Arkansas Would Be Wise to Heed Kevin Kelley’s Input on Hiring Next Defensive Coordinator

Geoff Collins, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football defensive coordinator
photo credit: Georgia Tech Athletics / Nick Wenger

Arkansas’ offseason grew curly last week when defensive coordinator Barry Odom announced he was leaving the program to become the head coach at UNLV. The Razorbacks must now fill one of the most important positions on the coaching staff in addition to signing high school recruits, enhancing the roster via the transfer portal and still somehow finding time to prepare the remaining players for their Liberty Bowl game against Kansas.

Odom’s departure seemed to be a surprise, given his apparent agreement to take the job at Tulsa fell through in the days prior, he continued to recruit for Arkansas and Sam Pittman told reporters he expected his coordinators to be part of the team for the bowl.

It also complicates recruiting defensive players, as Pittman now must both reassure current commitments and figure out the best way to pitch the program to open recruits – both high school prospects and transfers – without having a coordinator to lead the defense. Pittman is working to make a hire as quickly as possible for just these reasons (and there may be a coordinator hired by the time you’re reading this).

Characteristics of Arkansas’ Next Defensive Coordinator

It remains to be seen who Sam Pittman will target, as there may not be an obvious answer. So what are the characteristics Arkansas should look for in a defensive coordinator? Kevin Kelley, one of the most successful high school coaches in Arkansas history, made an appearance on Little Rock’s 103.7 The Buzz and offered this perspective:

“I don’t want us to go get a DC from a school that’s way better than us. I know that sounds crazy, but if we go get an LSU defensive coordinator, or Alabama’s, they’re used to playing with freak shows. We don’t have freak shows back there in our secondary and at linebacker. And it’s a little easier to call defenses when you’ve got those guys. I want a guy that has had a little less talent, but performed extremely well anyway defensively, and that’s what I hope.”

Kelley is right that Arkansas needs to find a coach who can be successful without almost always having a talent advantage. It’s well-documented that some of the Razorbacks’ SEC competitors will have more talent on their rosters, so for Arkansas to have its best seasons, it must win at least some games through things the best coaches can provide: preparation, development, strategy, etc.

Some coaches are able to pad their resumes with results that may have more to do with having superior players than from superior coaching. It should be noted that the best players still need good coaches. Not every school with top-5 recruiting classes ends up ranked in the top 5 at the end of the season (see: Texas A&M).

However, having success with the type of players that make up top-5 or even top-10 classes is not the same as having success with the type of players who tend to make up Arkansas’ classes, which usually rank in or near the 20s nationally and toward the bottom of the SEC (although the 2023 class could be an exception if Arkansas can fend off would-be poachers like Nick Saban and Deion Sanders).

Looking at Geoff Collins, Tray Scott

Geoff Collins, the former Georgia Tech head coach, has emerged as a candidate for the position and has a varied enough background where he’s seen both sides of the proverbial fence. As a former defensive coordinator at Florida, he had the benefit of recruiting to a former blue-blood, but not so as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, where the Bulldogs finished one season in the Top 5 in the SEC in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense and at another time rose as high as No. 1 overall in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Two other names tied to the position because of coaching experience with Sam Pittman are current Georgia assistants Tray Scott and Glenn Schumann. Schumann, age 32, has only ever coached at Alabama and Georgia, but he’s risen to the co-defensive coordinator position at Georgia. Still, he’s pretty much the antithesis of the kind of coach who knows how it feels to be on the wrong side of a talent gap.

Arkansas native Trey Scott, the Bulldogs’ 38-year-old defensive line coach, is more seasoned after previous stints at Arkansas State, Ole Miss and North Carolina, all places with far less prestigious football reputations than Georgia. But he’s also never coordinated a defense at any level, even as a co-coordinator.

Traditional recruiting dynamics, however, appear to be changing. We’re still learning how the new college football reality of the transfer portal and NIL may end up leveling the playing field to an extent. Arkansas was able to sign former Alabama five-star high school recruit Drew Sanders for the 2022 season, and he became a Butkus Award finalist for the Hogs. Dwight McGlothern and Landon Jackson signed with LSU, but now play for Arkansas. Latavious Brini originally signed with Georgia and is now a Razorback.

High school recruiting is no longer the be-all end-all of program success. A key part of Arkansas’ strategy moving forward must be to supplement high school recruiting with finding elite talent in the transfer portal.

“And out of the portal, that name doesn’t matter quite as much, because those guys are looking for a good place to land on defense,” Kelley said. “On defense, unless you’re a D end or a switch-side D end or an outside linebacker, it doesn’t matter quite as much on the defensive side, because if you’re a corner, it doesn’t matter who your defensive coordinator is. You’re looking for a good place to go.”

There’s some truth to this point as well. It seems likely older players who have been through the recruiting cycle and have experience inside college football would be less likely to be swayed by a flashy hire with a slick recruiting pitch. If the reason a player is transferring is simply because he’s buried on the depth chart, something as simple as an open starting spot could be all he needs.

The Key to Unlocking Future Success at Arkansas

It’s easy to hope that hiring a famous name would instantly entice blue-chip talent to become interested in Arkansas. That may work out in the short term, but it’s rarely a strategy for long-term success. Any coach must continue to deliver results for players to continue to believe in them. John Chavis had a ton of success as a coach in the SEC before Chad Morris hired him at Arkansas, but Chavis was a historic disaster in Fayetteville.

The thing is, blue-chip talent isn’t required across the board for Arkansas to have a successful defense. The Hogs do need some future pros, of course, but Arkansas must supplement them with simply good college football players who are bought in and motivated to give maximum effort.

That’s much easier said than done, but Arkansas must try to find those players more consistently than they have in recent years. Arkansas’ best two defenses in the SEC’s 14-team era were Robb Smith’s in 2014 and Odom’s in 2021, and both coaches failed to replicate that success in subsequent seasons.

Since the league expanded in 2012, Arkansas has finished top 10 in scoring defense in the SEC only four times, and two of those four times it was ranked 10th. Recent history shows that when Arkansas has just an average SEC defense, the team overall will have some level of success.

Arkansas needs a defensive coordinator who can get results without being reliant on elite recruits across the board, but unlike past coaches, he’ll have the opportunity to supplement recruiting disadvantages with the transfer portal. If a coach is trying to coast on past success, or has never successfully developed a defense without enough four- or five-star talent, that coach may struggle at a place like Arkansas even if that coach comes with championship rings.

However, we know it can be done at Arkansas because we’ve seen it done.


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