Analysis: What Drew Sanders Brings to Arkansas’ Defense

Photo courtesy of Alabama athletics

By: Brady Michael

Head coach Sam Pittman and Arkansas received excellent news on Jan. 16. Linebacker Drew Sanders announced that his transfer destination was Fayetteville.

Once a five-star recruit and top-25 prospect nationally in the 2020 recruiting cycle, the former Alabama linebacker chose the Razorbacks over Texas and Oklahoma. On paper, the addition is impressive. Sanders joins four other four-star transfers, according to 247 Sports’ new transfer ranking system.

Stat-wise, during his freshman season, Sanders only had nine tackles and a quarterback hurry in 12 games for the Crimson Tide. As a sophomore in the 2021 season, Sanders appeared in 12 games and recorded 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, four quarterback hurries, and two pass break-ups.

With his solid production, many around the Alabama program had high expectations for the Denton, Tex. native. Minor injuries this past season however, pushed him slightly down the depth chart. On top of that, the emergence of true freshman Dallas Turner in his absence was writing on the wall for the sophomore. Turner found his way onto the All-SEC Freshman team.

Sanders finds his way onto an Arkansas team that will have many new faces on defense. That’s especially true for the group of linebackers. A corps that included the Burlsworth Trophy winner and team captain Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry, and Bumper Pool went on a tear in 2021. Each of the linebackers had over 100 tackles on the season.

It was believed that the Outback Bowl victory over Penn State was the final game for the trio in a Razorbacks uniform. Fortunately, it wasn’t quite so heartbreaking. To avoid a full-fledged panic, Pool will return for his fifth season.

With one cornerstone of the defense announcing his return, it was unclear who would step up to start alongside him. Many of the backups lack crucial experience at the SEC level. The Razorbacks have now found a starter who has played at college football’s highest levels.

How was he used at Alabama?

Listed at 6-foor-5 and 244 pounds, the jumbo athlete played at a couple spots along Pete Golding’s defensive front. According to Alabama’s most recent roster, Sanders was listed as a linebacker. But he was used as a standing edge rusher a majority of the time.

Sanders played to the right of two-down defensive linemen. He was mirrored with another on-ball linebacker to the left of the defensive linemen. That normally was the role of standout edge Will Anderson Jr. More often than not in that four-man front, the on-ball linebackers blitzed and were not dropped into coverage.

Most of Sanders’ stops early on in the season were because of his ability to drop back into zone coverage and sniff out screens and short passes. Against Ole Miss on Oct. 2 is when he was finally shifted to the left side of the five-man front. His priorities remained the same. That involved him mostly dropping back into coverage and containing the edge during run plays.

A lot of that probably has to do with Sanders currently being a more polished run stopper than pass rusher. It was rare to see him sent on a blitz from the snap during a pass play. He however, was never afraid to take off after the opposing quarterback when it was time.

With Sanders being a young player, it was clear there were still parts of his game that need to be polished. Being an edge rusher during pass plays needs the most polishing. Alabama head coach Nick Saban however, took advantage of his best abilities last season.

Barry Odom’s history with similar players

While their specific defensive formation might not have been exact, the Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers is a guy who has a similar style to Sanders. Nick Bolton may be the most recent standout linebacker, but there aren’t as many similarities.

Now at Arkansas, Barry Odom’s first year as defensive coordinator at Missouri came in 2015. That was Brothers’ senior year. While playing both right outside linebacker and inside linebacker for the Tigers’ 4-3 defense, he tallied 152 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble. One of the similarities between Brothers and Sanders doesn’t come with their stature either.

Brothers stood at 6-1 and weighed 235 pounds. Sanders is three inches taller and about 10 pounds heavier. Brothers was never used as an edge rusher like Sanders; that’s where the uncommon aspects end.

The Mizzou linebacker earned his way onto a first-team All-American list for his impeccable run stopping ability and his willingness to drop back into zone coverage. He was also infamous for blocking kicks during the 2015 season.

While playing inside linebacker, he was primarily a run-stuffer that would plug the A-gap as good as any in the SEC. When playing right outside linebacker, his style seemed to match Sanders’ quite well. That’s despite the fact he was never used as an on-ball linebacker.

As with Sanders, he was patient to diagnose the run and wrap up without giving the ball carrier a chance to break free. This was reflected when Missouri visited Georgia and its powerful run game in 2015. He finished the game with a total of 17 tackles — a season-high.

It seemed that Brothers was not a player who Odom wanted in man coverage. This resulted in him playing lots of zone and spying the quarterback on pass plays. In coverage, Sanders was great as a quarterback spy and would take off when he needed to.

Both players were often used to cover the sideline on deeper zones. Brothers ended up being drafted in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. If Sanders can be developed into the tackling machine that Brothers was while retaining his ability to cover, then there is hope for the Razorbacks’ linebacking corps in 2022.

How can Sanders be used under Odom?

Barring injury, Sanders will immediately be starting next to Pool. Some thought Sanders might be a candidate to play a role similar to Tre Williams this past season. That however, likely won’t be the case.

Andrew Parker’s decision to transfer almost solidifies Sanders as a starter. Odds are that Odom will keep his 3-2-6 scheme as the current personnel still fits it best. Arkansas is thin along the defensive front with the loss of three starters.

During sets that involve three down defensive linemen, expect Sanders’ experience playing plenty of zone coverage at Alabama to transfer over without a hitch. Odom’s better defenses have linebackers that are great at dropping back into an eight-man zone like the corps this past season.

The main thing that will need to be polished for Sanders is his play recognition. That will be critical in order to diagnose the run quicker than he did on the edge. Being an edge rusher, he was a player who was expected to stay home and not crash into the backfield unless directed otherwise.

With the loss of Henry – arguably Arkansas’ best run stopper at linebacker last season – Sanders will be tasked with slowing opposing rushing attacks. There is a chance that a 3-3-5 formation could come into play next season so that Sanders can resume his edge presence as a sense of familiarity.

The current numbers at linebacker don’t exactly help the idea. That is why it is suspected that the staff is hunting the portal for another linebacker. If the portal doesn’t bless the Hogs once again, a formation with three linebackers would seem like a pipe dream.

Arkansas would need young players such as Marco Avant, Kelin Burrle, or the incoming freshmen to have great offseasons. No matter where Odom decides to place Sanders in 2022, his impact will be immediately felt.

Sanders brings 24 games — two seasons’ worth — of SEC experience. Not only that, but he is a former national champion. Having a player who has won at college football’s highest levels can only be a good thing.