Razorback Taylor Lewis’ Transfer Decision Underscores Bigger Issue at Critical Position

Taylor Lewis, Arkansas football
photo credit: Twitter/@Taydotmoney_

With the Arkansas football team set to begin Cincinnati prep later in the day, news broke from multiple outlets that defensive tackle Taylor Lewis has entered the transfer portal on Thursday morning.

The Chicago native’s stint with the Razorbacks lasted only a couple of months, as he was a late addition to the 2022 signing class from the junior college ranks who didn’t arrive on campus until this summer. He joins former wide receiver Jaquayln Crawford as the second Arkansas player to enter the portal this month.

Head coach Sam Pittman was open about his desire to add interior defensive linemen this offseason, especially after Taurean Carter went down with a knee injury at the end of spring ball. That need resulted in the addition of Lewis, along with Arkansas State transfer Terry Hampton.

Listed at 6-foot-3, 317 pounds, Lewis spent the previous three years at the College of the Canyons, a junior college in Santa Clarita, Calif.

He was pursued by multiple Power Five programs following a redshirt sophomore campaign in which he earned unanimous first-team All-SCFA honors and landed on the Region III All-California Community College team.

Just a few days after completing an official visit to Fayetteville, Taylor pulled the trigger on committing to Arkansas, picking the Razorbacks over Oregon State, Washington State, Nebraska, Missouri and others.

“I feel it’s the whole package,” Lewis told reporters when he announced his decision on May 31. “It’s away from everything, but still things around to do. It’s in the SEC. The coaches love me and I love the coaches. They are in it for the right reasons. Most importantly, the head man — coach Sam Pittman — everything he stands for, I stand for.”

Less than three months later, though, Lewis found himself buried on the depth chart at Arkansas and, rather than sticking around, he opted to hit the portal and look elsewhere to continue his college career.

Impact on the Razorbacks’ Depth Chart

The Razorbacks were pretty thin at defensive tackle during spring ball. Four scholarship players worked at the position and only two of them — Isaiah Nichols and Taurean Carter — had significant experience at the college level.

The other two were redshirt freshman Cameron Ball, who appeared in just two games last season, and redshirt junior Marcus Miller, who has mostly been a reserve during his time with the Razorbacks.

That already limited depth took a hit when Carter — who had made a strong case for spring MVP of the defense — went down with his aforementioned knee injury on the third play of the spring showcase, when bad weather forced the Red-White spring game to move inside Walker Pavilion. Pittman hasn’t been forthcoming on details of the injury, but he recently said it was “going to be a minute” before he returns.

Arkansas had already swung and missed on a couple of players in the portal, as Tulsa’s Jaxon Player picked Baylor and Missouri’s Mekhi Wingo picked LSU, and didn’t have any true defensive tackles among its incoming freshmen, so landing Lewis from the JUCO ranks and Terry Hampton from Arkansas State were seen as critical pickups in May.

Both of them arrived this summer, so their first practices with the Razorbacks weren’t until the start of fall camp earlier this month. While Hampton has received consistent praise from teammates and coaches for his strength and natural leverage created by his 6-foot-1, 314-pound frame, Lewis’ name has not come up at all during the preseason.

Hampton has worked primarily with the second-team defense and even gotten some reps with the first team during media viewing periods, while Lewis has been relegated to the third team.

The Razorbacks have also bolstered their depth at defensive tackle by moving Eric Gregory back inside in four-man fronts after he spent most of the spring at defensive end. When Miller went down with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery and a couple of others — Lewis and Ball — were out with concussion during camp, freshman Nico Davillier also moved inside.

The four-star defensive lineman out of Maumelle High, who was originally going to focus on playing end at Arkansas, has already made such an impression on the coaching staff that he’s gotten some second-team reps ahead of Lewis and Pittman has said he won’t be redshirting.

With Gregory and Davillier now at the position, Lewis was likely sixth in the pecking order at defensive tackle — at best. If Miller returns to action soon as expected, he could be seventh. That doesn’t even consider the potential of a late return of Carter, which would bump him down to eighth.

Examining Arkansas’ Instability at DT

One of the more surprising active streaks involving Arkansas football is the Razorbacks having a defensive tackle selected in each of the last four NFL Drafts. The only other program in the country with a longer such streak is Alabama.

Armon Watts was a sixth-round pick by the Vikings in 2019, McTelvin Agim was a third-round pick by the Broncos in 2020 and Jonathan Marshall was a sixth-round pick by the Jets in 2021. This past April, John Ridgeway went to Dallas in the first round, four rounds after Razorback wide receiver standout Treylon Burks, who is vying to win Offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL this season.

