The jump that Arkansas’ defensive line made from the 2021 to 2022 season was something that not many expected early on. Departures of John Ridgeway to the NFL Draft and Tre Williams meant many players would need to rise to the occasion. Throw in the experience of Markell Utsey becoming vacant and it became a huge question mark. That mystery even extended into the coaching tree.
Coaching turnover led to the hiring of Deke Adams as the defensive line coach which turned some heads. It was for good reason. Diving into the portal before the season as done the year prior, it was clear that building depth was a focal point. That SEC-made philosophy paid off. In his first year as the DL coach, his defensive line helped break the school record for sacks in a season with 42. On top of that, any casual fan could tell there was a shift. Between the 2022 defensive line and ones of Arkansas’ past, something was just clicking.The season did wind up ending on a sour note. Losing three linemen after the 2022 season, one came as a gut punch.
The leader in sacks along the front – Jordan Domineck – decided to hit the portal. With 7.5 sacks, coach Pittman and co. couldn’t reel him back from joining coach Prime at Colorado. Factor in the graduation of Terry Hampton inside and Arkansas lost nearly ten total sacks and 60 tackles of production (not to mention Drew Sander’s production). Moving forward to this coming season and the priority still stood. Instead of relying on the youth and shaky depth at hand, the coaching staff took to the transfer portal and had even greater success than before.
With plenty of confidence in the edge rushers returning, the interior defensive line is where they attacked the hardest.
Bringing in big Tank Booker and silent riser Kevie Rose, the room not only gained depth on the interior. John Morgan III is another transfer from Pitt and has very high expectations as a primary pass rusher. What could quite possibly be the biggest move along the d-line was the addition of Trajan Jeffcoat from an SEC ‘rival.’ Out of the four defensive line transfers, Jeffcoat brings the biggest variety to the table. Alongside his play, his four years of SEC experience cannot be overlooked.
Playing high school ball in Columbia, South Carolina, it seemed as if Jeffcoat was bound to play for an SEC school. Listed at just 6-3 and 220 pounds, Trajan became a force for his 4A Irmo Yellowjackets. Reeling off 13 sacks during his senior season, he would also be third on the team in tackles. His game would play a large part in the team elevating to relevance for the first time since his eighth grade year.
The attention from the stands in an SEC city didn’t help his ratings but did aid him in the offer department. Rivals had the highest praise for Jeffcoat and featured him as a top 19 player in the state. 247 Sports was on the other end of the seesaw. With a rating of 84, Jeffcoat was ranked the number 78 wide defensive end in the 2018 class. While there was interest from the likes of Notre Dame and South Carolina, offers never became official.
Plenty of non-Power Five suitors came to the table including App State and ECU. There were two offers on his list that wound up standing out above the rest. One being from Indiana in the Big Ten, but the greatest came from coach Odom and the Mizzou Tigers. Trajan took the lone SEC offer without hesitation.
Time at Missouri
Coming into Columbia, it was clear that the coaching staff was decently impressed by what the low three-star brought to the team. The case became evident during his freshman season in 2018 when Jeffcoat was featured in all 13 games. He would collect seven total tackles and a single sack which came ironically enough against the Hogs. 2019 brought an elbow injury that caused him to miss the first five games. Trajan’s name vanished from the roster soon after for undisclosed reasons. He would end up having a redshirt slapped on him following his return. What a marvelous return season it would be.
Going into the COVID season there was chatter about Jeffcoat being a potential breakout player, but he outdid the hype. Racking up 23 total tackles, six TFLs, and six sacks, the First Team SEC titles came raining down. From the Associated Press as well as the coach’s, they agreed about the force that was Trajan Jeffcoat.
The following season in 2021 he started all 13 games as he would keep boosting his numbers. 34 tackles would be joined with ten TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and four QB hurries. That season was also the year that he certainly gave Dan Mullen nightmares after 3.5 TFLs against the Gators. Dipping down to just ten starts in 2022, his numbers would reflect the feat. Coming up with 21 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and a single sack, his Missouri career came to a close.
Totaling 47 games played for the Tigers, Jeffcoat deemed a change of scenery necessary for his final season of eligibility. With plenty of signs pointing for him to transfer back home to Columbia, SC, the water was still. Many journalists pointed out that the South Carolina coaches believed Jeffcoat was already in the fold. When his picture didn’t appear with a gamecock graphic behind it, panic set in. As it turned out, defensive line coach Deke Adams had the situation under his finger the whole time.
