For a unit that was missing a raft of key players, Arkansas’ secondary played very well in the three-point loss to Auburn on Saturday.
For starters, Jarques McClellion, a key piece in the defensive backfield, opted out of the season on October 1 for health concerns. Starting cornerback Montaric Brown was scratched soon before kickoff after suffering an injury while making a tackle in the previous game against Mississippi State. Meanwhile, standout freshman safety Myles Slusher made the trip but didn’t play because of an undisclosed injury.
Then, in the second quarter of the Auburn game, Arkansas State transfer Jerry Jacobs injured his ankle making a second quarter tackle and didn’t return.
As a sign of how Arkansas’ depth and coaching are improving, Arkansas’ top cornerback reserves stepped up, with redshirt freshman Hudson Clark and true freshman Khari Johnson stepping up as the main outside cornerbacks in the second half. These freshmen backups showed they could hold they own. Expect them to help provide secondary depth that Arkansas has not had in years.
“I have to note the people that stepped up though that did their part,” Arkansas defensive back Jalen Catalon said after the game. “Like Hudson Clark at corner. He came in, did his thing. Khari Johnson came in at corner as well. Stepped up, made some huge plays. So those guys stepped in when things weren’t going our way and made some hugs plays.”
Nickelback Greg Brooks Jr., who had the key pick-six the prior week, covered his slot spot as usual. Safety Joe Foucha, who made the fumble recovery that should have won Arkansas the game, also played.
Arkansas’ secondary struggled to contain the speedy Anthony Schwartz, who caught 10 catches for 100 yards. He was the recipient of many short passes and screens and he was able to get open downfield a few times while Auburn quarterback Bo Nix was scrambling.
And Auburn’s star Seth Williams, a potential first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, had 70 yards. But the other Auburn receivers were all held in check. No other Tiger wideout besides Schwartz had more than 3 catches in the game. Running back Tank Bigsby had 4 catches but only 16 yards receiving.
“I felt like we had a good gameplan going in,” said Catalon postgame. “We knew [Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz] were the top receivers and we were trying to hold them as much as possible. I think we did a good job for the most part. I think they got open a little bit on some scrambles and got loose a little bit, but I felt like we did a pretty good job containing them for the most part. They made some big plays when they needed to at the end that we have to minimize. Overall, I’m proud of our defense.”
After Jerry Jacobs went down, Auburn looked to take advantage of Khari Johnson’s inexperience right away. On the first two plays following Jacobs’ injury, Johnson’s cover was targeted on pass plays.
On that first play, he gave up a 30-yard completion to Seth Williams but he redeemed himself on the very next play by breaking up a pass to Williams in the end zone. Auburn had to settle for a field goal on the possession.
Arkansas Defense Leads SEC in Tackling
Both freshmen, Johnson and Clark, had pass deflections in the game. So did Jalen Catalon, who led the team with 14 tackles (10 solo). The outstanding work by defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s unit, led by the likes of Catalon and linebackers Bumper Bool and Grant Morgan, is one reason that Arkansas leads the SEC in tackles made and is No. 3 in interceptions.
The Arkansas secondary, coached by Rion Rhoades, was especially effective in holding coverage well downfield. On many plays, Auburn’s Bo Nix saw no open receivers and had to scramble. He was forced to hold the ball longer and that helped the defense collect three sacks. In the end, Nix was forced to throw a lot of screen and dumps. He was held under 200 yards for the second consecutive week, following a bad loss to Georgia.
Arkansas’ defensive line and linebackers struggled in his game, often missing tackles in the running game. Tank Bigsby, who ran for 146 yards, proved to be a burr in the Razorbacks’ saddle all afternoon long.
In a crucial drive late in the game, with Arkansas leading by a point, the secondary forced two incompletions in the red zone and made Auburn settle for a field goal attempt, which they missed. That stop should have sealed the game for Arkansas, who on the ensuing possession just had to make one first down to win the game.
The Arkansas secondary was better than the stats will show because Nix was able to scramble or find dump off passes in the flat when the receivers downfield were covered tightly. Also, Arkansas’ inability to contain Auburn’s run game made the defense as a whole a lot less effective than how the secondary performed.
The Razorbacks played a good zone defense, but with the zone comes holes which at times were exploited. When defenders were one on one, they were able to keep close to the Auburn receivers for the most part.
In his Monday press conference, Hogs head coach Sam Pittman stressed how well Clark and Johnson played in doing their part.
“They’ve practiced well. “They have come in and watched extra tape,” Pittman said. “They’ve basically made their position coaching believe in them by the way they act, the way they play, the way they practice.
“Khari, he was nervous, you know? [Pittman smiles]. There early he was playing corner at free safety depth, you know? I felt for him, you know, because he’s out there against some really great receivers.”
“But he figured out the speed of the receiver, his moves, different things and he played a really fine football game. I was really proud of him. I’m saying that word “proud” a lot I know. I’m going to find another word that means “proud.”
Whatever synonym Pittman ends up finding, he should get ready to use it a lot in the rest of this season. If Arkansas’ secondary can play this well with four of its best players out, it projects to be a top unit in the SEC when it’s back to near full strength. Pittman said he hopes that Brown, Slusher and Jacobs will all return by Saturday’s tilt against Ole Miss.
Having good reserves is important for the defense because the offense has gotten off to a slow start in all three games this season. The defense has had to be on the field for a large portion of time in the first half. Its starters need to save some energy for late in games. Letting trusted backups take snaps early in the game will go a long way in preserving their energy.
The Auburn game was heart-breaking but the secondary’s performance was a bright spot, and another positive sign going forward. Against Ole Miss, a game in which the Rebels are favored according to the latest college football odds, Arkansas must control the run game more effectively, or this good work of the secondary will be for naught. (Arkansas allowed more rushing yards against Auburn than they did against Mississippi State and Georgia combined.)
Still, Razorback football are trending upwards and every week fans get a closer view to just how real the team is.
“I love the way they compete,” Pittmans said of his players overall. “You know they don’t say a word about who’s hurt. Who’s out. Who’s not there. The next guy goes in there and he plays his heart out… We have practiced four-deep and our players have been ready to play. Just been really proud of them. I’m happy with the direction the program’s headed.”
Hear the latest from Pittman below.
At 10:30, he talks more about the the horrible call at the end of the Auburn game.
12:00 – On Feleipe Franks
16:05 – On putting Malik Hornsby into a goal line touchdown package instead of KJ Jefferson
20:00 – On the performance of offensive linemen Dalton Wagner and Ty Clary
And new analysis from the always entertaining, never Pollyanna-ish Mike Irwin here: