Way Too Early 2023 Arkansas Football Questions – Defense Part 2

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, it led to a drop-off that drove many fans insane. Jalen Catalon’s injury plague left the secondary discombobulated and certainly vulnerable. The internal chaos summarized exactly how the season felt.  

As for what is left behind, there are just as many questions now as there were before Barry Odom’s departure. Speaking of departures, since the start of the season, 13 players entered from the defensive side of the ball. The most painful being the aforementioned Catalon. Even so, there is hardly any panic with the majority of the names that are a part of that list. 

As shift occurs with a coaching staff, roster turnover is simply natural. Outside of returning players or transfers can fill in, Travis Williams, the new defensive coordinator, brings his own bag of content. That bag not only includes building his own defensive staff, but a whole new scheme to dive head-first into. That being said, it’s never too early to look ahead in college football. Regarding a position group with lots of ridiculed air, let’s go there first.

How quickly can incoming players in the secondary provide aid?

The glowing need at corner isn’t as dire as it looked roughly a month ago. Dwight McGlothern announcing he’s returning for another season was a breath of fresh air. With the NFL Draft on his radar, it was a positive surprise. Without argument, McGlothern was the most consistent at the position. 

Going into next season, the former LSU transfer will be a virtual lock as a starter. Forcing four interceptions and two fumbles, he was a threat to opposing offenses. Alongside forcing turnovers, he compiled 53 total tackles, 43 of which were solo. Unfortunately, Dwight won’t be able to hold down both corner spots alone. The glaring need lies at the second corner position opposite of him and even more so on second team. 

That’s where the emergence of Quincy McAdoo comes into play. As a true freshman, the former wide out was shifted over to play a little defensive back. Prior to his first snaps there, many young receivers were getting their shots to experiment on defense. That movement halfway through the season turned into a potential career move. Laying the wood to Kansas’ Quentin Skinner in the Liberty bowl was the fitting cap to a great season. 30 tackles would be joined by two picks and six pass breakups. Despite just a half season of work, McAdoo became an SEC Freshman All-American. His youth prevents an easy path to claiming the other corner spot this early. Despite that query, he will have a ton of momentum to build on when spring ball begins.

With such the potential of such a successful duo, why fret? Giving up nearly 300 pass yards per game, there is plenty of room for improvement. The health of former starter Ladarrius Bishop will also be a key development. New players will be asked to stop the bleeding and fast. With the top incoming freshman being a corner, it’s clear coach Pittman wanted to address such an issue. Jaylon Braxton comes in from Frisco as a top 150 player according to the 247 Sports composite. Racking up plenty of power-five offers, Braxton now resides in Fayetteville as an early enrollee. A player that was also involved in track, he has the speed and measurables to bring an immediate impact. If there is any position for a freshman – especially of his caliber – to make a push, he’s in the right situation. 

Playing true freshman defensive backs in the SEC is dangerous, so it would be a safe bet that Arkansas isn’t done with the portal in the secondary. During the winter period, the portal did prove quite fruitful for the position group. 

The Baylor Duo

Insert former Bears Alfahiym (Al) Walcott and Lorando ‘Snaxx’ Johnson. A breakdown of their stats and recruiting profiles can be found here. The first of the two to commit was Walcott. He comes in with only a season of eligibility left as a graduate senior. Stepping out of the JUCO ranks into Waco didn’t bring about a fast start. Redshirting his first season, the next two would bring exponential growth. 

2021 wasn’t an incredible breakout year, but his three interceptions on the season proved he was a viable safety. Following former Baylor safety Jalen Pitre getting to the league, Walcott would have big shoes to fill in 2022. Attempting to live up to the status of the former Big XII defensive player of the year, Walcott would piece together a sensational season. Evolving into more of a hybrid safety, being a ball hawk wasn’t all that he was. Still snagging one pick, Walcott would compile a pair of sacks, handful of forced fumbles, and 82 total tackles. 

His success, especially last season, makes it difficult to not slot him as a starting safety for the Hogs. A group more wide open than any other, his experience and production is impossible to deny at the top.

Joining the Razorback movement a little after Walcott was Lorando Johnson. Playing two years at Baylor, he will come in with plenty of time to make an impact. His freshman season didn’t bring about any talking points, but he did encounter game experience. For 2022, a steady performance as a backup defensive back would allow him to start some games. Despite not filling up the stat sheet, Johnson did fill up the minds of opposing wide outs. 

Each of his 16 tackles last season were likely all remembered. Ranging from outside corner to nickel, he was notorious for tattooing ball carriers. His play style fits the Arkansas need at nickel seamlessly.  As he conforms to the SEC level, experience will be vital before claiming ‘Snaxx’ can crunch down on opposing receivers. 

What edge will new coordinator Travis Williams bring to revamp the defense? 

With a defense that fell off as much as it did, revamping won’t exactly be the story to tell. That’s why coach Williams was hired in the first place. Other than a dire need for a better pass defense, he brings in exactly what Pittman has looked for. 

For the goose chase that was the hiring process, things settled rather quickly. Marketing the city of Fayetteville to his family, coach Pittman knew “that was the biggest sell” during the process. Williams’ love he exhibits for his family doesn’t start and end with them. It reflects toward his players just as much. Talk around Orlando and his time in Auburn was backed up by his actions and players’ responses. 

In an interview with Travis Williams about his recruiting strategy, he broke down parts of his pitch which not only emphasizes bond, but his impact on youth.

