Harris, Agim, Curl to lead Razorback defense

Senior linebacker De’Jon Harris / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

There is a lot of give and take when trying to figure out what the outlook might be for the Arkansas Razorbacks defense in 2019.

For example, it’s the second full year for the squad in defensive coordinator John Chavis’ scheme. The returning players should be more comfortable in the system and understand their responsibilities better. Execution should be tighter.

However, the Razorbacks lost experienced players to graduation on all three levels of last year’s defense, productive guys like tackle Armon Watts, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, and defensive backs Santos Ramirez and Ryan Pulley. They will be missed as younger players are asked to step forward

That said, McTelvin Agim (6-3, 279) seems to be poised for a big senior year at defensive tackle, junior Camren Curl (6-2, 201) has matured into a very good safety, and senior linebacker De’Jon Harris (6-0, 245) may be the best pure football player on the team. They give the Razorbacks a leader at every level, which is crucial for a team that is going to count on many young players to fill in the gaps.

The Razorbacks played poorly on defense last season. The stats tell a grim tale. The Hogs were last in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up 21.7 points per game. Arkansas was 11th in rushing defense, allowing 167.8 yards a game, and the Razorbacks were 12th in passing defense, surrendering 191.8 points per game. All in all, Arkansas finished 11th in total defense, yielding 413.2 yards of offense a game. Arkansas was last in turnover margin at -10, making just 5 interceptions. Contributing to all of this was the offense being 10th in the league in time of possession at 29:51 a game.

Like Arkansas’ offense, it’s hard to imagine the defense playing any worse this year than last, but you never know.

Arkansas has the opportunity to be a good bit better on offense this season than last. That rising tide should help the defense.

No. 1, it should keep them off the field a bit more even in head coach Chad Morris’ hurry-up style. Fewer turnovers will help with field position, and more points would take even more pressure off. Defenses tend to play with more spirit and enthusiasm when their offense is putting points on the board.

So you see, a whole lot of give and take.

I think Arkansas will be better on defense in 2019, but it certainly won’t be a dominating unit. The best Hog fans can hope for is an opportunistic defense. Chavis’ plan is to pressure and cause turnovers. The Hogs weren’t able to accomplish that last year, but any improvement in that area will only help.

The Razorbacks will be thin on experience on the defensive front and secondary, and thin on quality numbers at linebacker.

Harris is considered one of the best linebackers in the SEC. He averaged 9.8 tackles per game, which led the SEC, and finished third overall with 118. LSU Devin White had 123 tackles and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Griffin had 119, but both played in a bowl game, while Harris didn’t.

He is a legitimate All-SEC candidate, which says a lot for a young man that competed for a team that was 2-10 and did not win an SEC game. In the past two years, he’s been in on 233 stops.

While those numbers are good, Chavis and the rest of the Razorback brain trust hope Arkansas can get by without Harris playing as many snaps in 2019. Games are won in the fourth quarter in the SEC, and so often last year Arkansas’ defensive mainstays were worn down by that point in the game. Getting more out of the offense will help, but the defense has to play better itself.

Sophomore Bumper Pool (6-2, 223) will likely start at strong-side linebacker with junior Hayden Henry (6-2, 222) on the weak side. Hard-nosed junior Grant Morgan (5-11, 220), junior Giovanni LaFrance (6-1, 248), and freshman Andrew Parker (6-2, 238) should see playing time up front, too.

Senior T.J. Smith (6-3, 304) is looking to have a break-out year like Watts did last year at tackle. He and Agim give Arkansas experience and talent on the inside. Senior Jamario Bell (6-5, 247) will have a shot at end, but expect Chavis to mix in a talented group of freshmen quickly because to their ability and out of necessity. Freshman Mataio Soli (6-4, 230) made a solid impression in the spring. Gabe Richardson (6-3, 240) and Dorian Gerald (6-3, 260) are former junior college transfers who might make an impact as seniors.

The Hogs might be even thinner in depth in the secondary where Curl is the clear ringleader at safety, but sophomore Joe Foucha (5-11, 198) is a heavy hitter who could start opposite him.. Sophomore Jacques McClellion (6-0, 170) returns at one corner, and Montaric “Buster” Brown (6-0, 187) is poised to take over the other starting spot.

Sophomore Myles Mason (6-2, 208), LaDarrius Bishop (6-0, 196), freshman Greg Brooks Jr. (5-11, 178), and freshman Devin Brooks (6-0, 190) as well as oft-injured senior Britto Tutt (6-1, 180) will had depth in what is a very young but talented position group.

Rebuilding a defense is a process, and it’s not an easy one when the building blocks aren’t already in place. Even with players like Harris, Agim, and Curl in place, there’s not enough experience to believe the Razorbacks can catapult to the middle of the SEC in defense, but with a solid recruiting class last winter, Arkansas’ defensive roster is growing in talent, which is good news for the future.

It’s just hard to know what type of growing pains those young players will put the Hogs through this year when they are forced into their SEC baptism of fire.