New Scheme, Worse Results: Unflinching Look at Arkansas’ Defensive Woes

Simeon Blair, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

Sam Pittman seems almost worn out in his press conferences these days, like he hasn’t slept in weeks. Granted, the Arkansas football coach has always taken the laid-back approach in public, but after his Razorbacks outscored South Carolina 44-30 on Sept. 10 at home, giving up almost all the total yardage they surrendered via the Gamecocks’ passing game, Pittman seemed somnolent. 

A pass defense that ranks worst among all NCAA FBS-level teams in yardage allowed at 353 per game (and ranking 251st out of 254 teams in FBS and FCS subdivisions combined) will do that to you.

Pittman saw two of his top defensive backs at kickoff of Week 1 go down before that opener with Cincinnati was completed. Potential All-American Jalen Catalon was lost for yet another season with a bum shoulder that won’t heal, and another potential star, Myles Slusher, had a scary neck-and-head injury that kept him out the past two weeks.

As has always been the case with Razorback football, even in the best days, there is little quality depth behind those starters. The dropoff is obviously huge.

Having Slusher back this week in the Southwest Classic showdown with Texas A&M has to help. Pittman also has to have his fingers crossed that he can keep Slusher on the field while the rest of the defensive backfield learns what apparently is a new scheme – Pittman shared in Monday’s 30 minutes with the media that the Hogs aren’t playing the double-cloud scheme they used the past two years with their mostly three-man rush. You’re seeing more four-man rushes with a fifth joining in some, while the back side still has some three-deep zone coverage mixed in with man-to-man.

And, that has been the saving grace for this defense and why the Hogs are in the Top 10 and 3-0 headed to Arlington, Texas. While the Razorbacks are at the bottom in pass defense, they are near the top in rush defense (but then again, why run against Arkansas when you can pass?) and they lead the nation in sacks thanks to the eight recorded in last Saturday’s come-from-behind win over FCS-level Missouri State, well coached by former Hog mentor Bobby Petrino. The sacks have helped the rushing stats, too; take those out and it’s not like Arkansas is a run-dominating defense, it’s more than only 42% of opponents’ plays are runs.

Anyone aware of Petrino knew he would exploit every weakness he could against the Hog defense, even with a quarterback whose expected strength is running rather than passing. And Petrino did exactly that, only he didn’t quite have the horses he possessed in Fayetteville more than a decade ago to complete a shocking upset – hence the apparent reason for Sleepless Sam.

What Texas A&M Thinks of Arkansas’ Secondary

Meanwhile, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher in his Monday press conference seemed like he had a cooler nearby packed with Red Bull or RockStar. He was a stenographer’s nightmare with his rapid-fire delivery. He covered in 20 minutes what most coaches might require 35, and Pittman maybe an hour.

And he wasn’t about to throw any bulletin board material out concerning Arkansas’ pass defense problems, though he was baited.

“I think it’s deceptive, and I think it’s part of, they’ve been ahead in games so you force the other teams to throw the ball a lot because they’re behind,” he said of the yardage allowed by the Hogs through the air. “So that’s part of it too when you’ve gotten leads, gotten ahead of people, so people are going to throw the ball more. And you may not be in sometimes as aggressive a mode as you’re normally in, trying to eat clock and do things … Numbers can be really good or sometimes they can be skewed or deceiving, too. They’re athletic in the secondary and can make plays all over, and they’ve got a good team.”

That’s the quintessential example of coachspeak, or away from the football field it’s referred to as word salad.

Anyone watching Arkansas for three weeks knows it’s nonsense.

Now, it’s true, Arkansas does have athleticism and talent on the back line – at times. Fisher in another point Monday noted LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern, who leads the Hogs with two interceptions and has done a decent overall job at one cornerback spot (our words, not his). He also has the propensity to drape his backside arm over the receiver’s neck on man coverage and he’s been flagged twice for pass interference. His run defense has a ways to go. At LSU he was considered talented but inconsistent and was not always a starter there, which was pretty much the case for everyone at LSU the last two years under Ed Orgeron.

And yet, he’s probably Arkansas’ best cornerback.

Hear what Jimbo Fisher said about Arkansas during his weekly press conference:

YouTube video

Arkansas’ Other DBs

The most dependable cornerback is former walk-on Hudson Clark, but he can also be depended on to be slower than most SEC receivers he has to cover. If he gives up a big cushion, the opponent throws underneath him; he plays up tight, then he’s often beaten at the snap. He’s given way in the starting role on the corner opposite McGlothern to Rison’s Malik Chavis, but essentially it appears they are 1 and 1A there. And both seem to allow easy release of the wide receiver off the line of scrimmage.

LaDarrius Bishop started the season at cornerback but has literally disappeared. The week after Arkansas’ win over South Carolina, Pittman revealed he was injured and a UA spokesperson said it was a knee injury, but details beyond that – such as a potential timeline for return – are unknown. However, when he was healthy, Bishop was torched deep twice in a span of three plays in the Cincinnati game.

Unlike watching a typical Georgia game on TV with the Bulldogs’ amazing talent at every defensive position (such as last Saturday against South Carolina and quarterback Spencer Rattler), two Arkansas safeties are rarely “in the TV picture” at the snap of the ball, meaning at least one if not both are well beyond 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Unless, that is, when the experienced free safety, Simeon Blair, came up to join in the dogpile on a fourth-and-1 against Missouri State while the Bears slipped a receiver off the line of scrimmage for a wide-open touchdown, as we saw Saturday night. Hey, it could just as easily have happened to Catalon or Slusher, such are the wily ways of Bobby Petrino, who Arkansas fans can recall doing that several times in various fourth-down fashions as the Hog play caller. The Hogs’ current players are too young to remember, however.

