Like it or not, navigating the transfer portal has become a part of the job description for college head coaches. For the most part, Arkansas football has been among the nation’s best in that regard under Sam Pittman, but he has his work cut out for him if he wants to reverse the catastrophic course his defense set sail on last year.
On the heels of guiding the Razorbacks to their first winning season since 2016 and a preseason AP top-20 ranking, Pittman experienced some growing pains in 2022 — and much that can be attributed to fielding an injury-plagued secondary that gave the Razorbacks the single worst pass defense in the country.
Though there’s no denying the monumental letdown from a team standpoint, Arkansas football newcomers Latavious Brini, Jordan Domineck, Terry Hampton, Dwight McGlothern and Drew Sanders proved to be bright spots in a disappointing season.
Though morale plummeted as Arkansas narrowly avoided a 25-point second-half collapse against Kansas in the Liberty Bowl, the success of the above names provide hope and some reassurance that the staff may be on to something.
While they’re set to lose a fair share of talent in their own right and will be without defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the Razorback staff is off to a hot start on the defensive side of the ball, landing Baylor defensive backs Lorando Johnson and Alfahiym Walcott, standout Pitt edge rusher John Morgan III and South Florida linebacker Antonio Grier Jr. — and there will be more ball-stoppers coming down the pipeline.
With a significant overhaul of the defensive staff completed, new defensive coordinators Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson have their sights set on plugging the holes left by departing starters and bringing in players to fit Williams’ more aggressive defensive system.
When evaluating these fits, a number of factors were considered, including previous ties to Arkansas and/or Pittman, remaining eligibility, visits (or plans to visit) Fayetteville, etc.
Though I did my best to thoroughly evaluate Arkansas’ options, this list isn’t necessarily comprehensive of every possibility, but rather a look at what should be some of the staff’s top prospects for additions.
Transfer Portal Targets at Linebacker
As with Kenny Guiton’s wide receiver room on the offensive side of the ball, Arkansas’ linebacker group will need to put on a dominant showing in the portal — a task made even more daunting with the departure of linebackers coach Michael Scherer.
Scherer was becoming somewhat of a superstar for the Hogs on the recruiting trail after hauling in a trio of highly-touted three-stars (Carson Dean, Alex Sanford and Brad Spence) in 2023, but an offer to join Barry Odom’s staff as the defensive coordinator was too good to pass up.
In their absence, new defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Travis Williams hopes to solidify an Arkansas unit that ranked 124th nationally in total defense last season — something he’ll have to accomplish without Butkus Award finalist Drew Sanders and longtime anchor Bumper Pool.
Though it’s set to be the first time since 2013 that the Hogs won’t return a 70-plus tackle linebacker, Williams won’t be inheriting an empty cupboard.
In addition to Chris “Pooh” Paul and Jordan Crook, both of whom flashed potential in the 2022 season, Arkansas was able to bring in transfer Antonio Grier Jr. from South Florida with the help of Williams, who he had previously committed to play for at UCF. That trio is supplemented by a deep group of Scherer’s previous recruits, but I still fully expect the Razorbacks to add a big name or two, especially given the success that Sanders achieved in his lone season with the team.
The “white whale” of this group, so to speak, would be former Georgia linebacker Trezmen Marshall, who officially entered the portal last week.
Arkansas was among the first schools to offer the top-100 prospect, but he ultimately opted to stay home to play for the Bulldogs. Though he saw plenty of meaningful action in Georgia’s run to a second straight national title, just 30 tackles in 247 snaps over his four seasons in Athens ultimately led to his decision to seek a fresh start.
While Arkansas was never really a contender for the 6-foot-1, 230-pound inside linebacker coming out of high school, the success of Drew Sanders’ brief stint on the Hill provides a blueprint for a player of Marshall’s stature to shine in the Razorbacks’ system.
The most realistic potential fit for Arkansas’ remaining linebacker spot, though, is no stranger to Fayetteville. Once a top-100 JUCO prospect nationally, Tennessee transfer Juwan Mitchell has been somewhat of a journeyman in his four years at the FBS level, with stints at Tennessee and Texas to go along with commitments to Minnesota and Rutgers.
The previous staff pushed hard for Mitchell ahead of his 2019 decision — even landing an official visit and a pair of FutureCasts despite then being committed to Minnesota. Not long afterward, he spoke glowingly about his experience in Fayetteville.
“(The) highlights were the facilities, the photo shoot, everything,” Mitchell said. “Everything was just amazing, honestly. Vibing with the players, like Dorian (Gerald), Rakeem (Boyd) and everybody. It’s just like a big family, especially when we went to (Chad Morris’) house. It was real fun.”
Though the Hogs and Gophers were both beaten out by Texas, his 99 tackles and eight tackles for loss weren’t enough to keep him in Austin. Tennessee didn’t quite see the same level of production in his two years, due in part to a season-ending shoulder injury sustained early in his senior season with the Vols, and now he’s likely forgoing a starting spot in order to find a new home for his last season of college football.
Two teams, four commitments and four years later, Mitchell returned to Fayetteville last week to get a look at how Arkansas has changed throughout his career. His Twitter — which appeared to have been created this month but has disappeared since this story was published — showcased just two photos, both of which are from his recent trip.
Transfer Portal Targets in the Secondary
Oh boy, where to even start with the Razorback DBs?
