Arkansas and Tennessee football don’t have a lot in common and have never been able to develop a rivalry similar to that of their baseball teams. However, since 1998 the two schools have shared some rather big moments with one another.
Now, with the Razorbacks adding former Volunteers Doneiko Slaughter and Addison Nichols via the transfer portal, there’s a chance for another interesting chapter to be written.
There’s no doubt that Arkansas football fans remember that heartbreaking November night in 1998. If you were too young, the SEC Network just released a documentary titled “True Character,” which revisits that game and the ensuing fallout from the infamous “Stoernover” in detail.
There’s also been other memorable moments through the years like the 2002 six-overtime game in Knoxville, ESPN College Gameday’s lone appearance in Fayetteville in 2006, Joe Adams’ remarkable “Houdini’s in the House” punt return in 2011 and Arkansas’ most recent win over the Vols in 2020 – Sam Pittman’s first season as head coach.
In 2024, the two programs will meet for the first time since the Hogs’ 24-13 win three seasons ago. After a 4-8 finish in 2023 and his job security nearly gone, Pittman is betting on Slaughter and Nichols to play big roles in helping turn things around next season.
So, what exactly should Razorback fans expect from these two newest portal additions? Best of Arkansas Sports spoke to Ryan Schumpert of Rocky Top Insider to help us answer that question and much more.
Doneiko Slaughter Brings SEC-Level Talent and Experience
Heading into 2024, Arkansas needed to add some experience to the secondary through the transfer portal. Senior safety Al Walcott is out of eligibility and senior corner Dwight McGlothern is foregoing his final year to enter the NFL Draft.
That leaves some holes in the depth chart that need to be filled with experienced guys, particularly at safety.
Enter Doneiko Slaughter, a fifth-year senior who brings versatility and plenty of experience according to Schumpert.
“Doneiko played in games at all three positions in the defensive backfield,” Schumpert said. “He finally kind of settled in at corner during the 2022 season. Tennessee had a bunch of injuries and he kind of took the reins as the starting corner.”
Schumpert says that Slaughter was Tennessee’s best corner during the back half of the 2022 season and many in Knoxville felt he was turning, well, a corner. Unfortunately, the 6-0, 190-pound Slaughter didn’t make a big enough jump in his development to remain the team’s starter entering 2023.
“In 2023 they went out and got Gabe Jeudy-Lally from the portal and Kamal Hadden, who had been at Tennessee, made some jumps in the offseason,” Schumpert said. “So, Slaughter started the year as a backup.”
Slaughter remained part of the rotation in the backup role until fellow senior Hadden would go down with a shoulder injury. This opened the door for Slaughter to be the starter for Tennessee’s final six games, though he left a lot to be desired from Vols fans.
“Slaughter stepped into the starting role and, honestly, struggled,” Schumpert says. “He played a lot worse, I thought, than he did in 2022.”
Over those final five games, Slaughter recorded 30 of his 32 tackles and finished strong with an 11-tackle performance against Georgia. He would miss the season-finale against Vanderbilt with an injury before entering the portal at season’s end.
Some of the struggles from Slaughter could be explained by the fact that he played at safety for a large part of his career, and it’s a position that he’s the most comfortable in.
These last few seasons, he showcased his versatility by stepping in at corner, a position of need for Tennessee but maybe not the best fit for Slaughter. Arkansas is recruiting him as a safety, which one might imagine was enticing for someone who has played out of position the past two years.
Whether he slots in as a safety or corner for the Razorbacks, those around Knoxville believe he’s likely reached his ceiling as a defensive back.
“He’s a SEC-caliber starting defensive player, but was never really a high-end SEC starter,” Schumpert said. “Certainly was a guy that showed flashes, but never really broke onto the scene as the guy or someone who could play at a high level in the SEC.”
Schumpert’s comments and the general sentiment from those in Knoxville suggest that Slaughter projects closer to former Arkansas safety Latavious Brini than, say, a Dwight McGlothern.
Fans may remember that Brini transferred to Arkansas from Georgia ahead of the 2022 season and spent just one year with the Hogs. While his numbers were very solid – he was the team’s sixth leading tackler – they weren’t anything particularly special.
