Defense to take center stage for Hogs at SEC Media Days

Since first-year Arkansas coach Chad Morris made his reputation with offense, it might seem a bit odd that the latest head Hog isn’t taking a single “skill player” with him to SEC Media Days next week.

Earlier in the week, Arkansas announced that seniors Santos Ramirez, a safety; Dre Greenlaw, a linebacker; and Hjalte Froholdt, an offensive lineman; would join Morris for the media circus that is SEC Media Days, that will be held at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta this year rather than its regular digs of Hoover, Ala.

The term “skill player” might rub players like Greenlaw, Ramirez, and Froholdt wrong, and it probably should. It refers to backs, receivers, and quarterbacks — guys who score touchdowns — but it is a misnomer. There is as much skill needed to play offensive line, linebacker or defensive back as any of the glory positions.

In the future, we might see Morris lean toward taking a quarterback, and a wide receiver along with a defensive player, instead of the Razorback lineup that will be on hand with him Tuesday afternoon.

However, it might be a good thing that his first Razorback team has strong leadership on the defensive side of the football with players like Ramirez and Greenlaw. As for Froholdt, no offensive-minded coach is going to mind having an All-American offensive line candidate as a leader in his locker room.

No, this isn’t the flashiest group Arkansas has ever taken to Hoover, but it is a trio that has played a lot of SEC football, and if the Hogs are to have a winning season, it’s a trio that’s going to have to provide great leadership as well as great play.

Any transition can be difficult, but Morris’ offensive and defensive schemes are very different than those run by the previous staff. Having great senior leadership can make the rough spots a bit smoother.

All three were probably forced into action too soon during previous Razorback coach Bret Bielema’s regime. Greenlaw, a Fayetteville High grad, admitted he was playing on instinct alone as a freshman starter at weak-side linebacker in the SEC after playing safety in high school. His instincts were good, but opponents did take advantage of his inexperience.

Now the headhunting senior, who will be a fourth-year starter for Arkansas, hopes the Razorbacks experience at linebacker which includes hard-hitting junior De’Jon Harris can make linebacker a strength instead of a soft spot to be exploited by opponents. Greenlaw (6-0, 226) made 95 tackles as a freshman and 103 as a junior. He made 42 tackles as a sophomore in an injury-shortened season.

Likewise, the Razorbacks have solid talent returning in the secondary where Ramirez (6-2, 195) roams this season as a free safety and vocal leader not only for his position group but the entire team. With 22 starts under his belt, Ramirez his a hard hitter, who has forced three fumbles in his career. He’s also good at playing the ball in the air with 8 pass breakups and an interception.

Forholdt (6-5, 315) played some as a defensive lineman as a freshman, but has been a consistent starter at guard for the Hogs the past two seasons. His head was on a swivel early in his sophomore season with pass protection, but the powerfully build yet athletic Froholdt worked himself into being Arkansas’ best NFL prospect going into the season.

Again, while Morris’ squads are known for offense, Arkansas’ defense may be called upon keep Arkansas in ballgames early in the season while the kinks are being worked out on offense. Morris did not name a starting quarterback coming out of spring practice with Ty Storey and Cole Kelley seemingly being 1A and 1B at the position.

Obviously, it would be good if one or the other would take the reins and establish themselves in the preseason, but that doesn’t always happen. Until a clear starter emerges at the position, and the offense finds its rhythm, the defense, coordinated by SEC veteran John “The Chief” Chavis will have the spotlight as it converts from the bend-but-don’t-break 3-4 alignment of former DC Paul Rhoads to Chavis’ more aggressive and attacking style.

Bielema didn’t leave the cupboard totally bare for Chavis. There is talent and experience for Chavis to deploy for a starting group, but after the starters, it gets thin. Injuries could really stunt the Razorbacks’ progress, and it’s football there will be injuries.

The Razorbacks’ offensive front has experienced and talented players on hand for Morris’ first season, but the offensive line never quite came together under Bielema’s final offensive line coach Kurt Anderson.

Maybe Morris’ line trainer Dustin Frey can pull the unit together that frankly underperformed the past two seasons. Morris’ spread scheme should give the offensive line cleaner looks both in the running and the pass game by forcing defenses to cover the length and the breadth of the field.

If Frey can get more out of these players than Anderson, that will only help Morris’ rebuilding and restructuring campaign with Arkansas’ program.