FAYETTEVILLE — With five games in the books, it’s hard to ignore the struggles Arkansas football has had in its secondary this season.
There are certainly legitimate excuses, which are discussed below, but the Razorbacks have had a hard time stopping the pass during their 3-2 start to 2022. They’re giving up 289.4 yards through the air per game, which ranks 124th out of 131 FBS teams and is ahead of only Vanderbilt and Tennessee in the Power Five.
Despite opponents completing just 57.1% of their passes against Arkansas, they’re still averaging 8.6 yards per attempt, which is 123rd in the FBS. That is due to numerous big plays it has allowed. In fact, the Razorbacks have allowed 15 passes of 30-plus yards, which is more than every other team except Arkansas State (16).
Those two statistics — 289.4 passing yards/game and 8.6 yards/attempt — would be all-time worsts at Arkansas if they hold, surpassing marks set in 2012 (285.8) and 1990 (8.5). It’s an issue that fans have noticed since Week 1, when Cincinnati threw for 325 yards despite missing several open receivers downfield, and it’s not lost on head coach Sam Pittman.
“Man coverage has been a problem for us — especially if we don’t get to the quarterback, it’s been a problem for us,” Pittman said. “We just have to continue to be in position better. Certainly, the explosive plays, we have to limit them.
“We have to be comfortable with keeping them in front of us and hoping we can have a pass breakup or get a guy on the ground. Our tackling and our secondary woes have to improve.”
Arkansas followed that up by allowing 376 passing yards to South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler and 357 to Missouri State’s Jason Shelley. At that point, the Razorbacks ranked dead last in the FBS in pass defense.
They’ve improved slightly in that category in back-to-back losses to Texas A&M and Alabama, but that was because Max Johnson was not much of a passing threat for the Aggies and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young went down with an injury early for the Crimson Tide.
That is reflected on Pro Football Focus, as the analytics site gives Arkansas an abysmal 48.4 coverage grade, which is 126th nationally. That is well down from the 73.4 and 71.1 coverage grades the Razorbacks earned in Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s first two seasons. It’s even a significant drop off from the John Chavis years (62.5 in 2018 and 62.3 in 2019).
In the past, Arkansas relied on a rush-three, drop-eight scheme that Pittman has described as a double cloud coverage. It had some success against teams that sling it around the field, like Mississippi State, but struggled against teams like Georgia with a strong rushing attack.
The Razorbacks have been much more active with blitzes this season, resulting in the second-most sacks in the FBS through five weeks (21), but that has also required them to use more man coverage on the back end. Even with those aforementioned struggles, Pittman said he plans to continue using a mix of those schemes moving forward.
“I still think that we have to be multiple, but certainly we have to understand we’ve got to keep people in front of us and get them on the ground,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to get better at that, so zone coverage at times can certainly help you with that.”
Injuries in Arkansas’ Secondary
Dating back to his time as an offensive line coach, Sam Pittman has always worked a lot of players at center in preparation of a doomsday scenario where numerous players go down with injuries.
That actually unfolded one year when he was at North Carolina. By the time the Tar Heels got to their regular-season finale against rival Duke, Pittman got all the way down to his No. 4 center.
But even that is not quite like what he and the Razorbacks have experienced in the secondary this year. Preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 1. The next week, cornerback LaDarrius Bishop suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Myles Slusher, who is playing nickel this season, also went down in the opener against Cincinnati and missed three games with what was believed to be a concussion and is now dealing with a “jacked up” calf, Pittman said.
On top of those injuries, safety Latavious Brini and cornerback Dwight McGlothern have been dinged up during games and missed a handful of snaps.
“Certainly we thought we had Slusher back earlier and we thought we had Brini back earlier and those things,” Pittman said. “They’re just not getting back as fast as we thought they would. Of course with the two — DayDay (Bishop) and Cat(alon) — being season-ending injuries so early in the season has been tough. … No, I haven’t been around a position like that that is out for the year and taking that kind of length to get back.”
The slew of injuries in the secondary is reminiscent of what unfolded with Arkansas’ wide receivers in 2015, when three of its top four players at the position went down with long-term injuries in a span of eight days. That year, Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister each had a broken foot and Jared Cornelius broke his arm.
Mixing It Up for Arkansas vs Mississippi State
All of those injuries have left the Razorbacks scrambling for solutions. Khari Johnson has already moved from cornerback to safety, cornerback Malik Chavis has played some snaps at safety and Jayden Johnson has played both safety and nickel.
