Razorbacks play give and take on defense

When I was a young reporter covering Springdale High football, Jarrell Williams, the legendary longtime Springdale coach and former Razorback, told me that when you blitz, somebody’s band is going to be playing. You just hope it’s yours.

I know that saying didn’t originate with Williams, but nevertheless his point that there is a risk when you blitz is true. You give up something to get something, and you have to measure the cost. Is the reward worth the risk?

Going into this season, Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom and his defensive staff must have determined the reward for blitzing would be worth the risk.

The No. 10 Razorbacks (3-0, 1-0 SEC) have been aggressive on defense this season. They have played a four-man front more often than not, and they have brought pressure. Enough that they lead the nation in sacks with 17 on the season for 127 yards in losses.
Razorback linebacker Drew Sanders, a junior transfer from Alabama, is tied for the national lead in sacks with 5.5 per game. He leads Arkansas with 28 total tackles with 6.5 for a loss.

Those are impressive numbers through three games as a squad and individually for Sanders. Though he just has a three-game sample as a Hog, Sanders’ play reminds me of two-time All-American defensive end Billy Ray Smith Jr., who was an active edge rusher in his junior and senior seasons in 1981 and ‘82 after playing inside as a freshman and sophomore.

Smith went on to have a solid NFL career as a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers after being the first of three Hogs taken in the first round of 1983 NFL Draft. Running back Gary Anderson and defensive back Danny Walters were the other two first-rounders that year.

Next up for the No. 10 Razorbacks

Opponent: Texas A&M
When:  6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Streaming: ESPN

Remaining Schedule

Oct. 1 – Alabama
Oct. 8 – at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 – at BYU
Oct. 29 – at Auburn
Nov. 5 – Liberty
Nov. 12 – LSU
Nov. 19 – Ole Miss
Nov. 25 – at Missouri

That’s the good news of the situation. The bad news, though, has to be troubling to Odom, who also coaches the safeties, and head coach Sam Pittman. The bad news is that the Razorbacks are dead last in the nation in pass defense, surrendering an average 353 yards per game.

Playing a four-man front and blitzing means Arkansas is playing more man-to-man coverage, which has left players open too often. Arkansas has been able to affect quarterbacks enough to mitigate the amount of yardage they have given up to the pass so far, but the competition is taking a step up starting Saturday when the Hogs meet No. 23 Texas A&M in the Southwest Classic at 6 p.m. in AT&T Stadium at Arlington, Texas.

Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendall Briles made a pointed statement that I liked quite a bit in preseason camp about statistics. He was talking about stats for his quarterbacks, to be clear, but it pertains the situation with Arkansas’ defense, too.

“I’m not a stats guy,” Briles said. “Stats are good because people lie and numbers don’t, but I like winning. However we’ve got to win, I don’t care.”

If you win, it really doesn’t matter where you’re ranked in statistical categories. Former Razorback Lou Holtz was fond of saying the only stat that counts is the final score.

While I believe Pittman and Odom would probably agree with Briles and Holtz, they know as well as anyone that if the Razorbacks want to have the kind of success that everyone in and around the program desires, that the Razorbacks must do a better job of defending the pass.

Some of the issues stem from injuries. Preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon is out for the season. Nickel back Myles Slusher and cornerback LaDarrius Bishop have missed the last two games. They may play Saturday or they may not. Their return would certainly bolster the Hogs’ lineup.

Pittman said in his press conference Monday that Slusher has the ability to play nickel, corner or safety. Bishop would add another body at corner, which might allow Hudson Clark or Malik Chavis to help out at safety as well.

Pittman said the Razorbacks could play more in a three-man front to allow the back end to play more zone coverage, but that would also negate a lot of the pressure the Razorbacks have been able to generate from a four- or five-man pass rush.

Aggie quarterback Haynes King (33 of 55 with 2 Int.) is averaging 230.5 yards per game, but he was replaced as starter by LSU transfer Max Johnson after the loss to Appalachian State in Week 2.

Johnson led the Tigers to a 17-9 victory over then No. 13 Miami last week in his first start and should gain confidence from it. The lefty has completed 13-of-24 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. But if things don’t go well for Johnson, King has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 461 yards.

A&M’s leading receiver is the ultra-dangerous Ainias Smith, who has 14 receptions for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns. Evan Stewart is next with 10 receptions for 105 yards. Running back Devon Achane has good hands. He has 6 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. Achane is averaging 65.3 ypg. on the ground with 2 touchdowns.

Arkansas DL Eric Gregory (Arkansas Razorback Football)

The Aggies are well outfitted to test the Razorbacks on the ground, although the Hogs are ranked seventh in the nation against the rush, allowing just 68.3 ypg.

However, the Hogs are so bad statistically against the pass that they rank 105th in total defense, giving up 421.3 ypg. In contrast Texas A&M is ranked 31st in total defense, allowing 301.7 ypg.

Cincinnati and South Carolina weren’t bad opponents to start the season with, and Missouri State is an extremely well coached team offensively. I forgot how great Bobby Petrino was at isolating defenders with counter action and a passing tree designed to clear out areas of the field. His Missouri State squad’s execution was exceptional in their 38-27 loss to the Hogs.

No doubt A&M coach Jimbo Fisher picked up a few ideas on how to attack the Razorbacks with their pro-style offense, which is manned by the best talent the Hogs have seen so far this season. It likely will be the best talent the Hogs will see all season except for next Saturday’s date with No. 2 Alabama at 2:30 p.m. in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It was announced Monday that the Alabama game will be televised by CBS.

“SEC Nation” and “The Marty and McGee Show” will originate this weekend from Arlington, highlighting the Hogs’ clash with the Aggies.

Should Arkansas win, and Alabama beat Vandy on Saturday, there is a possibility ESPN’s “College GameDay” could broadcast from Fayetteville for the Alabama game. It would be the first time since the 2007 Tennessee game that the popular preview show had been staged from Fayetteville.