The moment that Coach Sam Pittman reeled in Barry Odom as a coordinator, many knew it was a matter of time before he moved on. A coach with a proven desire to be the head man, the initial risk was there. With a much-improved defense after his second season, it came as a surprise that he stayed put. The bond between Odom and coach Pittman kept him from moving laterally. After his third year at Arkansas, his new opportunity arrived. Rumblings of taking over Tulsa perished when he officially became the head coach of UNLV. The wonderful aspect of the whole shift is that drama hasn’t appeared even when action was taken so suddenly. A soap opera is the last thing the Razorbacks need as they get set to attack the transfer portal.
The overall legacy of Barry Odom in Fayetteville certainly had its high and low points. With a drop off in capitalization this season, only the negative has boiled to the surface. What he’s done for Arkansas extends far beyond a ‘down’ year in 2022. Stats are easy to gloss over and point to for answers. Ranking 123rd in the FBS for yards given up is both hard to swallow and look away from this year. It’s best to look further back at how it started.
An all-SEC schedule in 2020 makes comparing stats with other conferences like comparing apples to bowling balls. Even then, it was apparent how much better the team had molded from the previous staff. Limiting a Mike Leach-led offense (rest in peace) to 14 points was what brought Arkansas’ first SEC win in 20 tries.
2021 is the year that brought life back to Arkansas fans and the stats certainly check out. A defense that gave up just 22.9 points per game, lots of credit can be given to the super-seniors. They also kept opposing teams’ total offense nearly 1000 yards less than KJ Jefferson and company. The list of percentages and how great the Outback bowl season was when contrasted with the depressing fallout isn’t the primary focus, however. It goes much further than what went down on the field on Saturdays. His pairing with Sam Pittman is what really got things going.
Pittman’s Other Half and 2020 Interim Head Coach
It goes without saying that coach Pittman had a desire for aid working into a head coaching role. Dropping the ‘head coach ego’ a peg is something that many rarely have a desire to give up. While Pittman never came off as one with that ego, it still takes a ton to unveil vulnerability. From the outside media, Pittman was figured as a disaster hire as Arkansas fans know. A person with zero head coaching experience in the SEC screamed nightmare material. That’s when heads were turned toward who was walking in the door. As a guy coming in with four years of SEC coaching experience, Odom was that guy. Odom was crucial in muting some of the noise.
The extent of what knowledge he lent to Pittman is unknown obviously. Early on in their tenure together, Pittman would bring up how they walked together quite often. How neat would it have been to listen in on those conversations? Nonetheless, the pair would eventually have to swap roles during the COVID season. Coming down with an illness before the game at Florida, Pittman had to leave the team. It was clear who was going to be given the key to the city as a result. With his experience, Odom wasn’t your typical interim head man.
Facing off against a stellar Gator squad, the game went by way of the oddsmakers. Even then, nothing felt any different from the other nine games that season. While an upset win would’ve bolstered Odom’s resume, it does put his name on the short list of Arkansas interim coaches in history.
Unleashing Jalen Catalon
The handling of Catalon by the previous staff doesn’t need a magnifying glass. Keeping the impressive athlete sidelined and only active on special teams played a role in the overall dumpster fire that was. Inheriting the diamond in the rough in the safety room was coach Odom. Going from the role of special teams to starting at safety would normally be nerve-racking, but Catalon’s maturity level and his coach would have him ready.
In just ten games in 2020, Catalon would rival the numbers of LSU’s Eric Berry as a freshman. 99 total tackles paired with his missile mentality would create two forced fumbles. He would also reel off three interceptions, one of which was a pick-six against Ole Miss. The injury bug that still plagues Catalon cannot be held against Odom’s legacy. Only playing half of the 2021 season, it felt like Catalon was on pace to repeat his dominant season previously.
Before the injuries began to harp on the Freshman All-American, becoming a day-one NFL Draft pick appeared within reach. Playing in Odom’s five-defensive back scheme allowed Catalon to play to his strengths while also leading the back end. A pure run-stopping force, he was also dominant when breaking on the football. Both of those strengths were at the forefront of his film and not an afterthought. Credit coach Odom for coaching with what he had and not what he wanted. Alongside becoming a natural fit in his defense, keeping his eyes glued to the film didn’t hurt.
Had Catalon not fallen victim to injury in 2021, there is a great chance he would be representing Arkansas in the National Football League. Adding a potential first-round pick to Odom’s body of work would’ve been a great addition.
Keeping Lane Kiffin up at Night
The pick-six via Jalen Catalon mentioned previously was just one of the many things that Odom’s defense did to Ole Miss in the 2020 season. In a game where the conditions were against either offense, Arkansas’ scheme only made things worse for the Rebels. The high flying, shot-taking scheme of Kiffin ran into a dangerous drop-eight zone headlined by Hudson Clark. The same scheme that brought Arkansas their first win of that season against Mississippi State. With six total interceptions thrown by Matt Corral, any coach would feel like tearing their hair out. Following the post-game press conference mood, it was highly likely that Kiffin didn’t sleep that night.
Fast-forward to the rematch in 2021. The game turned out to be one of the best of the season overall. Reversing the curse of failure from the year prior, the shootout fell into the hands of Ole Miss. Following the game, coach Kiffin wasn’t ashamed in admitting what Odom had done to him from the 2020 game. Watching film and understanding his scheme, Kiffin spent the summer and every day in between creating plays to gash Odom with. Planning for a game a year in advance is laughable, but it falls in line with everything Lane Kiffin.
For Odom, to be the one to bring a coach that much anger that he was a year-round focal point, that’s legend material. With Arkansas’ fans’ disdain for the Rebs, that thought sits well within. There’s no telling how many days Kiffin will spend after the drubbing that took place in Fayetteville this season.
The Negative: 2021 High to 2022 Low
This segment was inevitable. Not a ton will need to be mentioned on how far the defense fell compared to where they were last season. Everyone from the Twitter coaches to the casual fan all seemed to isolate one factor in particular. Odom’s inability to move on from a three-man front. While there were certainly some situations that had no business rushing just three linemen, it proves something else. It shows that Odom had confidence in his guys to make the plays that needed to be made. Whether that was stubbornness or actual faith, that’s something that will remain unknown. Even when the three-man front seemed to dominate the play calls, Arkansas managed to fall sixth in the FBS in sacks. It wasn’t that the defensive line was the issue on the schematic or talent level.
It was the inability to find success with the secondary and d-line at the same time. The secondary’s utter implosion from their 2021 form was the primary reason for relying on more guys in the back end. From a fan perspective, it felt like there was simply no answer. Inside the program, it certainly felt even more exaggerated.
A somewhat sour ending shouldn’t eliminate the great things that Odom brought with him for the three-year tenure. As a primary part of the staff that brought the program from the grave, take the negatives with a grain of salt. The ball is now in Pittman’s court to see who can replace his friend and hopefully take Arkansas to the next level.
His own legacy depends on it.