FAYETTEVILLE — Alfahiym Walcott and Lorando Johnson seemed like a package deal when they joined the Arkansas football program this offseason.
After all, they played in the secondary together at Baylor and their visits — and subsequent commitments — were within days of each other in January.
However, that wasn’t the case. The tandem traversed the transfer portal by themselves, according to Johnson, and co-defensive coordinator Marcus Woodson managed to reel them in separately.
“Once we got in the portal, we didn’t really talk until…when I took my visit to Arkansas,” Johnson said. “He called me just to tell me he was coming, but it really wasn’t just like trying to play and get together. I guess Coach Woodson knows what he’s doing.”
Walcott and Johnson were two of the Razorbacks’ biggest pickups of the offseason and are now primed to be two of their five starters in a revamped unit that desperately needed an influx of talent.
Last season, Arkansas allowed a school-record 294.7 passing yards per game — a figure that also ranked dead last out of 131 FBS teams.
Woodson knows a thing or two about taking over a struggling pass defense. When he was hired at Florida State, he inherited a unit that ranked 119th. By his fourth season, the Seminoles ranked fourth nationally in that category.
“I never look back to last year,” Woodson said. “You obviously want to have an idea of what you’re inheriting, if you will, but at the end of the day, it’s about today and moving forward, not yesterday.”
That said, the coaches did look back at last year to determine what they needed to fix the position. The next step was finding players with the physical attributes to be successful in the SEC.
Once they did that, it was time to research them from a character standpoint to figure out if they’d be the right fit.
“There were some other high-level players that can come in that wasn’t the right fit,” Woodson said. “We made sure that we stuck true to who we are — the guys that can come in and be the right fit for the players that we already had and that really could come in and obviously impact us on defense.
In addition to the Baylor duo, Arkansas landed cornerbacks Jaheim Singletary and Kee’yon Stewart from last year’s national championship game participants, Georgia and TCU, respectively. (It also brought in safety AJ Brathwaite Jr. from Western Kentucky, but he left the team less than a week into fall camp.)
Six incoming freshmen have also helped transform the secondary, but the transfer portal could have yielded four of its five starters — with the fifth being a former walk-on.
Here’s a breakdown of where things stand with the season about two weeks away…
Arkansas’ 2023 Cornerbacks
The star of Arkansas’ secondary is Dwight McGlothern, who is entering his second season in Fayetteville after transferring in from LSU.
Getting a second season from the man known as “Nudie” was a big offseason win for the Razorbacks, as there was some thought that he might declare for the NFL Draft. In fact, he even considered it.
“I wanted to go, but I just knew that the second half of the season I left so much on the table,” McGlothern said. “And I didn’t realize until I was done. Now that I have another chance, I want to make sure I do everything right.”
A true shutdown corner, McGlothern came down with four interceptions and had another 10 pass breakups. He was the second-highest graded player on the defense last year, according to Pro Football Focus, with his 77.2 grade coming in just behind Drew Sanders (79.2).
“I tell the guys all the time, he’s just a smart guy,” wide receivers coach Kenny Guiton said. “He sees a certain split, and he’s like, ‘Okay, these are the two or three routes you can run from that split.’ He sees you looking inside, looking around, and it’s, ‘Alert motion. Alert motion.’ I’m like, ‘Nudie, how did you know that was coming?’ But he’s just one of those kind of guys that understands the game. He’s very instinctive.”
Once he chose to return to school, the top priority became finding someone capable of playing opposite him at the other cornerback spot.
That competition is ongoing, but Georgia transfer Jaheim Singletary seems to have the edge at this moment. He was a five-star recruit, but played only 17 total snaps as a true freshman for the Bulldogs.
Despite that lack of game experience, Marcus Woodson said Singletary is a very smart player who has retained much of what he learned from Georgia’s coaches alongside what he’s been picking up in Fayetteville.
“He’s someone that came in and really adapted to the guys as if he had been here the whole time,” Woodson said. “Again, he’s super talented, but the most important thing is his love for the sport. He loves football. If you love football and you’ve got talent, success is going to happen for you. … Again, we needed a corner to come in and challenge the other guys to be better, and he’s done that.”
LaDarrius Bishop is back from a torn ACL suffered last year and has starting experience, but he’s hardly been mentioned during fall camp. Instead, the coaches have identified a pair of newcomers as the other half of Arkansas’ top four cornerbacks.
