2021 PREVIEW: Grad transfers add experience, talent to Hogs’ defensive front

John Ridgeway, Markell Utsey and Tre Williams / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

When the Arkansas Razorbacks take the field in August for preseason practice, the defensive line group will have a decidedly different look with the infusion of talent from the transfer portal that should not only raise the numbers for the Hogs but also the experience, talent, size, and perhaps most importantly the competition.

Arkansas head football coach Sam Pittman summed up the situation like this last week at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

“We did enhance our football team, we believe, with some transfer-portal kids there,” the second-year Razorbacks’ coach said. “There are battles everywhere on the D-line.”

Pittman made drastic changes in the off-season to the defensive line room, starting with the hire of Jermial Ashley away from Tulsa to coach the position. Pittman came away impressed with Ashley’s work following spring drills.

In 2020, the Razorbacks lined up most often with a three-man front because it fit the personnel Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom could deploy the best. However, it often left the Razorbacks playing with one-hand tied around their back against most SEC.

The Hogs were last in the SEC with 14 sacks on the season for 103 yards in losses, and tied for 10th in tackles for losses with 50 for 177 yards. The Razorbacks gave up an average 192.1 yards rushing and 259.6 passing per game.

Odom, who uses multiple schemes, would like the option of using a four-man front more often this season, especially in short-yardage situations. Arkansas opponents had a 47 percent conversion rate on third down against the Hogs and 58 percent conversion rate on fourth down. Those aren’t winning numbers.

Close losses to Auburn, LSU, and Missouri could have gone the other way if the Razorbacks were just a little bit better on the defensive side of the football, where depth was lacking across the line and at linebacker.

The Razorbacks added three graduate-transfer seniors to the position group following spring practice that should help Odom and Ashley accomplish that task. The trio add talent, depth, and experience to the position group that frankly struggled all last season for a variety of reasons.

The graduation of John Marshall, who was drafted by in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the New York Jets, left a big hole to fill in the interior of the line, which Illinois State graduate-senior John Ridgeway (6-6, 325) of Bloomington, Ill. will help try to fill.

For Illinois State, Ridgeway made 22 tackles with three behind the line of scrimmage in four games for the Red Birds, who played a four-game spring schedule because of the pandemic. He had four quarterback hurries, broke up a pass, and made an interception for the Red Birds.

The other two senior-transfers come to the Razorbacks from Missouri where both were recruited there by Odom, when he was the Tigers’ head coach.

Tre Williams (6-5, 260) of Columbia, Mo. has great length and good size, but he offers experience in the system Ashley and Odom are counting on to make the Hogs better at stopping the run this season. Williams can play end or tackle in the four-man front. He made 85 tackles, including 15 for loss and 8.5 sacks during his career at Missouri.

Markell Utsey (6-4, 300) is a Little Rock native who also makes the move from Missouri to Arkansas. He’s a big physical lineman, who plays with leverage and excellent instincts. He also brings leadership qualities that all his coaches admire.

“They’ve looked good,” Pittman said at SEC Media Days. “We’re excited about Utsey, certainly Tre Williams, those guys have really added value to our football team. I think they’ll add depth and hopefully some of them can work their way up to starters for us as well. But they really look good.”

Returning All-American/All-SEC linebacker Grant Morgan has much to gain by the infusion of the talent up front. The interior lineman in the scheme work to occupy blockers to allow the Hogs’ linebackers to flow to the football. So far, Morgan’s been impressed by what he’s seen from the grad-seniors.

“Those three guys are very good,” Morgan said at SEC Media Days. “This off-season they’ve done very well. Ridgeway is the type of guy we can go on a three down, and he can hold two gaps in the middle, and he’ll make mine and Bumper’s [Pool] life really easy. He can also be in a four down. The thing with the three of them, and I’ll say this now, they all three can play both [in a four-man or three-man scheme]. Their bodies fit both. They’ve played in both before.”

The trio has already made an impression on the other side of the football, as well. Senior offensive tackle Myron Cunningham played against Williams and Utsey last season in the Hogs’ late-game 50-48 loss to Missouri.

“I’ve seen a big jump in our defensive ends, especially from the transfers that we’ve gotten, with Tre Williams and Markell Utsey,” Cunningham said at SEC Media Day. “Tre is very twitchy and he’s fast. With his knowledge of the game, I think he’s going to be one of our better pass rushers this upcoming year. Utsey, he’s very strong. He can play the end or he can play the three. He flips his hips really well. He’ll be a great addition to us. Ridgeway, he’s a very strong guy. He’s a wrestler I think, so that only helps on the D-line and in the trenches.”

Morgan already has a bit of competition going in the weight room with Utsey.

“Kell, he’s smart,” Morgan said. “He’s real strong; he’s physical. The way we’ve seen him, he’s really fluid in his hips. How he gets around the edge, he turns — they do a back drill where they flip their hips, and the way he flips his hips, it looks like he’s not 300 pounds. That’s really good to see that.”

Morgan’s also been impressed with Williams.

“We’re going to see him a lot off the edge this year just because that’s what we needed and that’s what we obviously needed to go get,” Morgan said. “He’s helped that group. He’s helped them compete too, and he’s helped them on what works for him, and so they try it out. He’s brought a lot of insight. They’ve all three brought a lot of insight. They’re going to be a good addition to our football team.”

Isaiah Nichols (6-3, 290) of Springdale had somewhat of a breakout year as a sophomore in 2020, and he’s expected to be a stalwart performer for the Hogs again this season. Sophomore Taurean Carter (6-3, 300) of Mansfield, Texas made strides in his consistency in the spring.

Sophomore Eric Gregory (6-4, 298) of Memphis is versatile enough to play tackle or end in Hogs’ scheme. Senior Dorian Gerald (6-3, 255) has shown promise for the Hogs, but injuries have slowed him in previous seasons. If he can stay healthy, he is an asset.

Junior Zach Williams (6-4, 260) of Little Rock had an excellent spring and will be counted on to play big for the Hogs this season.

Sophomore Jashaud Stewart (6-2, 240) of Jonesboro is undersized but performed well in the spring and has a promising future ahead of him as he adds size and strength.

Pittman said last week at SEC Media Days that he liked the progress the Hogs are making in the weight room this summer and credited strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker for the program he is overseeing.

“Jamil Walker’s done a really good job this summer of preparing our team,” Pittman said. “We’re bigger. Obviously we’re much stronger and with that becomes confidence, and we need some of that. I think you’ll see a confident, big football team out there next year.”

* This is the sixth in a position-by-position series previewing the 2021 Arkansas football team.