The final four games of Arkansas’ lackluster and embarrassing 2023 campaign bore little resemblance to what fans saw through the first eight contests.
Aside from the well-documented ineptitude of the offense, particularly on the offensive line, the other most glaring deficiencies were on the opposite side of the football. The Razorback defense took massive steps back from what fans had seen earlier in the season.
One unexpected source offered some clarity for those late-season struggles on Saturday. Chris Paul Sr., father of former Arkansas and newly-committed Ole Miss linebacker Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr., called into “The Wu Pig Podcast” and pulled back the curtain on more of what happened down the homestretch with the Razorback defense this past season.
Chris Paul Jr’s Dad on 2023 Arkansas Defense
Before Paul Sr. called in, the topic of conversation was whether Arkansas’ linebackers had the right combination of size and skill to compete in the SEC – the 6-foot-1 Chris Paul Jr. being singled out as one player lacking “SEC size.”
That topic prompted an impassioned Chris Paul Sr. to call in to the show and offer his take on things.
“How (are) you going to grade this kid on a defense, (when) you don’t even know what he called. You don’t even know that checks were being made,” Paul Sr. said. “If you look at Arkansas football this year, look how many times they had to wait on the call. Like we were playing offense on defense.”
“Last year (2022), the defense really was better,” Paul Sr. continued. “You know why? Because they pinned their ears back with one call, one basic defense, and they played that. With the defense that we played this year, the reason it was better statistically is because we had better athletes on the back end.”
What Paul Sr. is trying to say here is that the linebackers seemed to be more uncomfortable in this year’s defensive scheme than under former UA defensive coordinator Barry Odom and position coach Michael Scherer in 2022. Arkansas losing close games and fielding an incompetent offense exacerbated general frustrations – specifically from linebackers Chris Paul Jr. and Jordan Crook.
Those frustrations, as we now know, culminated in both Paul Jr. and Crook entering the transfer portal. The former took the somewhat controversial decision to play for Arkansas’ division-rival Ole Miss next year to help fill in the gap left by the departures of inside linebackers Monty Montgomery and Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste.
Numbers Show Defensive Improvement in 2023
2023 was the first season under new defensive coordinator Travis Williams, and his co-defensive coordinator Marcus Woodson, following three seasons of Barry Odom running the defense.
Under Odom, Arkansas’ 2022 defense was the worst passing defense in the country, allowing 294.7 yards per game. As a whole, the Razorback defense ranked just eight spots from the bottom in total team defense, allowing 465.2 yards per game (124th in the FBS).
Through eight games of the 2023 season, the new Razorback defense had pretty much pulled off a 180-degree turnaround from the previous year. They were only allowing 201.4 passing yards per game, ranking 32nd in the FBS. As a whole, they were only giving up 333.0 total yards per game, ranking 33rd overall in the country.
Over the final four games, though, the Hogs reverted back to their 2022 ways, allowing 405.5 total yards per game. If that pace would’ve been sustained for the entire season, Arkansas’ team defense would currently rank 96th in the country.
Arkansas had plenty to play for over the final four games of the season considering making a bowl game was still possible until the Auburn loss. Still, what caused the defensive regression?
Losing Creates Avalanche Out of Mounting Frustrations
It seems like this is a prime example of pent up anger and frustrations over the course of a bad season finally coming to a head. There is no denying how passionate Chris Paul Jr. is about winning and the work he puts into his game. It’s why he was a fan favorite and the reason many believed he could be in line for a special season.
Heck, you can tell that level of care runs in the family, seeing as Paul Sr. still actively follows and gets heated up talking with podcasters dedicated to the Arkansas Razorbacks when his son no longer even plays for that team.
As former Arkansas tight end DJ Williams pointed out, that passion was evident when Paul was visibly angry with his teammates during the season-ending loss to Missouri.
That passion and desire to win makes it difficult to stand by and watch your team make the same mistakes play after play as losses continue to pile up. As the Ls keep coming, it gets harder to overlook things that wouldn’t be issues if Arkansas was winning.
Earlier in the show, before Chris Paul Sr. called in, the hosts shared some information they had been given as added context for why Chris Paul Jr. finally decided to leave.
Following his redshirt freshman season in 2021, Paul Jr. wanted to change his jersey number from 27 to either 11, 15 or 40. Of those three numbers, 40 was the only one available and happened to be his father’s jersey number, so he chose to switch to that, the “Wu Pig” hosts explained. Shortly after he made the request, Landon Jackson committed to Arkansas from LSU and was given 40 as his jersey number. According to the hosts, Paul’s request was denied and he’s stuck with 27 since.
The second alleged incident took place entering this season. As most teams do, Arkansas players vote on who they want as their team captains each year. This year, Paul was supposedly one of the favorites to be chosen as captain, alongside Landon Jackson, but Missouri transfer Trajan Jeffcoat was named the other defensive captain.
As players talked about who they voted for, apparently it became clear that Paul should’ve had enough votes to be designated as a captain. Those two situations were easy to overlook, but what allegedly was the final straw occurred during Arkansas’ embarrassing 48-10 loss to Auburn.
During the course of the game, Razorback defensive players were complaining about being held by Auburn offensive players. Chris Paul Jr. allegedly went to Sam Pittman to let him know and to possibly say something to the refs about the holding. Supposedly, Pittman has been known to take referees to task but in this case apparently had a simple response to Paul: “Shut the (expletive) up and play.”
Now, it might be easy to dismiss this information as just rumor and innuendo, but towards the end of Chris Paul Sr.’s call later on in the same podcast, he says as far as he knows these incidents took place.
“All this stuff these guys said tonight, I don’t know where they got that information from, but they’re dead right,” Paul Sr. said, claiming the previous reports about his son. “All that information, I don’t know why they got it, what barbershop they went to, they’re dead right.”
Arkansas and Ole Miss Football
To reiterate, none of these alleged incidents are big deals in the grand scheme of things. They’re all pretty easy to overlook when your team is winning.
If Arkansas was in the midst of an eight-win season, issues such as Paul not getting to wear a certain jersey number aren’t being discussed. Unfortunately, the Razorbacks were in the middle of an eight-loss fall.
It’s the kind of disappointing season where every negative comment, innocent oversight and questionable decision is placed under a microscope and examined thoroughly.
In Chris Paul Jr.’s case, it’s the kind of season where you choose to no longer overlook perceived slights. Instead, you opt to go play for a team that has proven it can win more games in recent years. At Ole Miss, Chris Paul Jr. will again be on the Butkus Award watch list and “he’ll probably lead the SEC in tackles,” Chris Paul Sr. said. “I’m willing to bet you whatever you want to bet on it.”
For once, though, maybe it wasn’t all about the money or name, image and likeness (NIL). Maybe it was about success and how hard-driving one needs to be in order to get it.
More from Dad of Chris Paul Jr.
Here are some excerpts from what the middle school head football coach said in a pretty lengthy call-in:
“In no kind of form or fashion, bro, would I try to tarnish Arkansas, would I try talk about the fans, it ain’t none about me bashing nobody. It’s just about me coming out of the coaches’ forum and being in a fathers’ forum, and protecting my son because I know what I got in him.”
Travis Williams “did not have the personnel to run that defense because a lot of them guys wasn’t no dogs like that. And that’s not knocking nobody. That’s not knocking nobody. Some of those offensive lines were just better and it showed. That’s pretty much my speil on it, bro. And I love Arkansas and I think the fans deserve a winning program.”
Listen to Chris Paul Sr. hop onto the show starting at 1:21:30 here:
See more on Arkansas football from the “Wu Pig” podcast and BoAS here: