Barry Odom vs. John Chavis

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Barry Odom

-Jim Harris

Who made the best hire?

We’re not talking about Arkansas hiring Sam Pittman, or Ole Miss hiring Lane Kiffin after he turned down Arkansas’s overtures, or Missouri scarfing up Eliah Drinkwitz after he also supposedly balked on Arkansas’s low-ball offer, or Mississippi State firing its winning two-year coach Joe Moorhead to grab Mike Leach, who had claimed he always wanted the Arkansas job but couldn’t get it.

It will take three or more years to determine whose hire was best, and not just after the first weekend of all-SEC play, when Leach earned all of his $5 million a year salary from MSU by beating LSU in Baton Rouge. Now, Leach will have high school quarterbacks begging to come to Starkvegas to be part of his Air Raid offense after last week’s showing.

This question looks deeper. And its answer will have immediate relevance for the Razorbacks: Which most recent head Hog made the best hire when it came to his defensive coordinator?

Was it Pittman with his hiring of former Missouri head coach Barry Odom, or Chad Morris back in 2018 when he picked up the out-of-work John Chavis, who had been let go with the rest of Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M?

I’m betting Sam Pittman’s choice of defensive coordinator, compared to Morris’, proves better in the long run for the Razorback program.

We saw evidence of that in Pittman’s first NCAA game as a head coach, after he spent years as an apparent lifer offensive line coach with the sometimes-title of “assistant head coach” but never a coordinator. Last week’s 37-10 loss to Georgia in Fayetteville was one of those rare games, especially with Arkansas football lately, where someone could say the game was closer than the scoreboard indicated — or, let’s just say, the effort by the Hogs belied the final score.

Almost all of that had to do with Barry Odom. Pittman probably gets docked a grade point or two for a few gaffes late in the first half that, in hindsight, didn’t really matter. Pittman had the whole team playing hard. Only Odom’s defense, for the most part, played well. The ballyhooed hiring of a full-time special teams coach not only failed to pay dividends in the opener, it had tons to do with the margin of defeat, if not the loss itself.

Pittman, after surprisingly landing the Arkansas job in December, smartly brought aboard Odom, who compiled a 25-25 record at Missouri before being terminated a day after the Tigers had beaten Arkansas to finish 6-6. Odom inherited a program that, under Gary Pinkel, seemed to be falling off in overall talent even though it won consecutive SEC East championships in MU’s first two years in the SEC.

Before Odom was hired by his alma mater, he’d established a solid reputation as a defensive coordinator at Memphis and Missouri. He definitely had a chance at a decent head coaching job after Missouri let him go (in fact, Memphis reportedly offered him the head position).

When Chad Morris hired John Chavis as his defensive coordinator, the widespread perception was that Morris’ bringing on Chavis gave SEC credibility to his first staff. It also perhaps helped hide the fact that the rest of Morris’ staff, especially on the offensive side, were underqualified for their jobs. It proved out on the field with a fiasco of an offense, which averaged around 21 points per game. Meanwhile, the defense surrendered more than 37 points a game in 2019.

Chavis had established a reputation par excellence at Tennessee and at LSU, where he was blessed with phenomenal future NFL talent recruited by his head coaches at those spots. He won the Broyles Award for the best assistant coach in college football in 2011, playing a big role in LSU making the national title game with Alabama.

He had a little less of that great talent when he left LSU for Texas A&M, getting ahead of the posse chasing Les Miles, but surely the ability on the defensive side in College Station wasn’t as bad as the stats and losses reflected. The ever-evolving wide-open offenses in the SEC seemed to have figured out Chavis’ heavy-blitzing schemes; or he could not figure out those offenses. Or both. Maybe no defensive coordinator can figure it out anymore, consistently, considering Nick Saban’s designated DC now gives up 35-40 points in the big matchups with all that Tide talent (to wit: Auburn winning 48-45 last year, an unthinkable score in that rivalry until now).

John Chavis couldn’t save Kevin Sumlin at A&M, and he definitely couldn’t save Morris. (Hopefully, he can save the middle school he’s now coaching).

Certainly, Chad couldn’t lean on Chavis for any “head coaching help” either. Sure, Morris had already coached SMU to a 14-22 mark in three years, which is still 14 more wins than Sam Pittman has as a major college head coach, but we saw firsthand with Morris that coaching in the SEC is a different animal than being mediocre in a Group of 5 league.

As good as his offensive coordinator reputation may have been at Tulsa and Clemson, Morris too looked underqualified and out of his element as the Head Hog, unable to lead the team or, ultimately, get it to even play hard for him.

Looking ahead to the Sam Pittman era

We still don’t know what Pittman will manage. Arkansas was supposed to lose to Georgia by four touchdowns and did so, but competed gamely for more than a half, The Hogs, according to some college football experts, aren’t supposed to be manned well enough to win a game against an all-SEC schedule in 2020. ESPN’s ball of prophecy did step up before the season’s start to give Arkansas a slight edge over Mississippi State; wonder if ESPN wants that pick back now?

