6 Areas of Concern for Arkansas Football Include Defensive Backs

Arkansas football, Travis Williams
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Twitter/DrewBandz3

The hype train is rolling. Most of what Arkansas football fans have heard in the last few months is how much better their team is going to be in 2023 and how all the pieces have come together to form a better unit.

The offense is going to be better because Dan Enos is a quarterback whisperer. The defense is going to be better because Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson are great recruiters and have a new scheme. It’s possible that all this is true, but other possibilities exist.

Instead of only giving you the best-case scenario for each of the things that happened with the Razorbacks during the offseason, my goal today is to look at the other side – what might go wrong this year.

For the sake of clarification, I will use two terms to describe my level of concern with Arkansas football for the given situation: “beige flags” and red flags.

A beige flag is a new term, popularized on Tiktok and primarily used when discussing relationships. It signifies something that’s not a deal-breaker, but something that one partner is uncomfortable with about the other. We will use the term similarly. A beige flag for me is something that makes me uncomfortable about the team. It does not warrant the same level of concern as the red flag, but it’s still something to note. A red flag gives me far more concern and is something that needs to be addressed.

The Supposed Quarterback Whisperer

Arkansas hired Dan Enos in the offseason and some people have acted like he is the savior of offensive football. This is not even close to accurate. Although Coach Enos has had some success, it hasn’t been absolute. He has had plenty of failure.

Can we say Brandon Allen improved under him? Yes, we can, but what about Austin Allen? Austin regressed under Enos, throwing a lower completion percentage and having a lower efficiency rating from his junior to senior year – albeit with some extenuating circumstances, such as injuries, the loss of his top running back and a vastly different receiving corps.

Tommy Foltz pointed out that Arkansas scored less points for each year Enos coached the offense and gave some other reasons why this may not be a homerun hire.

In addition, just because Enos did a good job with Brandon Allen does not mean he will be able to repeat that with KJ Jefferson. Jefferson and Allen are distinctly different players who do different things on the field well.

Allen was a good decision maker and anticipator. He made smart plays and read defenses. Jefferson is a far more gifted athlete. He has an excellent deep ball, but struggles with intermediate throws. Jefferson has not been asked to read a defense post snap or even much at the line. This is not his fault, but it means we have no way to know whether he will excel at it or not.

Flag Color: Beige 

Arkansas’ New-Look Receiving Corps

Arkansas lost almost 80% of its production in the receiving core from last year. When you factor in just receivers and tight ends that number climbs to 92 percent. They have less than eight percent of production from last year.

It’s not that I don’t like the guys they brought in or Arkansas’ returning talent, but no one on the current receiving corps is proven. Out of the five guys they brought in, only two have ever played against a Power Five opponent: wide receiver Tyrone Broden from Bowling Green and tight end Francis Sherman from Louisville. Between them, they amassed a grand total of 105 yards and two touchdowns.

Not only have the other three – Var’keyes Gumms, Isaac Teslaa and Andrew Armstrong – never seen action against a Power Five team, but two have never seen action against an FBS opponent. We have no idea how these players will play against the type of top level talent they will see in the SEC. Are they going to be able to get open? Factor in that this is a new offensive system for all of them and it could potentially end in disaster.

Flag Color: Red

The Arkansas Offensive Line

After watching the spring game, the question became: Has our defensive line become that good or has our offensive line become that bad? This is not an easy question to answer. It does appear that the defensive line has gotten better, but I am afraid that the Razorbacks’ offensive line has also gotten weaker.

Arkansas needs to fill three starter spots on the offensive line. In the spring game, they filled those spots with redshirt junior/Florida transfer Joshua Braun, sophomore Patrick Kutas and redshirt sophomore Devon Manuel. With this combination, Arkansas had limited success moving the ball against the second-string defense. It should be noted that the Razorbacks cycled six different players through those spots with the first team offense, but they definitely struggled at times. Many complained that KJ Jefferson completed just 50% of his passes that day, but much of that was due to the defense being in his face because of lack of protection.

Some of these players, especially Ty’Kieast Crawford, did see time in last year’s Liberty Bowl in which the Razorbacks scored 55 points, so there is definitely some hope, but the spring game was concerning.

The line will be young this year and I fully expect them to have some growing pains. Sam Pittman is known for good offensive line play, but he is coaching the whole team, not just the offensive line. Can Cody Kennedy get the line to gel and mature?

