FAYETTEVILLE — One of the top goals for Arkansas football during fall camp was to find a pass rusher along the defensive line.
After nine straight seasons ranking in the bottom half of the SEC in sacks, the Razorbacks have been open about their desire to get after the quarterback more in 2022, so they almost have to figure that out.
Even though head coach Sam Pittman said pressuring the quarterback didn’t necessarily have come from on the edge, most of the top pass-rushing linemen play defensive end — a position at which no player has produced more than six sacks for the Razorbacks since Deatrich Wise Jr. had eight in 2015.
The last time any Arkansas player finished with double-digit sacks was a decade ago, when Jake Bequette notched 10 as a senior in 2011 — the second-longest drought in the conference behind only Vanderbilt.
To hopefully remedy that, defensive coordinator Barry Odom installed quite a few blitzes during spring ball and he sounds encouraged by how well the defense carried it over into fall camp.
“I think we’ve got a core group that really understands when we call a pressure, if there is a weakness, where it is, is the ball coming out quick…they’ve got an understanding for it,” Odom said. “They’re a group that looks like they’re veterans and they’ve been in the system and it’s fun because we’ve been able to keep throwing things on them.”
Expect More Blitzes from Razorbacks
Of course, that includes guys like nickel Myles Slusher and safety Jalen Catalon blitzing from the secondary and linebacker Drew Sanders blitzing as an edge-rusher in certain packages.
To aid their blitzing efforts from the defensive end position, the Razorbacks used the same strategy that benefited them last year and signed a pair of transfers from the portal. They brought in Landon Jackson from LSU and Jordan Domineck from Georgia Tech.
Neither of them participated in spring ball, so this camp has provided the coaching staff their first look at the new pieces and they’ve liked what they’ve seen of late.
“Until you know what you’re doing, you can’t really see a guy’s athletic ability because he’s always thinking all the time, and that slows him down,” Pittman said. “I think both of them are getting comfortable with the (system).”
Arkansas has returning players at defensive end, as well, and unlike last season — when the likes of Tre Williams and Markell Utsey from Missouri unseated them in the starting lineup by this point — Zach Williams and Jashaud Stewart have held off the newcomers so far.
Having their coaches bring in transfers at their position in back-to-back years has provided motivation that may be fueling strong preseason performances.
“Honestly, I guess I kind of thought about that, but I never really let it affect me because I knew if there’s three new people always coming in each year, it would break down on your psyche, like,’What am I doing wrong?’” Williams said. “I just say, ‘Welcome to the team. We’re gonna push each other. Iron sharpens iron.’”
How Arkansas’ Defensive Line Morphs Game by Game
It’s also worth noting that Arkansas’ defensive line looks very different depending on what formation they are in. Much like Utsey last season, the Razorbacks have a pair of defensive linemen — redshirt junior Eric Gregory and freshman Nico Davillier — who would play defensive end in a 3-man front, but are defensive tackles in a 4-man front.
Arkansas used a lot of 3-man fronts last season, but that was partly out of necessity. Throughout camp, the Razorbacks have primarily been in 4-man fronts during portions of practice open to the media.
“We’re a multiple defense and Coach [Barry] Odom does a phenomenal job with our guys and all that,” defensive line coach Deke Adams said. “I think it’s going to come down to what fits us best in certain situations, so you’ll see us in four-down some, you’ll see us in three-down some.”
For the purpose of this piece, Best of Arkansas Sports will assume a 4-man front and leave Gregory and Davillier with the defensive tackles.
That leaves a group of about six defensive ends who have seen most of the snaps in team periods seen by the media. The Razorbacks might not have to use all of them if everyone stays healthy, though, because Adams said he’d like his ends to top out around 50 snaps per game in addition to their special teams duties.
“I think we’re going to be fine outside,” Adams said. “Some of them are still young and some of them might have been here a couple years, but they haven’t played a whole lot, so in my eyes, they’re still young. But I think we’re going to be fine and it’s just going to be a process.”
Here’s how we see the pecking order at defensive end in 2022…
1. Jashaud Stewart
This may be a bit of a surprising pick, but no player has received more praise on the defensive line throughout camp than Jashaud Stewart.
Even his counterparts in the room have singled Stewart out as having an impressive few weeks of practice, as he asserted himself as a starter.