That streak has been made even more impressive by the fact that Arkansas has had quite a bit of instability at the position from a coaching perspective.

In fact, current defensive line coach Deke Adams is the fifth different position coach in as many years for fifth-year senior Isaiah Nichols. Sam Pittman has fired Jermial Ashley and Derrick LeBlanc each of the last two offseasons, likely due to their struggles on the recruiting trail. Before that, Kenny Ingram coached the defensive tackles in 2019 and John Scott Jr. had led the unit the year before.

All of that turnover and their issues in recruiting have resulted in a unusually high transfer rate at the position.

Arkansas hasn’t signed a four-star defensive tackle since 2016, when it landed McTelvin Agim (who was actually considered a defensive end), Austin Capps and Briston Guidry.

In the six classes between 2017-22, the Razorbacks signed only nine high school players who were either recruited as defensive tackles or spent most of their time in Fayetteville at the position. Five of them ended up transferring, with three doing so after not appearing in a single game. (The other two received very little playing time.)

They also landed three junior college defensive tackles over than span, but one never made it to campus, another never sniffed the field and transferred after one season. The third is Lewis, who is transferring before his first season.

Since Pittman took over, two of three high school defensive tackle signees have transferred out and neither of the JUCO signees panned out. Instead, Arkansas has relied on transfers under Pittman, with Xavier Kelly (Clemson) being a key rotational piece in 2020, John Ridgeway (Illinois State) and Markell Utsey (Missouri) starting in 2021 and now Hampton (Arkansas State), set to play a lot in 2022.

The development of Hampton, a fifth-year senior defensive tackle from El Dorado, has been especially important because of Taurean Carter’s injury.

“He’s a vet,” Isaiah Nichols said of the 6’1″, 314-pound Hampton. “Obviously he hasn’t been in this league, but he’s played defensive line a lot. He has experience, he knows technique and he’s a very physical player. There’s things that I can take from him. His level of physicality, his quickness and his violence.”

Redshirt junior Eric Gregory added: “From what I’ve seen, Terry’s been dominant, man. Very dominant. He’s more of a shorter guy, but he’s not too short. So he has that power. He has that punch.”

Redshirt junior guard Beaux Limmer, a returning starter, has had to battle Hampton in practice and echoed these kinds of sentiments.

“He’s come in and shown he belongs at this level right away,” Limmer said. “Everybody at times has definitely had trouble blocking him. He definitely belongs up here with the best of us.”

Another Open Scholarship for Arkansas Football

Much like the departure of Jaquayln Crawford, perhaps the biggest impact of Taylor Lewis leaving the program is on the Razorbacks’ 85-man scholarship limit. They are believed to currently have four open spots, as they entered the month with one and have since seen Dax Courtney retire for medical reasons and now two players enter the portal.

Arkansas will eventually need to get to 85 because schools are required to fill all of their scholarships in order to bring in early enrollees — something it did for a large chunk of its most recent signing class.

However, exactly when the Razorbacks have to reach that number is a bit murkier. Last season, it wasn’t until well after the season that they awarded a handful of scholarships to walk-ons, with two of them — to wide receiver Harper Cole and linebacker Jackson Woodard — being retroactive for the 2021 season. Tight end Nathan Bax’s scholarship counts toward the 2022 season.

Those two would presumably be candidates to get scholarships again this year, especially Woodard because he is expected to have a significant role on this year’s defense. Quarterbacks Kade Renfro and Cade Fortin would be logical candidates, as well, considering they were on scholarship at their previous schools.

There’s also the possibility of a late addition from the transfer portal. Arkansas has already filled its 2022 class, but it has been able to oversign in the past and count those players ahead to the next class. If that is still an option, it’d work out well for the Razorbacks because the annual 25-man signing limit has been eliminated beginning with the 2023 class.

That rule will probably benefit Crawford, too, as a school would be able to sign him from the portal as long as it has available spots in its overall 85 without having to worry about burning one of its 25 for that particular class, which was previously a consideration for schools when signing transfers.

Pittman could choose to use the scholarships before the season or hold them like he did last year, but one thing is certain: He won’t make a big deal about rewarding walk-ons if/when he does. While some schools like to create viral social media content out of those moments, Pittman’s philosophy is to bring players into his office and tell them privately because he doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of other walk-ons on the team.

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