep teams guessing when it comes to defenses to run, but with a lack of depth on the line, he found himself sticking to a 3-down look, and playing a zone defense behind them. With two or three more quality linemen, he can throw different looks at offenses, which is sure to give the Hogs a leg up on the competition.

Where I See Us Ending Up

The biggest positive for the Razorbacks heading into March is the return of the senior starters. COVID might have been the best thing for the Sam Pittman-led team, in that the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to every college football player in 2020. This means for the Hogs that of the 22 starters this season, 20 of them are returning.

More depth on the line, in the secondary, and in the linebacker corps means that a big problem with the Razorbacks in 2020 should be the least of their worries in 2021. Look for Arkansas to make some real noise come September of this year.