The back end of a defense that finished dead last in the country in passing yards allowed per game last season is not only replacing first-year defensive backs coach Dominique Bowman, but also saw 10 scholarship players move on for various reasons.
Of that group, just three — Simeon Blair, Khari Johnson and Myles Slusher — played more than 250 defensive snaps for the Hogs in 2022. Digging even deeper using PFF’s grading system, Slusher was the lone transferring defensive back to grade out at a 65 or higher.
In addition to Slusher’s mysterious decision to quit the team ahead of Arkansas’ season finale at Missouri, preseason All-American and defensive team captain Jalen Catalon shocked the Razorback faithful with the announcement that not only would he be leaving Fayetteville, but that he’d be joining forces with the detested Texas Longhorns.
Rounding out the blows to an already-depleted safety room, Georgia transfer Latavious Brini exhausted his final year of eligibility last season. Fortunately for the Hogs and new co-defensive coordinator Marcus Woodson, the mass exodus may be just what this secondary needed to make room for the wealth of incoming talent.
In Bowman’s sole recruiting cycle with Arkansas, he managed to grab commitments from multiple prospects with the potential to make waves within the defense as true freshmen. In addition to those six incoming freshmen, Woodson scored an early recruiting victory of his own with Baylor’s duo of battle-tested DBs in Alfahiym Walcott and Lorando Johnson to pair with the returning core of Hudson Clark, Quincey McAdoo, Dwight McGlothern, Malik Chavis and – assuming he returns as a super senior – LaDarrius Bishop.
Should everything hold pat as the first transfer portal window closes Wednesday, the secondary appears to be in significantly better shape than many would have expected, needing nothing more than a couple of safeties to bolster the depth within Woodson’s room, but what appeared to be a deep pool of talent quickly dried up as teams raced to fill the holes in their defensive backfields.
The first plausible option to fill one of those spots could very well deal a third retaliatory blow to Baylor’s secondary in addition to bringing safety Mike Harris’ young career full circle.
A consensus three-star recruit in the 2020 class, Harris committed to Chad Morris’ Razorbacks just ahead of the early signing period, but Morris’ firing shortly after ultimately led him to Waco.
Though his tenure wasn’t anything to write home about, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound safety made the most of his in-game action for the Bears in 2022 after being buried behind NFL-caliber talents for much of his three seasons. Now, seeking a change of scenery with his remaining three seasons of eligibility, a visit earlier this month appears to be a sign for a potential reunion with Johnson and Walcott in the cardinal and white.
The other current portal standout that could assist in a true transformation of this secondary is North Texas star Deshawn Gaddie, who entered the portal Monday afternoon.
The first-team All-Conference USA cornerback ended 2022 as the Mean Green’s highest-rated player on either side of the ball according to PFF (84.6). Anchoring the team with nearly 1,000 snaps played, Gaddie broke up 15 passes while limiting opponents to 33.4 yards per game on balls thrown his way.
Landing Gaddie won’t be an easy feat for the new defensive staff, though. Ole Miss has jumped out as the leader in the clubhouse after he tweeted that he was in Oxford Tuesday, but given the path that McGlothern blazed from LSU last season, it’s also hard to count out Arkansas should he refrain from making a decision in the coming days.
While these two transfer possibilities are currently the most ideal/probable options to fill the holes in the Razorback secondary, I’d also be willing to wager that the Hogs won’t finish their haul at this position until after the spring ball portal window when a fresh crop of talented DBs hit the market — something I believe rings true for this next group as well.
Need at Defensive Line for Arkansas Football?
Deke Adams’ group could easily find itself left off of the positions of need as it didn’t see quite the turnover of the aforementioned positions. In fact, the longest-tenured member of this defensive staff is set to return nearly every major contributor from 2022 after getting to the quarterback at the eighth-highest clip in the country.
Though the losses of Terry Hampton (out of eligibility), Isaiah Nichols (transferred to Purdue) and Jordan Domineck (transferred to Colorado) are notable, Adams was able to retain enough depth to be selective in his additions from the portal.
As the only defensive lineman to call the Hogs thus far, former Pitt defensive end John Morgan III certainly fits into that category. His reputation for pressuring the quarterback positions him well to slide into Domineck’s role as an edge-rusher within the defense — a role that could see some serious help from new defensive coordinator Travis Williams’ more blitz-friendly philosophy.
Morgan won’t be the only benefactor of this shift, either. Landon Jackson and Zach Williams – who could return as a super senior – tallied 3 and 4.5 sacks, respectively, in 2022, largely out of Barry Odom’s famed rush-three drop-eight system. A deeper rotation among ends paired with promising sophomore Nico Davillier, Cam Ball and a returning Taurean Carter to hold down the middle make it difficult to pinpoint a transfer that can provide a tangible impact within Adams’ group.
Currently, as with the defensive backs, Arkansas is handicapped by the fact that there’s just not the same wealth of plug-and-play defensive tackle prospects as some other positions. I do expect the Hogs to add at least one interior defensive lineman to pair with Ball and Carter, as well as potentially sliding Eric Gregory back over to the interior – but with the talent already on roster, I can’t see them rushing into anything before the post-spring transfer window, plus they may end up adding depth pieces who aren’t expected to contribute immediately.
More coverage of Arkansas football and the transfer portal from BoAS…