Flag Color: Red

New Defensive Coordinator(s)?

Was anyone else shocked when, after the Razorbacks hired and announced a new defensive coordinator, they then hired another one? Well, Sam Pittman cleared the air when he explained Travis Williams would be the sole defensive coordinator with Marcus Woodson getting the title of co-defensive coordinator while being in charge of the back end of the defense.

It helps that Woodson and Williams have worked together previously – in the SEC, no less – but this will be the first time they’ve done so in these specific roles on the same staff. They’ll also be working with defensive line coach Deke Adams and secondary coach Deron Wilson for the first time, with only Adams returning from last year’s defensive staff. That’s a lot of turnover in one offseason, so how will all of them mesh?

On top of all this, Arkansas is moving to a new system. It will be lining up in a four-man front more often this year instead of the three-man front from years past. Williams is also known for being very aggressive and trying to force mistakes, while former defensive coordinator Barry Odom was known for dropping coverage and waiting for the offense to make a mistake.

Changes in scheme and especially philosophy take time. How fast will the players absorb the new system and learn the new plays?

Flag Color: Beige

Linebacker Depth for Arkansas

Arkansas must replace more than 200 tackles out of their linebacker position from last year. Drew Sanders was a revelation and a third-round draft pick. Bumper Pool is a legacy and left Arkansas as their all-time leading tackler.

The returning weight mostly falls on Chris “Pooh” Paul. Paul is a promising player and showed well last year. In addition to him, the Razorbacks brought in Jaheim Thomas from Cincinnati and Antonio Grier from South Florida, but will that be enough?

Grier had five tackles and a pass deflection in the spring game, but doesn’t have a lot of experience against Power Five schools. Arkansas has had success with players making a jump up in competition. Martrell Speight and John Ridgeway both excelled, but for each of those players, you have a Brandon Martin or a Ben Hicks, who rarely saw the field and struggled when they did.

Grier and Thomas have combined for 52 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack against Power Five opponents in their seven years of college. It is hard to know how well they will play at this level. This group does have a smidge more Power Five experience than say the receiving corps, but the statistics are underwhelming. Grier was a first-team all-conference player in the American two years ago – can he be that good in the SEC? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a solid player. Ultimately, Thomas and Grier’s lack of experience against elite talent makes this position group an unknown for me.

Flag Color: Beige     

New Pieces in the Defensive Backfield

The secondary is kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, Arkansas brought in Marcus Woodson, who helped the secondary at Florida State go from one of the worst units in the country to one of the best during his time in Tallahassee. They also added a young up-and-comer in Deron Wilson.

On the player side of things, they brought in a pair of teammates from Baylor – safety Alfahiym Walcott, who earned All-Big 12 honors and was rated as a four-star transfer, and cornerback Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson, who started every game and graded out well on PFF last year and quickly gained a starting role in spring ball.

Cornerback Jaheim Singletary was the other big get through the portal, rated a four-star transfer and a former five-star prospect, but he has yet to see the field in his college career. The other transfers include a safety transferring up from Conference USA (AJ Brathwaite Jr. from Western Kentucky) and a cornerback who showed promise as a freshman but saw his playing time dwindle the last two years (Kee’yon Stewart from TCU).

These transfers, in addition to six true freshmen, are set to restock a secondary losing 11 scholarship defensive backs from 2022. Of course, Jalen Catalon and Myles Slusher were probably the only departing players who likely would have been major contributors this season – but that doesn’t include Quincey McAdoo, who is feared to be out for the season following a serious car accident.

The Razorbacks did retain some talented players, though, especially Dwight McGlothern and Hudson Clark. McGlothern is considered by many to be a top NFL prospect. Clark is a former walk-on who has limitations, but was recently named one of the SEC’s leading returning safetlies by Pro Football Focus. However, they were just two of five starters in a secondary that struggled mightily in 2022.

The Razorbacks ranked dead last nationally in pass defense last year, giving up 294.7 yards through the air per game. A lot of that can be blamed on injuries, but not all of it. This unit might perform better than last year, but I’m not sure by how much. Arkansas did bring in some talented pieces like Walcott and Johnson, but the other transfers and freshmen – who are tasked with replacing the likes of Catalon, Slusher and McAdoo – are unproven.

Flag Color: Beige


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