One of the priorities for third-year Arkansas Razorback coach Sam Pittman during spring practice is retooling the Razorbacks’ defense, which lost six starters from last year’s 9-4 squad that closed out the year with a dominating 24-10 defeat of a depth-drained Penn State squad in the Outback Bowl.
Pittman, defensive coordinator Barry Odom, and the rest of the defensive staff are in the midst of that work now. The Hogs have seven practices under their belt, including last Saturday’s closed scrimmage, with eight more to go.
The Razorbacks will hold an open practice at 11 a.m. April 16 in Reynolds Razorback Stadium that will also be streamed on SEC Network Plus/ESPN Plus.
The biggest hole to fill on the team is along the defensive front with all three starters from last year — John Ridgeway, Tre Williams and Markell Utsey — moving on to attempt an NFL career.
But equal to that on Pittman’s and Odom’s list is discovering how much man-to-man coverage can the Hogs afford to play against one of the most challenging schedules in the nation, and whether or not the Hogs can pressure the quarterback without blitzing.
The two go hand-in-hand, and Pittman said the team is making progress on both fronts. The more man-to-man the secondary can handle, the more often the Razorbacks can play four down lineman. The better the Hogs become at man-to-man coverage, the easier it is to pick when they do want to blitz.
Pittman said last week a goal for the Hogs is improved first-down defense this season. Having the option of going with four linemen instead of three will be pivotal in reaching that goal.
The good news after Saturday’s scrimmage and Tuesday’s follow-up practice is that Pittman believes the Razorbacks are making progress. The defensive line showed up better Tuesday than they did in the scrimmage portion of last Saturday’s practice, Pittman said.
“There were few sacks in the actual scrimmage,” Pittman said. “…The offensive line played clean, but we had a lot in [situational] third-down work, bringing five guys [Tuesday].”
Pittman said the improving play of junior Taurean Carter (6-3, 298) and and the consistency of senior Isaiah Nichols (6-3, 302) at the tackles makes the possibility of playing a four-man front credible.
The quarterbacks are off limits from taking hits the entire spring, but Pittman said the duo are playing harder and playing well with their hands. Pittman credited the defensive line’s more explosive “get off” and improved hand placement to the efforts of experienced defensive line coach Deke Adams, who is in his first year of Pittman’s staff.
Pitman also like the improvement of redshirt freshman Cameron Ball (6-5, 313), who could work himself into the rotation with his size and athleticism if he continues to play well this spring and in preseason practice.
Coming out of the scrimmage, though, Pittman is still wondering who is going to be the pass-rushing defensive end the team needs. Pittman said the Hogs have the personnel to do it, and that they are getting better.
However, I expect Arkansas to scour the transfer portal after spring practice to find a difference-making pass rusher to transfer in if it can.
The Razorbacks were next to last in the SEC in sacks. That’s something Pittman and Odom would like to change this fall.
Again how much man coverage the Hogs can afford to play could be pivotal. Junior transfer Dwight McGlothern (6-2, 182) from LSU has worked into one of the starting cornerback spots. He’s rangy and quick with the type of length at the position that squads like Alabama, and Georgia routinely put on the field, although he’s a bit leaner than their ideal.
Junior Hudson Clark (6-2, 178) and senior Ladarius Bishop (6-0, 200) are battling for the other starting corner spot.
All-American safety candidate Jalen Catalon (5-10, 199) returns after missing half of last season with a shoulder injury. That allows Myles Slusher (6-0, 193) to shift to nickel back with returning starting senior Simeon Blair (5-10, 209) at the other safety.
Senior linebacker Bumper Pool (6-2, 232), who led the Hogs in tackles last year with 125, has a shot to usurp safety/linebacker Tony Bua’s Razorback record of 408 career tackles set in 2003.
Pool goes into the season with 349 career tackles, needing 60 to became the school leader in the category. That said, Pool will have the opportunity to play five seasons of college ball, compared to Bua’s four.
Junior transfer Drew Sanders (6-5, 232) from Alabama is running alongside Pool as a starter. Pittman said he likes the way both race to the football, but he also credited Chris “Pooh” Paul (6-1, 232) for standing out this spring, too.
Paul, however, suffered a concussion in Tuesday’s practice. Tight end Tre Knox (6-5, 233) is also out with a concussion suffered in a car accident during spring break. Right offensive tackle Dalton Wagoner (6-9, 337) missed practice with a bad back. Running back Dominique Johnson (6-1, 228) is recovering from surgery to his leg and will not practice the rest of the spring.
Senior left offensive tackle Luke Jones (6-5, 327) and junior left guard Brady Latham reaped plaudits from Pittman. He said Jones is coming on in his senior year.
“I like where Jones is going, and he’ll only get better,” Pittman said.
Pittman remarked that Latham is versatile, athletic, and smart enough to play all five spots on the offensive line.
Pittman said back-up quarterback Malik Hornsby (6-2, 187), who is so speedy he is also helping out at wide receiver, just played quarterback in the scrimmage, but more importantly added that he had his best practice of the spring in the scrimmage. Pittman also had praise for senior transfer QB Cade Fortin (6-3, 222), saying he is glad the Hogs have him.
Arkansas place kickers went 7 of 8 on attempts that were worked into the scrimmage. Sophomore Cam Little (6-2, 176) hit 3 of 4 of his tries, while senior transfer Jacob Bates (5-10, 203) kicked 4 of 4.
The Hogs have a crowded and talented running back room that goes at least four deep, particularly with the emergence of freshman Rashod Dubinion (5-10, 189) of Ellenwood, Ga.
“Dubinion cuts on a dime,” Pittman said. “He’s hard to tackle, very tough. Slippery, Slithery. When he makes a cut, it’s a cut. He can make you miss. He did that two or three times Tuesday in practice.”
Pittman said he’s liked the work of sophomore Rocket Sanders (6-2, 221), who was recruited as a receiver out of high school, but moved to running back last spring.
“He’s turned into a running back,” Pittman said. “Now he’s making cuts and seeing things before it happens. Last year he just took the ball and ran hard. He has the athletic ability to make you miss and to run over you.
“He says he understands things now, and he’s seeing things faster. You can tell. He’s getting north and south so much faster than he did last year. Not missing his reads nearly as often, but that was understandable because he never really played the position.”
While he’s not practicing because of injury, Johnson is still firmly in the mix when he returns.
“Dominque Johnson is as good a back as we have,” Pittman said. “We have four guys with the emergence of Dubinion. When Dominique gets back, we’ll have to see how we split the carries. Dominique is pretty special.”
RECRUITING EVALUATION PERIOD
Recruiting is ever present on Pittman’s mind, but he said that the Razorbacks will wait until after the dust settles on spring practice before canvassing the state at the end of the month.
He explained the coaches will remain on campus a few days after practice concludes on April 23 until hitting the road on the evening of April 27 to make the Hogs’ presence known to high school prospects and coaches around the state.
“We’ll stay in a couple days,” Pittman said. “Coaches will talk to our players, see who is thinking about transferring. We want to make sure the kids on our team are going to stay with us. Thursday and Friday (April 28 and 29), our coaches will be in schools. Ten coaches. Seven schools a day. That’s 140 schools.”
Certainly Pittman’s staff will be seeking athletes worthy of a scholarship, but he said the Razorbacks need a strong group of walk-ons for the next recruiting class to bolster the team’s numbers.