In 2022, Arkansas’ defense was certainly the unit with the most unanswerable questions. Not to mention frustration. Going from a team the season beforehand that allowed just 22.9 points per game to 30.6 was detrimental. Factoring in an injured KJ Jefferson on offense, led to a drop-off that drove many fans insane. It seemingly all started with the secondary. A unit once again without once dreamt star Jalen Catalon.
While all eyes pointed to what Barry Odom would do as a solution, the linebackers always came to play. Bumper Pool went on to etch his name as the leading tackler in school history. His running mate, Drew Sanders, never had any doubt behind him after his first game on the Hill. Combining Sanders’ sack numbers with the improved defensive line still couldn’t suffice for the poor secondary play. With un-Arkansas-like numbers in the sack column, it was a difficult pill to swallow. Arkansas still found its way near the bottom of multiple categories. Getting run by some offensive coordinators, Odom made his way out the door and over to Vegas for a fresh start.
Former UCF defensive coordinator has recently made his way to Fayetteville and with him, lots of hype. Not to mention excellent hires under his newfound supervision. Proposed to coach linebackers, he will get a grasp on a room with plenty of opportunity.
With that being said, it’s never too early to look ahead in the sports world. There is so much to be said that this is just part one of two diving into what will hopefully be a revamped defense. Some roster pieces are already falling into place, so let’s start up front:
Who will join Zach Williams to step up on the DL?
As it stands, Zach Williams is the most established returnee along the defensive front going into next season. Taking another step up from a year ago, he bumped his sack numbers up to 4.5 on the season. He tallied a total of 34 tackles as well. The Little Rock native will be looking forward to his last and most important season going into 2023. Experience in his role is a major attribute.
A guy that would have been a certain mention to the question alongside Williams has since added his name to the portal. His departure likely falls as a factor for new coaches. Nonetheless, Jordan Domineck produced quite well for his singular season as a Hog. His 7.5 sacks will be missed and certainly welcomed back if that route presents itself.
Shifting inside, possibly the biggest mystery man up front, Taurean Carter, holds that role due to his injury before the 2022 season. As a player that received showers of compliments from the staff, he never even got to see the field. All that does is set up for a potential comeback story for the ages. If Carter can reach stability on the injury front, then he will certainly contribute if not find his way into a starting role. It will be key to listen in on his progress starting pretty much immediately.
Being a part of a common four-man front, the tackle next to him being anyone besides Cam Ball seems impossible. The big-time redshirt freshman from the peach state is primed for a silver-screen premiere next season. He totaled 31 tackles alongside 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack in his second year as a Razorback. Not only do his stats suffice, but his attitude does also. He is a player that wants to be a Razorback. Having Ball take the expected leap forward being paired with a healthy Taurean Carter is a good foundation to hold inside. Adding in Eric Gregory, who is only getting better and more experienced, adds more flair. While he hasn’t taken a huge leap forward thus far in his career, he provides pivotal depth. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if he vies for a starting spot. That’s even before the portal feeds the position group.
Going back on the edge, Landon Jackson was tasked with starting a handful of games at defensive end and is a guy that might be necessary to boost his status. With his gargantuan frame and length, it feels as if it is truly a matter of time before he explodes. The intimidation he brings off the edge is already a vital part of his game. His development over the months leading up to kickoff will be fun to pay attention to. The same goes for Jashaud Steward, although not as freakishly huge, really found his footing as the season progressed. He compiled a pair of sacks and plenty more snaps headed into his senior year. Stewart will have a role one way or another off the edge.
The Fresh Face Angle
The lone transfer to this point that will throw his name in the starter conversation is former Pitt defensive end John Morgan. Coming in as a graduate senior, he totaled 14.5 sacks during his career as a Panter. Alongside racking up hits on the quarterback, his PFF grade in 2022 was near the top of the ACC. Naturally, the SEC is a different beast, but maybe he can make the transition as Domineck did. A more in-depth breakdown of his game will come down the road.