Dwight McGlothern, on the other hand, transferred from LSU at the same time and was able to immediately become a standout on the Razorback defense. McGlothern earned second team All-SEC honors (coaches) following that same season and projects to get taken in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Regardless of whether Slaughter becomes the guy, like McGlothern, or is just an experienced depth piece a la Brini, he fits a major need for Arkansas at safety. It should also go without saying, but neither of those two potential outcomes should be looked at as a disappointment by any means.
Addison Nichols Brings Size, Potential and Concerns?
The second ex-Volunteer that Arkansas has added out of the transfer portal is offensive lineman Addison Nichols.
Nichols is the Hogs’ second offensive lineman the Hogs have added from the transfer portal this cycle. The position, of course, is a massive area of concern entering next season. Arkansas had one of the worst offenses in the country and issues up front played a huge part in that.
Landing a former four-star recruit with three seasons of eligibility remaining is a win for Pittman and new offensive line coach Eric Mateos, but expectations may need to be tempered quite a bit according to Schumpert.
Nichols was a four-star high school recruit and rated as the No. 8 interior lineman in the 2022 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel took over as the Volunteer’s head coach in 2021 and when Nichols committed to the Vols during the 2022 cycle, it marked the first four-star commit of Heupel’s tenure.
Because of that designation, a lot of lofty expectations and outside pressure was placed on Nichols and after two seasons in Knoxville, it was obvious he hadn’t lived up to them yet.
“He was the first four-star commit of Josh Heupel’s tenure, with that there were some expectations and excitement for him. They really pushed for him to be a center and wanted him to be Cooper Mays’ backup at center, but it just never really clicked.”
Mays missed the first month of the Tennessee football season due to injury. The hope from those close to the program was that Nichols could be a serviceable starter at either center or, at least, on the interior of the offensive line.
Unfortunately, that never came to fruition as Nichols remained a backup after the Vols decided to shuffle things around up front. The only significant action that Nichols saw on the offensive line in 2023 came during the season finale against Vanderbilt.
In that game, Nichols played 67 snaps and earned an 85.0 rating on pass-blocking according to PFF. While his season overall could be classified as a disappointment, Tennessee wasn’t really trying to part ways with the Norcross, Ga. native.
“There was certainly disappointment about what he gave Tennessee this year,” Schumpert said. “But I don’t think Tennessee was pushing him to leave by any means, and don’t think that NIL really had anything to do with it either.
“At the same time I don’t think Tennessee was just distraught over him either, it was mainly a big deal because (they) don’t have a ton of depth in the interior of the offensive line.”
A potential knock on Nichols that has been brought up was that he played too soft for a league like SEC despite his 6-foot-5, 327-pound frame. That led one Tennessee insider to dub him the “Blake Griffin of football.” While there is some truth to that, Schumpert isn’t going as far as the guys at “Off the Hook.”
“I don’t think he was soft,” Schumpert said. “But I don’t necessarily think that he played with the physicality you would expect from a guy with his frame and his size.”
Leaving Tennessee Football for Greener Pastures
It would be tough to argue that the pressure and expectations placed on him coming out of high school were much too lofty for a young player who was just beginning the development process. That could have played a major role in Nichols wanting to find a new home and greener pastures to continue that development.
“We’re talking about a guy who was just a redshirt freshman this past year, and you don’t expect a lot of offensive linemen in the SEC to come in and play early,” Schumpert said. “So, I think there’s plenty of time and he’s got the talent to where, with a fresh start, he can find a role where he can thrive and be a good SEC starting offensive lineman.
“He’s one where maybe a fresh start is going to be good for him because I don’t necessarily think that things were clicking for him at Tennessee.”
Since the Arkansas and Tennessee football programs have been in different divisions, they have not played each other consistently enough to warrant the term “rivalry.” Still, in recent history, the Hogs have fared much better in this series than they have in another certain series that some fans staunchly deny is a rivalry.
Arkansas has taken the wind out of the Volunteers’ sails of late by having won three consecutive games in the series. Now, they’ve taken a couple of players from Knoxville to help them make it four straight series wins in 2024.
The next chapter will be written when Tennessee travels to Fayetteville on Oct. 5 next year.
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