Arkansas’ Dominant Defensive Front: A Three-Game Breakdown

Arkansas’ coordinator Barry Odom’s defense has been somewhat of a mystery this season — at least statistically speaking.

The overall production has come as a surprise to many. That ‘mystery’ has stemmed from position groups swapping reliability through three games.

In 2021, the area lacking production was the defensive line. Despite being full of talent, the tree only produced a few ripe fruits. Some of that can be based upon playing three down linemen the majority of the time. The struggles up front put more pressure on the linebackers.

While the linebackers held their own, the secondary did a fine job in 2021. There was only a minor shift downward following Jalen Catalon’s surgery. Pass defense suffered against the likes of Alabama, but that’s to be expected. Fast forward to where we stand in 2022 and a shift has occurred. 

An Arkansas secondary that was once consistent has become a target of opposing offenses. Without Catalon once more, the pass yards have only piled up. The concern is that the majority of SEC play still awaits.

The stats aren’t something that should be shown to children. Through three games, Arkansas has given up 353 passing yards per game. Before placing all of the blame on a broken secondary, look a bit deeper.

Arkansas has become a team more comfortable in a four-man front. Additionally, Odom has brought the heat and its benefits have yet to demand lively outrage.

The Leader in Sacks

The glass half-full angle regarding Odom’s defense thus far concerns the defensive front. Currently second in the nation in total sacks, linebacker Drew Sanders has not provided the pass rush alone. Out of 17 total thus far, 8.5 sacks have come from the big men up front.

The three players factoring into that number are all edge players. Leading the way is Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Domineck. His 4.5 sacks are joined by one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Domineck has already bested his career-high of four sacks set in 2020.

Another transfer causing problems for the opposition is Landon Jackson. The gargantuan human has reeled off 1.5 sacks through three games. Coming into the season, Jackson was both an unknown and a player who Arkansas needed to emerge.

Playing mostly as a reserve, he has proven capable of causing disruption. His contributions have gone beyond rushing the passer. While the tackle for loss numbers aren’t racking up, Jackson’s ability to disrupt has led to plays made by teammates.

Zach ‘Sack’ Williams is the third defensive end causing havoc. His emergence into a definite starting role has produced 2.5 sacks. It took a couple games for Williams to settle in, but Missouri State got the brunt of his ability.

With two sacks, Williams was a bright spot in the dull performance.

Shifting back to the second level, Sanders has been a star. Playing off the edge as he did at Alabama has paid dividends. With sack numbers resting at five, he has been the menace for the defense. Fellow linebackers Bumper Pool and Chris Paul Jr. each have one sack.

Can the Progress Continue?

Having high numbers are impressive, but the first thing to consider is the quality of offensive lines faced to this point. Out of the three teams faced, Cincinnati arguably has the best offensive line. The Bearcats certainly have the most seasoned group.

For a group that returned 90-plus starts coming into Week 1, there was a single hiccup in the numbers. Starting center Jake Renfrow, an all-conference performer, was deemed out for the season before playing Arkansas. Through all of that, Cincinnati still ran for more than 100 yards against Arkansas and quarterback Ben Bryant was sacked three times. 

Shifting to South Carolina, the Gamecocks’ offensive line is nothing to get excited about. With over 100 game experiences amongst the starters, experience didn’t seem to inflate quality.

Facing Georgia State in Week 1, they only mustered 2.5 yards per carry. It only got worse for the big hefties when they faced Arkansas’ front seven. 2.5 yards per carry shrank to 1.4, dropping South Carolina’s per carry average to just under two for the season.

The pass protection, while more reliable, didn’t keep quarterback Spencer Rattler off the turf. Despite rolling out on multiple occasions, he was still sacked six times. 

As for Missouri State, the run game was practically a nonfactor. Sticking to the passing game, the Bears had their quarterback sacked eight times. There were three Razorbacks with two sacks or more in the contest.

To put it nicely, the three lines faced to this point haven’t been complete pushovers. SEC play will bring a lot more talent for the defense to face up front as destiny would have it. That’s why it will be crucial to watch how Arkansas’ front handles both Texas A&M and Alabama in the coming weeks.

Both teams bring experience and size, but neither have proven to be dominant to this point. If the defensive tackles continue to be relatively quiet, the edge rushers will have to continue to make waves.

Sanders and the Linebackers Room

While the defense may not be as polished as some would have hoped, it could’ve been way worse. The team’s leading sack man, Sanders, however, has just one tackle for loss outside of the sacks. That’s where his versatility comes into play.

When lined up on the edge, teams have learned to account for Sanders. No matter what has been thrown at him, he has still found a way to cause disruption in the backfield. While not yet a commonality, he has dropped back into coverage from the edge.

With Odom’s defense, expect the percentage of coverage drops to rise, especially if the secondary continues to struggle. Sanders’ reaction time has been impressive thus far.

Lining up next to Sanders in the box, Pool has been everything Arkansas’ fans hoped for and then some. With 56 combined tackles through three games, the pair has eliminated the expected drop-off from a year ago.

The real surprise has been the subtle emergence of redshirt freshman Chris ‘Pooh’ Paul. A reserve linebacker, he sits fifth on the team in total tackles.

Against South Carolina, the casual Arkansas fan more than likely had to look up who No. 27 was. Call it his breakout game. Paul finished with a five-solo tackle performance.

As time expired, he had a scoop-and-score that ultimately didn’t count. After three years of witnessing Odom’s schemes in action, one thing is clear — he wants his linebackers to always be in position to make plays at the line of scrimmage.

That’s no different in 2022. That scheme could help Sanders rack up awards and recognition at season’s end.

More Blitzes, Less Help

Odom’s newfound aggression has resulted in a lot more pressure on the secondary. While not having the blitz rates available, it’s obvious there has been more pressure applied. With how the secondary has responded, it begs the question of whether that style will continue. Catalon, a future NFL draft pick, is irreplaceable, but that doesn’t excuse the overall performance. 

If improvement of coverage continues to lack until midseason, expect changes. Blitz rates would certainly decrease along with linebacker coverage increasing. Head coach Sam Pittman had suggested returning to the zone defense known as the “cloud.” An eight-man zone, that would be a huge indicator of  lacking man progression. 

The other side of the coin falls under moderate improvement among the secondary. A team leading the SEC is sacks should not be last in passing yards allowed. Considering Odom and Co. believe the best players are playing, fixing the secondary may need to come schematically. 

Facing Texas A&M’s Max Johnson this week could be a best-case scenario for Arkansas. Rolling into Arlington, he becomes the possible guinea pig of Odom’s operation.

Last season, the Razorbacks got to Aggies quarterback Zach Calzada early and often. Assuming Arkansas continues to stop the run, multiple formations may emerge on obvious passing downs.

Featured image courtesy of Arkansas athletics