“He puts all his physical effort into every single play,” fellow defensive end Zach Williams said. “Everybody knows he’s not the biggest one and not the strongest one, but when it comes to heart, I’d say he has the biggest heart out of all of us. He’ll just put everything on the line play by play. Some people, we get a little bit off track, but Jashaud is laser-focused.”
Defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols mentioned Stewart has probably made the biggest strides on the defensive line this offseason after tallying 7 total tackles in 2021. Gregory, meanwhile, said he’s been in awe of his effort and energy — which he maintains even when running between special teams units.
On the other side of the ball, right tackle Dalton Wagner has often been matched up against the 6-2, 243-pound Stewart and came away with praise for the junior.
“He is a motor guy,” Wagner said. “He’s so fast, he’s so strong, he’s talented and he just never gets tired. It’s so much fun to go against because it forces me to do things that are out of the normal for an offensive lineman. You’ve got a little play clock in your head of 7 seconds and he’s still going, you better keep going, too.”
Those are all characteristics that are hard to teach. Where the Jonesboro product has probably improved the most is in an area that can be coached up.
“When I first got here in the spring, he was very raw, but one thing you couldn’t deny about him, he played very hard,” defensive line coach Deke Adams said. “He ran to the football, did a lot of great things in that aspect, but then as he started to learn the system, learned what we were doing and got better fundamentally, then he started to become this dude that I didn’t think he was going to be right away.”
2. Zach Williams
Despite not starting a single game last season, Zach Williams finished third on the team with 3.5 sacks, with one against Texas, UAPB and Alabama and half of a sack against Rice.
Those flashes of talent have happened a few times over the last three years, but he’s struggled to crack the starting lineup. That could be on the verge of happening now that he’s a senior.
It helps that he’s gained weight, as he’s sitting around 255 pounds, but he’d like to add another 5-10 pounds. The challenge, though, is keeping the extra weight on. That’s been an issue for him in the past, but he’s confident it won’t be this year.
“I feel like it is (my year),” Williams said. “I have a lot of experience, I’ve become one with my body, like with my weight and stuff like that. I feel like there’s no reason I shouldn’t have a breakout this year.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has played more than 700 defensive snaps since arriving on campus in the heralded 2019 class. That makes the Little Rock native one of the veterans of the group, which translates to the field.
“He’s smooth in a lot of things that he does,” Adams said. “He’s in and out. You see him in a bad position, but all the sudden in the snap of a finger he’s worked himself back to where he needs to be.”
Perhaps the added weight is a reason, but Williams has also taken it up a notch from a physicality standpoint since Deke Adams was hired in January.
“One of the things I challenged him about earlier in the spring is becoming more physical, and he’s definitely taken that to heart,” Adams said. “He’s being more physical. He’s playing harder.”
3. Jordan Domineck
One thing head coach Sam Pittman likes to do during team meetings is show clips from practice in front of the whole team to show examples of both good and bad effort.
As a summer enrollee, Jordan Domineck made an appearance in that film session within just a day or two of beginning practice — and not for good reasons.
“I actually put it up in front of the team and said, ‘Since 1902, this is the worst D-line rep I’ve ever seen,’” Pittman said. “I told them I went back in the archives to 1902 of every high school, every college… I was mad. But he got the hint and, man, he came on.”
Not long after being called out in front of his new teammates, Domineck managed to make the team film session twice in three days for good effort, so it’s safe to say the message got through to the Georgia Tech transfer.
“They were rough — I guess rough would be an understatement,” Adams said. “But I tell you, man, he’s really come along. Personally, I just don’t think he understood our standard and what we’re looking for, but he does now.”
Pittman made a point to single him out for his solid play following the Razorbacks’ second scrimmage over the weekend. What has stood out about him is his speed off the edge.
“He was just trying to adjust and get his feet wet, but once those first two practices hit, he took full strides,” teammate Jalen Catalon said. “You can tell that he’s a good player — not just in a scheme standpoint, but off his ability to rush the quarterback and chase him down as well. He’s surprised us with how fast he is on the D-line.”
During his time with the Yellow Jackets, Domineck racked up nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss. He did so as a 235-pound defensive end, but now he’s sitting around 245-250. Adams said he’d like for Domineck to get in the 255-260 range, which he expects him to do now that camp is over, but similar to Williams, the challenge will be to keep his weight up.
If he can keep his weight up, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Domineck continue his ascent of the depth chart, as he spent the first week or so of camp with the third-team defense before getting promoted to the second unit.