Now at Arkansas, Jeffcoat now sits at 280 pounds just five years after he was a 220 pound high school senior. With everything in his career leading to this moment, let’s look at why Phil Steele has Jeffcoat as a pre-season All SEC caliber defensive lineman.
Missouri’s Lack of Utilizing Jeffcoat’s Strengths
Before getting into the focal points of his game, it’s important to note that Missouri never even got the best version of Jeffcoat. Even during his First Team All-SEC season this was the case. Playing under Barry Odom, it’s been well established here that he loved three down linemen. While at Mizzou, that trend continued when coach Drinkwitz arrived. Upon his arrival, Jeffcoat was shifted from a primary end to an edge rushing linebacker. While many linebackers of that variety are meant to be heavier set and lethal headhunters, there was a caveat.
Jeffcoat was dropped into coverage way too many times.
At his position it’s quite reasonable to place him in QB spy situations, but not consistently dropping back into coverage. Even the best in the NFL at his position were almost never used in coverage. Looking at tape against Florida during the 2020 season, he had to have dropped back a dozen times. Not a lot of good can become of a 270 pound lineman attempting to keep up with a receiver or even a tight end. That was the case almost every time. While his feet speed is rapid for his size, quarterbacks picked on him over the top consistently.
When considering the season he compiled in 2020 while spending a chunk of it in zone coverage it actually makes it seem even more phenomenal. Discussed when breaking down John Morgan in the previous article, it’s uber important to build on a player’s strength(s). With coach Pittman and company wanting to use Morgan as a pure pass rusher, the same could be assumed for Jeffcoat. As a player with great success off either edge and occasionally inside, that’s where his usage will be primarily. Not dropping back into coverage, consequently easing the mind of the opposing quarterback.
Power and Agility Off the Edge
It starts with a nasty first step that Jeffcoat throws at tackles. The step is flashed mainly when he’s used as a standing edge rather than putting his hand in the turf. Many offensive linemen are forced to respect the speed as is, but his size bolsters the fear factor. In some cases when an offensive lineman establishes his footing, Jeffcoat excels at making that initial read. Taking notice upon the snap allows his first step to catch many already backpedaling linemen off guard. Some are guilty of being run through while others are simply stepped around. That has only gotten stronger over time with experience.
Combining a strategic first step with the power and upper body strength he holds is the perfect storm. If met with a lineman, Jeffcoat has a knack for meeting them with his hand first. With arms as long as his, it keeps linemen from getting too close to make moves of their own. When accomplished, there’s really nothing they can do as they are forced backwards into the pocket.
While Jeffcoat has shown off his ability to bend well off the edge, when he gets his arms extended it limits his bend. There are times when he can shed the squirming arms of his opposition and begin to lean around a tackle or guard. Times when Jeffcoat gets locked in a battle are never lost causes. It goes right back to his strength and his bull dozer mentality which is his primary play style.
Looking toward some of his moves utilized outside of a straight bull rush there aren’t a ton. In order to bend around linemen to the best of his ability, Jeffcoat is great at dipping his shoulder directly into a lineman. Many attempt to dip around linemen in their path, but the dozer in Trajan’s mind wants him to go somewhat through them. As it stands, bending is still a touch mechanical versus fluid. Maybe that’s an aspect of his game that can be completed before the Fall. He has also shown off a very methodical spin move primarily during a pass rush. Other than that, his strength lies purely in his own strength.
A New Leader up Front
With one season of eligibility left, Jeffcoat joins the growing population of final year linemen on the defensive side. For reference, John Morgan and Zach Williams are the other two with six regular/redshirt seniors. The key that Jeffcoat holds over the majority at the position is his five years of SEC experience made up by 47 games. On top of that, Jeffcoat came in during the Spring and has been a vocal leader since his arrival.
One can wonder if the title of being another successful Missouri defensive lineman carries extra weight. With Tre Williams stepping into the program and becoming a dominant pass rusher during the 2021 season, the proof is there. Tre wasn’t necessarily the leader type, but his play spoke for itself. The same can be said for Jeffcoat. A primary difference off the bat is that Jeffcoat will be able to be used across the entire defensive line. With experience across the front paired up with his leadership capabilities, look for him and Zach Williams to lead the Arkansas defensive line in 2023.