Georgia transfer Latavious Brini has improved week to week, though, and gives the Hogs talent and hope at Catalon’s strong safety spot, and with Slusher returning as a versatile defensive back, Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom have to feel better about defending the ridiculous schedule ahead – which includes a nonconference road trip to BYU and a homecoming game with Liberty and coach Hugh Freeze, along with playing in the toughest division in college football (that features Alabama’s Bryce Young and Mississippi State’s Will Rogers, just to name two quarterbacks that could eat the UA secondary alive).

Pittman does occasionally reveal more than many coaches, and it was interesting to hear him Monday correlate the defensive backfield to the offensive line – in both cases, he wants the five best players there, regardless of position. Just as Beaux Limmer or Luke Jones could move into a couple of O-line spots if needed, Brini, Slusher and even Clark or Chavis could occupy any of the five DB positions.

Brini and Slusher can’t play all the snaps, though. Khari Johnson moved from cornerback to safety with Catalon’s loss, and he played significant snaps late in Saturday night’s game and might be a solid addition eventually. Johnson was forced into action as a true freshman cornerback two years ago at Auburn and held up well against Bo Nix and the Tigers; there appears to be potential even if the speed isn’t top-level SEC quality.

The Other Issue for Arkansas Football

Jayden Johnson, a nickel back, had better minutes last year as a true freshman than he’s had so far this fall, though. His biggest deficiency, something that has permeated the entire defensive unit at times, is poor tackling. Arkansas’ yards-after-catch allowed might be as bad as any team in the SEC at this point, and the overall pass yardage allowed is significantly boosted by the Hogs allowing the extra yards by awful tackling and taking bad angles.

Never was this more evident than a 62-yard play in the South Carolina game when the Hogs gave up the short area in front of the linebackers in zone coverage, then flailed while the receiver danced through everyone all the way to the end zone. It was shades of Hog defenses of years past, when the likes of Florida and others with wideout burners showed how that speed can eat a conservative approach alive.

Thankfully for the Hogs, Odom has mostly abandoned a completely conservative, rush-three-and-drop-eight look this year. He’s deduced that Arkansas’ pass defense has to have some major pressure, and he’s got a speedy, rangy linebacker to help with that in Alabama transfer Drew Sanders, who is already drawing comparisons among old-time Hog fans to the great Billy Ray Smith Jr. (who was 2 inches shorter, by the way) of 1979-82.

Sanders, a linebacker sometimes lining up inside on the line, has an SEC-leading five of the Hogs 17 total sacks in three games. For the past two games, he’s clearly been the best player on the defensive side of the football, though keen observers note that he still has a ways to go with his run fits – again, not that the Hogs have seen as much need for rushing stops as defending the pass. Along with Sanders, Georgia Tech transfer end Jordan Domineck has been a big addition and has stepped up stronger each week, accounting for four sacks. Sanders and Domineck are numbers 2 and 4 nationally, and 1 and 2 in the SEC, in sacks so far.

End Tre Williams, who ran out of eligibility after last season, was huge for Arkansas last year in the Razorbacks’ 4-0 start, and was a constant nightmare to the Aggies and the left side of their offensive line in the Hogs’ 20-10 win in Arlington. That Hog win ended a nine-game losing streak to the Aggies, one of a handful of “trophy” victories for Pittman and Arkansas in a 9-4 season.

It seems like in hindsight Williams totaled double-digit sacks, but in reality he had just six for the year, and was never as good as he looked last year at Arlington. Sanders has a chance to blow past Williams’ six sacks for the year this weekend, as A&M is struggling to develop an offensive line and find the right quarterback to run Jimbo Fisher’s offense.

Arkansas vs Texas A&M

Last week, Fisher turned to LSU transfer Max Johnson, who managed the game well in A&M’s 17-9 win over then 13th-ranked Miami. But that was following up the Aggies’ stunning 17-14 loss to Sun Belt opponent Appalachian State, which kept the Aggies off the field with a potent run game – not that A&M could do much other than one offensive touchdown when it had the ball with heralded but shaky Haynes King running the show. 

Johnson may not be their offensive answer, either, but he helped win a big game that calmed A&M’s notoriously impatient fan base. Coincidentally, Johnson was benched in favor of Garrett Nussmeier when Arkansas went to LSU last November and stole a 16-13 overtime win over the Tigers. Odom had already devised a plan for Johnson that week that went unused.

Johnson’s passing ability might be questionable, but it seems certain Fisher will dial up some shots downfield; open receivers behind the secondary seems to be the story each week with the Arkansas defense under Odom, even with three safeties deep. Occasionally, a Matt Corral shows up that exploits it. More often, to Odom and Pittman’s good fortune, it’s been a Hudson Card at Texas or Zach Calzada at A&M last year (now he’s at Auburn) who couldn’t come close to connecting. A&M will bring back two 5-star freshmen receivers who were suspended versus Miami to join veteran Ainias Smith this week, though, so there will be some concern for Arkansas on the back line all night.

All this might easily explain why Arkansas will attempt in most games, including Saturday night in Texas, to grind out drives and keep the ball out of the opposing offense’s hands, and hope to limit those downfield shots, or even the short ones that call for the consistent, sure tackling that so far has been missing.

Make sure to see our latest on the issue here:

And here’s what Sam Pittman said in his final press conference ahead of the Arkansas vs Texas A&M game:

YouTube video

YouTube video


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