Pittman’s in charge of a whole program now. One major plus is his time in the SEC at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia, knowing the ins and outs of this league. He knows what it takes. He may not be able to obtain all the talent that might take.

But also a plus: He’s had to recruit whole units, and the offensive line is the one unit of a football program that requires everyone coming together, meshing as one, helping each other, for there to be any success. Pittman has been the best around at building O-lines everywhere he’s been, it’s been said. After last Saturday’s showing, though, he might want to spend all his time with that very unit at Arkansas while his assistants handle their position units to bring this squad up to speed.

But back to Barry Odom. You could see him, accomplishing what he did at Missouri despite a talent drop off and a weird NCAA infractions penalty that knocked Mizzou out of bowl eligibility last year (yes, that matters), to still go .500. Missouri was horrible when he took over and, if nothing else, Odom showed in a stunning, come-from-behind upset of Arkansas at the end of the 2016 season, that he was imaginative and that his players would play for him, that he was able to push the right buttons. It showed that, at least in games against similar to slightly better talent, Odom could win.

Missouri couldn’t wait on him to be better than .500, or didn’t believe he would be, or the school wanted some different level of pizazz at the head of its program. Somehow, they decided Arkansas-bred Drinkwitz had more sizzle and offered him nearly triple what Appalachian State was paying to steal away the one-year head coach. Arkansas and Sam Pittman benefited from Mizzou’s haste to make a change while everyone else at the bottom, save Vanderbilt, did, too.

Chavis, to his credit, had a reputation as an SEC guru that attracted a number of 4-star rated defensive players in Morris’ second recruiting class. A few them — namely, Jalen Catalon, Mataio Soli, Eric Gregory and Zach Williams — must play well if Arkansas is to have any hope of slowing down Mississippi State enough to sqeak out of Starkville with a win.

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I’m not convinced Barry Odom’s reputation as a defensive mind can attract the same amount of blue chip recruits as Chavis did — not yet, anyway. I am convinced, however, that Odom gets more out of lesser talent than Chavis ever did. We already saw some of that in the season opener when Odom’s improvements impressed most of the Razorback followers.

The Hogs limited Georgia to a field goal, to go along with a safety against the UA offense, in the first half. To be fair, Georgia spent most of the first half shooting itself in the foot, incurring eight penalties in the first quarter alone, 11 for the half. The Dawgs’ starting quarterback was nothing short of inept, forcing Georgia head coach Kirby Smart to turn the game over to his fourth-string quarterback, Stetson Bennett, mostly known for backing up Jake Fromm all last year and playing scout team QB for the Bulldogs. Working against that formidable Georgia defense all the time in practice certainly couldn’t have hurt Bennett, though, compared to anything he’ll face on game days, like last Saturday.

When Georgia and Bennett found their footing in the second half, thanks to finally taking advantage of its enormous edge in field position and the Hogs’ kicking game and offensive gaffes, the Bulldogs had no penalties or turnovers during the stretch it outscored Arkansas 29-0. The Razorback defense, which defended its end like the Grand Canyon lay behind it, was gassed from the mid-third quarter on.

But, importantly, the Hogs still didn’t quit.

Odom did what longtime observers of better Arkansas defenses have seen: He made Georgia one-dimensional, took away a supposed potent running game early and forced Georgia to throw. D’Wan Mathis, the Bulldogs’ starter, was iffy at best. Bennett, meanwhile, looked like mini-Joe Burrow for a half in igniting the stagnate Bulldogs offense.

Gearing up for Arkansas-Mississippi State

Odom won’t have to force Mississippi State to throw on Saturday night. The Bulldogs and Stanford transfer quarterback K.J. Costello threw it 60 times at Baton Rouge in that monumental 44-34 upset of the defending national champions. If anything, Coach Mike Leach chose to make his own team one-dimensional and it worked in grand fashion. He has a fabulous, all-SEC running back in Kylin Hill and turned Hill into a major receiving threat along with some talented wideouts, and Costello just flung away with abandon. LSU, caught shorthanded on the back end, could never stop the Bulldogs.

So, Odom has a whole other challenge this week. All the praise that’s been heaped on him for the past few days may be forgotten by this time next week. Still, the early returns say Pittman made a wise choice for defensive coordinator.

Then, there’s Kendal Briles calling the plays on offensive side for the Razorbacks, but that’s a column for another day. At least Hog fans can rest assured that his track record already blows away Arkansas’s last offensive coordinator. Plus, if Chad Morris as head coach was really calling Arkansas’s plays the past two years, as some surmised, he was smart to never take the credit for it. 

Briles, though, had best stay away from running double reverses on his own 14-yard line, as no one thinks Pittman dreamed that up.

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For more about the Mississippi State game from Sam Pittman, see this:

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