“Do you want a real family atmosphere? Come on over, it’s not fake; we [are] gonna have you over at the house… You shoot pool, I shoot pool. You play basketball, I play basketball. You play video games, I play video games.” 

While being 40 years of age, coach Williams understands the relation with the upcoming generation is key. Not only for recruiting, but it goes back to coaching as well. Being able to prove the desire to relate while being there for a player, a bond can be strengthened faster than with a coach that just loves his kids. That’s the reality. 

Being a former linebacker at Auburn, harnessing SEC playing experience is another box checked off on his list. Following his playing career, he would stick with Auburn as a grad-assistant, analyst, and coach. Combining his years spent on the plains culminates 19 years – essentially half his life. The biggest standout about the SEC to coach Williams is the all-around competition. Whether it be on the field or recruiting, that was a big pull to land him from UCF. 

“Understanding the landscape, understanding what it takes, understanding the type of players you need to be successful in the SEC, that was a big selling point as well.” said Williams.

Recruiting and His Staff

Coach Pittman made it obvious, he wanted to bring in a coordinator that prioritized recruiting. Travis Williams is that and then some. While his most recent stop doesn’t exactly materialize the statement, his most recent class held slight proof. Before leaving UCF, the top five commits in their 2023 class were all defensive players. With multiple four-star caliber athletes lining their class, it was mostly in part to their DC. 

While a coach at Auburn, he had a little bit more to work with. Recruiting for the Tigers, Williams has many four-star players and even a five-star to his name. Guys like Owen Pappoe, Smoke Monday, and T.D Moultry were all cherry picked by Travis Williams. The rebuttal to that is the majority of his studs all came close to home. That’s a fact. However, stealing the best linebacker in the 2019 class away from Georgia and Alabama is no cakewalk. 

Things are a little different in Arkansas. The recruiting reality has always been to get guys on campus to put the foot in the door. A difference maker in Williams is that once they reach campus, he may just take the door off the hinges. The plan of making an impact on the recruiting trail extends to his staff hires also.

Marcus Woodson comes over from Florida State and is expected to take responsibility as co-defensive coordinator. Another coach with lots of committed talent to his name, he has been known for coaching defensive backs throughout his tenure. During his short stint in Tallahassee, players loaded up by way of Woodson. Also having a stop at Auburn, the narrative was practically the same there. 

With a defensive backs coach named and Travis Williams being the main coordinator, the hire may come off a little confusing. While being the second-hand man to coach Williams, it’s clear that recruiting was his number one title. 

The DB coach in question is the most recent hire and the third coach at the position in as many seasons. Deron Wilson comes in a little off the radar by way of Florida as quality control. His resume isn’t boosted by working in Florida, though. Prior to his move, he led a brutal defense at FCS program McNeese State. In 2021, alongside the conference player of the year, Wilson’s defense allowed just over 100 rush yards per game. That was near the top of the So-Con. 

Four years at UTSA led him to the job at McNeese. While having some top tier defenses during his tenure in San Antonio, the early development of Tariq Woolen may be the highest praise. Going from an average wide out, Woolen shifted over to be a massive corner out of desperation. After two years, the freakish athlete found his way to the NFL Combine and is now a contributor on the Seattle Seahawks. 

Wilson, barely eleven years removed from playing college ball, is another player that fits right in with coach Williams’ style. He has yet to prove his recruiting prowess, but if he’s anything like the pair, Wilson could be a sneaky good hire. 

Light Scheme Breakdown

A desire to play “intimidating defense” doesn’t quite pair up with Williams’ family oriented personality. While not using the word aggressive during his introductory press conference, it was clear what his message was. While being known as a less complicated defense, his play calling is ultra aggressive. To summarize, he’s a big time blitzer. Let the Barry Odom haters rejoice. 

The base of Williams’ defense is a four-man front, three linebacker set (4-3). While not unique to the times, it’s a scheme that is battle tested and will succeed with the right players. Willing to get multiple, a 4-2-5 look might make a lot more sense for Arkansas’ current roster status. 

Discussed in part one, the defensive line will have guys that need to step up, but the bodies are there. The addition of Mizzou transfer Trejan Jeffcoat only bolsters the scheme with a proven body. Embodying two linebackers more often fits the mold best for the time being. Not to mention, two linebacker sets were part of Barry Odom’s bread and butter. Williams, who will continue to coach linebackers, will have great pieces to mesh into his ideal set. Behind Pooh Paul and Antonio Grier, there is too much inexperience to rely on three linebacker sets early.

As long as the transfer portal continues to be kind to the secondary during the spring cycle, the nickel formation will fit fine. Bringing in the pair from Baylor helps the scheme tremendously. Lots of his designs encompass man-to-man with the corners and quarter looks. Those looks can be pulled off with three linebacker sets, but will likely be bound to two-backer sets also. 

With all of that said, a defense that is known as ‘simple’ might not set off the confetti from a fan perspective. What it does for the players is allow them to play more loosely. Rather than remember all the schemes, it keeps players from getting in their own way. That’s stellar, but it then comes down to talent.

Luckily, talent and athletes being brought in is exactly what coach Williams’ staff is here to do. For his base scheme to succeed, it will be vital that athletes make their way to Fayetteville. Looking at the floor for the staff, it isn’t very low. They know exactly what they are here to do and what needs to be changed. The ceiling on the other hand is quite lofty for what they have put together.

No matter what, just be delighted you don’t have to yell at the television for Odom to stop running the three-man front ever again.

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