Perhaps the biggest surprise to me of anything Arkansas head football coach Sam Pittman expressed on Wednesday in his appearance on the podium at SEC Media Days in Atlanta was his praise for and the confidence in the Razorbacks’ defensive line.
I frankly had the defensive front pegged as the Hogs’ defense’s biggest question mark going into the season and perhaps the team’s biggest weakness.
That thought centered around the loss of three starters from the Hogs’ 3-2-6 alignment John Ridgeway, Tre Williams, and Markell Utsey, who are all prepping for a shot at making an NFL roster at the moment.
Not only that, the Razorbacks are welcoming in their fourth defensive line coach in as many years in veteran Deke Adams, whom Pittman credited with being a fine recruiter and coach as well as loyal.
It’s mildly interesting that UA defensive line coaches for the past two seasons Jermial Ashley (2021) and Derrick LeBlanc (2020) are no longer listed as part of the coaching staffs for those seasons on Arkansas’ online archive of coaching rosters. Maybe it’s just an oversight?
Adams came to Arkansas from Florida International, but he has a wealth of SEC experience during his 25-year coaching career with stops at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and South Carolina as well as stints at North Carolina and East Carolina on his resume.
“Our numbers are actually pretty good,” Pittman said. “We are actually over. We have 20, counting walk-ons. We needed some elite pass-rushers.”
The Hogs brought in 6-7, 275-pound sophomore Landon Jackson from LSU. Jackson hails from Texarkana, Texas and has the the size, speed, and quickness that every team looks for in a defensive end. Because of an injury, he only went through four workouts in the spring, but his athleticism stood out to Pittman.
“Landon Jackson came over with an injury,” Pittman said.“Wonderful person. Good kid. He’s just now healthy. He can run. He’s long. We felt like one of our issues was rushing the passer. He’ll help.”
Likewise senior Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Domineck (6-3, 251) is expected to help the Razorbacks as an edge rusher.
Razorback veterans Zach Williams (6-4, 245) of Little Rock and Jashaud Stewart (6-2, 243) of Jonesboro are experienced and improved players who could step into their own this fall.
Junior Eric Gregory (6-4, 302) of Memphis is as versatile of a defensive lineman as the Razorbacks have. He can play on the edge or line up inside, and be effective at either post.
Dorian Gerald (6-3, 256) returns for a sixth season with the Hogs after being granted another year of eligibility after suffering two early-season injuries during his career. He’s hoping to finally be able to show his talent for a full season.
“Dorian Gerald has been there so long, I told him the other day that I thought Houston Nutt brought him in,” Pittman joked. Nutt, of course, coached the Razorbacks from 1998-2008. Well before Gerald made it to campus.
“[Gerald] has been there 100 years,”Pittman said with a chuckle. “I don’t know how long Dorian has been there.”
Pittman liked what he saw out of the pass rush in the spring, and that should allow the Razorbacks to be more multiple in their defensive sets.
“So, we think we can get to the quarterback more,”Pittman said. “We also feel better with our cornerback situation where we can play more (man-to-man pass coverage).
“We’ve got to get guys behind the chains on first down. We did better last year. We have to continue to get better. Having man-to-man corners is going to help us do that. I feel a lot better…We’ll see what happens, but I think we’ll be much better on the D-line than we were a year ago.”
Being able to play man-to-man defense will allow defensive coordinator Barry Odom to run a four-man front more often than last season. Expect the Hogs to slip in and out of four and three-man fronts, if the Razorback corners can lock down receivers.
The Hogs toyed with walking up Alabama transfer Drew Sanders (6-5, 232) to defensive end from his linebacker spot at times to exploit his speed and ranginess on the edge.
In this role, Sanders’ stature might remind old-time Razorback fans of two-time All-American defensive end Billy Ray Smith Jr., who terrorized the Southwest Conference from 1979-82.
On the inside, Springdale senior Isaiah Nichols (6-3, 302) has started at tackle as a sophomore and basically split time with Utsey last season. He had an outstanding spring and is expected to be a leader for the Hogs this season. Cam Ball (6-5, 313) of Atlanta Georgia is a redshirt freshmen with SEC size and athleticism, but he lacks seasoning.
Terry Hampton (6-1, 314) of El Dorado transferred over from Arkansas State to add depth. Chicago native Taylor Lewis (6-3, 317) is a junior transfer from the College of the Canyons has an SEC build.
Mansfield, Texas junior Taurean Carter (6-3, 298) was having an outstanding spring until he injured a knee that required surgery. It’s uncertain when he will return, but when he does, Carter should have an impact up front for the Razorbacks.
With those type of numbers, preseason drills, which begin Aug. 5, should be highly competitive on the defensive front. The more Razorback defensive linemen who can prove they are ready for prime-time SEC play, the better the outlook is for the entire team.