Shifting down to the incoming freshmen, there is one player that stands out in particular. Quincy Rhodes comes in as a player with a ton of size and hype. As the lone four-star defensive lineman, the North Little Rock native will have to carry those expectations. While still raw in the football world, it won’t come as a shock to see his name pop up here and there. Much like Landon Jackson, it could just take a little time. His size will prevail over some linemen and most tight ends alone. Carson Dean and Kaleb James might also get a shot to find the field in some capacity. Both come in with solid football backgrounds and a hunger for quarterbacks.
Have Paul and Crook proven enough to hold down linebacker?
One of the most fascinating stories of this past year was witnessing the ever-growing talent of the young linebackers behind Pool and Sanders. Based on the tandem’s performance in the Liberty Bowl, that’s what begs the question of whether or not they can retain their status. Chris Paul Jr. had actually earned his stripes leading up to the trip to Memphis. When the season came to an end, he totaled 62 tackles, four sacks, and a fumble recovery. His team-leading 12 tackles and missile mentality against Kansas just added proof he will be difficult to dethrone as a potential sophomore starter.
Outside of stats alone, there is just so much that he brings to the position. Some of which are uber vital. The biggest was proving he can be the vocal leader of the defense. Something that had seemingly been vacant since the departure of Grant Morgan. Being able to lead a team while also kicking tail is the perfect mixture for the next great. His ability to track ball carriers and rally to the ball fits the mold of how linebackers have performed since Pittman arrived. The bottom line with Chris Paul Jr. is that a starting position as linebacker will be his to lose. It’s hard to imagine a world-class linebacker transfer coming in to dethrone him.
As for Jordan Crook, it’s a bit different. Crook, leading up to the Liberty Bowl, had only snagged a tackle in at least three games as opposed to Paul. Considering Odom’s defense didn’t rotate linebackers all that often, he had to be patient. Crook had his opportunities, but being able to start the Liberty Bowl was the biggest. His final stat line against Kansas included seven tackles. If there was a stat for putting people on notice, he would’ve checked that box as well. While he did prove he will find the field often next season, it’s not really possible to say whether or not he can hold down the other starting spot.
One of the recent transfers has a lot to do with that reasoning.
The Transfer Portal Bat Signal
Former USF linebacker Antonio Grier comes in with much more experience, albeit not from SEC play. Either way, you look at it, the position group needs someone of his status. As a once-all-conference player for the Bulls in 2021, his stat sheet reflects a great model of consistency. While 2022 may have not gone the way he had hoped, he tallied over 50 tackles from 2019 to 2021. His stats and play style are nothing to argue against. A deeper dive into what he brings to the table will be available down the road as with John Morgan. As it stands, Grier will be hard to discount as a potential starter alongside Paul. There will certainly be a battle for that title, but there is also no doubt that the young duo and Grier will play top-tier roles.
Bringing in an additional linebacker from the portal is still a viable and likely option. If anything, it can bring about more competition come spring ball. Before searching the ever-changing portal for answers, there is one freshman that may have a word. Alex Sanford by way of Mississippi comes in as a stout 240-pound head-hunter. More than likely slotted as an inside linebacker, he has some talent that could show early on. His head-hunter play style allows him to almost live in the backfield. To combo that, he is a sure tackler and has only gotten more patient when it comes to reads. Adding even more muscle in an SEC weight room may be all he needs to surpass some of the others in the room already. Don’t be shocked when his name shows up a time or two from the mouths of coaches during camps.
With two position groups magnified, that leaves the dreaded defensive backs to dive into. With the return of Dwight McGlothern and his impact on some exciting portal additions, there will be potential to turn the other cheek. The room will pretty much have no other choice. All of this, however, stems from what coach Travis Williams has planned for his defense. From his ideal schemes all the way to his new hires on that side of the ball, there’s a ton to watch unfold. Questions will be there to ask, which is, again, never too early in college football.
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