One of them is a veteran, as Kee’yon Stewart played more than 800 defensive snaps over the last four years at TCU. He showed promise as a true freshman, starting six games, but has mostly been a backup since then.
“I’m still pushing him to strain more,” Woodson said. “That’s the thing — he’s got to practice more like the standard here at Arkansas. And it’s getting better, but he’s still got some improvement to do.”
The other is true freshman Jaylon Braxton. A four-star recruit, Woodson said he really benefited from enrolling early and going through spring ball.
“To be a freshman competing with the 2s and getting limited reps with the 1s, that’s a good spot to be in,” Woodson said. “I still don’t know what he’s going to be like when the stadium gets packed. … I look forward to seeing how he responds Sept. 2 when we put him out there in Little Rock.”
Braxton was a highly coveted prospect coming out of high school, but his recruiting accolades aren’t what has impressed his teammates the last several months.
“I like his work ethic,” fellow defensive back Lorando Johnson said. “Every day he’s ready to work. No matter if something bad happens at practice, he’s going to keep getting better regardless.”
Arkansas’ 2023 Safeties
Alfahiym Walcott has managed to emerge as a leader on the back end of the defense despite an injury that prevented him from going through spring ball.
“It’s hard to be a transfer kid and come in and earn the respect of the team the way he has,” Sam Pittman said. “He’s got a special personality. He’ll rock you now and he showed it today.”
That’s great news for the Razorbacks, who must replace a pair of team captains at safety — Jalen Catalon transferred to Texas and Simeon Blair transferred to Memphis.
Walcott brings solid credentials to Fayetteville, as well. He earned second-team All-Big 12 honors after racking up 82 tackles, including 10 for loss, last season at Baylor.
“He’s a great player (who has) played a lot of good football,” Woodson said. “It’s important to him. Again, he shows up with a coach’s mindset, takes good notes in meetings, is very detailed with the meetings and how he goes about things.”
The other projected starting safety is the only projected starter who began his career with Arkansas football, Hudson Clark – albeit as a walk-on. He burst onto the scene with three interceptions against Ole Miss in 2020, which earned him a scholarship.
It’s been up-and-down since then. Last year, Clark actually moved from cornerback to safety. From a skill standpoint, it seemed to make a lot of sense, but he struggled to come down and make tackles in the hole. That made this a critical offseason for him and he responded by putting on 12 pounds of muscle.
“Hudson is playing stronger,” defensive backs coach Deron Wilson said. “He has gained weight and corrected some technique errors within tackling. He has gotten better with angles to the ball. We always talk about near foot and near shoulder. He has gotten a lot better with that.”
A pair of veterans are getting the majority of the backup reps in fall camp. Malik Chavis and Jayden Johnson have spent much of their careers bouncing between positions, with Chavis at cornerback and Johnson at nickel. Now, they focus solely on safety.
However, four-star recruit TJ Metcalf is a freshman pushing for a spot in the two-deep, as well.
“If you walked on the field you wouldn’t even know he’s a freshman with how he communicates, how he talks,” Wilson said. “He’s impressive.”
Finding a “Hog”
Back in the spring, Alfahiym Walcott was discussed as a possible starter at nickel – which is called the “Hog” in Arkansas’ defense – but it turns out the other Baylor transfer has made that switch.
Co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Marcus Woodson described Lorando Johnson, who goes by the nickname Snaxx, as “very versatile,” which has been seen in his move from cornerback to nickel.
“It’s been a smooth transition for him,” Woodson said. “He’s another high football IQ guy, so it wasn’t hard for him to be able to slide inside and pick up like he had been there already. It’s been a great move.”
Johnson likely would have been the starter regardless, but the departure of Western Kentucky transfer AJ Brathwaite Jr. created a void behind him.
It seems like Jaylen Lewis has filled it nicely. The redshirt freshman has made several nice plays in the portions of practice open to the media and has likely locked down the backup job.
“He still has some things to improve at just like we all do, but Jaylen is someone who is going to help this team in a big way,” Woodson said. “Still got some things to clean up on in terms of communication and execution, but he’s working everyday to get to that point.”
Projected Two-Deep Depth Chart
|CB||Dwight McGlothern||Jaylon Braxton|
|CB||Jaheim Singletary||Kee’yon Stewart|
|NB||Lorando Johnson||Jaylen Lewis|
|S||Alfahiym Walcott||Jayden Johnson|
|S||Hudson Clark||Malik Chavis|
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