The most recent move appears to be with Hudson Clark, as he was spotted running as the first-team middle safety in Arkansas’ dime defense during the portion of Tuesday’s practice open to the media. He was lined up between Simeon Blair and Khari Johnson, while Jayden Johnson was at nickel. The two cornerbacks were Chavis and Dwight McGlothern.
“We’ve crossed-trained all spring ball, all fall camp, and Hud’s a very smart player, so it was really a very easy transition when we saw him at safety a little bit this week,” Blair said about Clark’s move from corner to safety. “He’s a very smart player. He’s able to break on routes very good. I feel like he can be a very good help to us back there.”
The second-team defense featured an even more significant switch that left reporters doing a double take. In addition to Jacorrei Turner, Jaylen Lewis and Zach Zimos playing safety and Trent Gordon at nickel, the two corners were Keuan Parker and Sam Mbake.
Mbake is a freshman who was recruited as a wide receiver and has been listed as a third-teamer on the depth chart this year while contributing on special teams. He flipped sides of the ball this week and Pittman said he believes he’s picked it up well and that he’s hopeful Mbake can help “sooner rather than later.”
“As you know and everyone knows, we’re beat up a little bit in the secondary, so we looked on our board and tried to find anybody on the team that could possibly help us,” Pittman said. “With Sam doing so well on special teams, he kind of stood out there.”
Listed at 6-foot-3, 202 pounds, Mbake has the frame of someone you want in the secondary, Pittman said, but he hadn’t played on that side of the ball since he was a sophomore in high school. In fact, he told Pittman that most of his experience on defense came in middle school.
As you might expect, Pittman said he could tell Mbake isn’t used to the drills at cornerback, but thinks he’ll be fine. As for Mbake, he was more than happy to make the move and help the team — as long as he’d have an opportunity to move back to wide receiver in the spring.
“Sam said, ‘Can I go back to receiver in the spring?’ And I said, ‘You certainly can. I don’t know if you’ll want to or not but you certainly can,’” Pittman said. “But that’s how it happened. We told him he’d be in the two-deep when he ran over and he was. So he’s that kind of kid. I think he’s going to be a good player for us, whether it’s over there or wideout eventually, but he’s very talented.”
Safety Simeon Blair added: “Sam’s a very great athlete. He goes on 110% each and every day, whether that’s at gunner, whether we’ll send him to receiver on scout team, and now seeing him at DB. He does a lot of good for us. He picks up on the defense very quick.”
Challenge of the Air Raid
Considering the opponent, it’s unlikely the Razorbacks would throw Mbake into the fire this week — barring multiple injuries.
That’s because Mississippi State is seventh nationally in passing offense, averaging 346.6 yards through the air in head coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack.
Junior quarterback Will Rogers runs the show for the Bulldogs and his 343 passing yards per game ranks third in the FBS. He’s completed 73.1 percent of his passes for an FBS-leading 19 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
“The thing is, you really have to disguise in the secondary, because if you don’t, he knows exactly what you’re doing — whether you’re in man, or it’s quarters or double cloud or whatever it may be, (and) he can exploit you,” Pittman said. “I mean, he’s really good, and they’ve got receivers that can as well.”
Last season, Rogers had one of his best games against Arkansas. He was 36 of 48 passing (75%) for 417 yards and four touchdowns, but he did have one interception.
“We know Will Rogers is a very smart quarterback,” Blair said. “He can throw the ball around the field. He can make crazy good throws. He can throw the balls and small windows, so that’s our job to try to minimize those windows that he’s throwing in and just trying to make him check the ball down and getting them in space and actually vice tackling every running back, every receiver that we get in short spaces.”
And once those windows are minimized, following through and making the tackle will the utmost importance. “It’s been a huge focus,” Blair said. “Coach [Dominique] Bowman, Coach [Barry] Odom, they’ve done a great job of putting us in situations to tackle that’s probably not exactly game-like but in harder positions to tackle which helps us when we get in game and actually tackle. And we’ve been doing a lot of film prep, a lot of film study, getting our minds ready, preparing ourselves for the game to see what we’re going to see on the field.”
However, slowing down Rogers and the Mississippi State passing attack won’t be entirely on the secondary. Pittman mentioned that the guys rushing the passer — however many that may be — need to make their presence felt to throw off the timing.
“We can’t just let him sit back there,” Pittman said. “If we decide to go after him with four, we need to get there. If we decide to go after him with three we’ve got to get there.”
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