4. Landon Jackson
Another transfer defensive end who could push for a spot in the starting lineup this season, Jackson was heavily recruited by the Razorbacks in high school before ultimately signing with LSU. He saw the field as a true freshman with the Tigers on special teams, but went down with a torn ACL after just five games.
Given another opportunity to land Jackson, this time out of the transfer portal, Arkansas did just that and brought him in as a mid-year enrollee. Although he did get some work in individual drills late in the spring, he missed most of the practices as he recovered from his injury. Fall camp finally gave Adams a chance to see him in action.
“I watched him progress coming back off his injury and I saw him a lot this summer, move around and do a lot great things with movements, so I know he can move,” Adams said. “My only question was how physical will he play and he’s answered that question already. Now it’s just getting him back into football shape and getting him back football ready.”
Jackson’s progress was also on display in the Razorbacks’ second preseason scrimmage, as Pittman said he was around the quarterback all day.
That is likely the result of his ability to create separation coming off the edge, as right tackle Dalton Wagner said he has a nice combination of speed and power in a 6-foot-7, 275-pound frame.
“He’s a long, long guy,” Wagner said. “He’s got a lot of power out there. I think as he progresses more, as he develops his speed to bend and really press that edge, he’s going to be an excellent pass rusher.”
5. Dorian Gerald
During the same film session in which he called out Domineck for poor effort, Pittman jumped at an opportunity to joke about Dorian Gerald’s age, saying he actually found footage of the rare seventh-year senior on the 1902 team.
The pandemic and a series of unfortunate injuries have led to him still playing college football for the Razorbacks in 2022 and, if nothing else, he could provide veteran leadership in the defensive line room.
“Obviously he went through a rough patch last year with his injury and some personal issues off the field with his family,” Adams said. “It’s been hard, but I tell you what, I love the kid. He does a great job. I think the maturity factor in the room and then situational things of what he can do for us will be really good.”
Exactly how much the Razorbacks should count on getting from him on the field remains a mystery, but he did flash in the second scrimmage after notching multiple sacks in the first one, according to Pittman.
“His biggest problem to me his first 5-8 days was him up here, wondering, ‘I’ve been injured so much. Am I going to stay healthy?’” Pittman said. “If you don’t ever chase the ball and stand there and all that, you’ll probably stay healthy, but you’ll be really healthy on the sidelines. He finally figured out he’s got to go and he did.”
Injuries have derailed his last three seasons with the Razorbacks, including two during the season opener in 2019 and 2020. He made it through the Rice game healthy last year, but then broke his leg during practice leading up to the Week 2 matchup against Texas.
It was believed to be a career-ending injury because he was already a super senior, but he received another medical redshirt and — after a brief stint in the portal — announced he’d return to Arkansas.
Even if it’s just in short spurts, Gerald could be a nice rotational piece for the Razorbacks.
“He’s firing off the ball on all cylinders, again,” teammate Dalton Wagner said. “I saw him do a get-off the other day and I was just like, ‘Yep, he’s back.’ … I think he’s a little lighter than what he was, but that’s allowed him a lot more ability to be able to bend and move around that edge, and I think it’s really showing up on his tape.”
6. Eric Thomas Jr.
After a strong spring ball in which he was praised for the improvements he made, Eric Thomas Jr. opened fall camp as a second-team defensive end, but got bumped down to the third unit to make room for Domineck’s promotion.
He was part of Pittman’s first signing class in 2020 and actually got a look at tight end before his freshman year before sticking at defensive end.
Although he hasn’t really played much on defense, Thomas has yet to redshirt because he’s had a role on special teams. In fact, he’s played way more on special teams (145 snaps) than defense (53 snaps), according to Pro Football Focus.
Barring injury, there’s a strong likelihood that his role stays pretty much the same in 2022, but he could get a few more defensive snaps.
Arkansas Football: 2022 Defensive End Overview
Starters and/or Main Rotation
1. Jashaud Stewart — junior
2. Zach Williams — senior
3. Jordan Domineck — redshirt senior
4. Landon Jackson — sophomore
Fighting for Playing Time
5. Dorian Gerald — super senior (seventh year)
6. Eric Thomas Jr. — junior
Not Expected to Contribute Much
~JJ Hollingsworth — freshman
~Jon Hill — redshirt freshman (walk-on)
See More: Ranking the Room Series
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