With preparation officially underway for the road trip to play Arkansas this weekend, we do have at least one interesting personnel change to start the week. Namely, Jerrell Harris spent this afternoon working at outside linebacker, where he spent Fall camp and most of his career at UA. After a position switch late in Fall camp, Harris has started the first three games of the season inside at the Will position.
Part of the move may not be a great surprise given Arkansas' passing game. Chavis Williams, who has been starting at Sam linebacker the first three weeks, is the first off the field when the Tide goes to the nickel package, and with that in mind he probably wouldn't have seen a great deal of playing time against Arkansas regardless of what happened with Harris. Furthermore, moving Harris outside may make it easier for Nick Saban and company to match him up in man coverage situations against Arkansas' standout tight end D.J. Williams, a sensible move considering that in all likelihood it will be Harris who draws that assignment more often than not.
Having said that, however, this move could just as easily be driven by concerns largely unrelated to the upcoming game against Arkansas or there much-ballyhooed passing attack. There were some worries before the season about the effectiveness of the run defense with no Terrence Cody manning the nose and an arguably undersized Harris playing inside at linebacker, and while that may not be the underlying culprit in our run defense, the point nevertheless remains that to date our run defense has been somewhat suspect. Penn State and Duke both found some degree of success on the ground, our defensive front seven has not been able to get the penetration needed to consistently generate tackles behind the line, and Saban explicitly called out the need to improve our performance against the run after the Duke game. Now all of that may not be the fault of Harris in particular, but that doesn't mean that this move may not be driven by a desire to get more size along the defensive interior.
Arkansas does generally struggle to run the football, as evidenced by the fact that they only have about 350 rushing yards combined in three games, but even so it should be noted that they do have big, physical tailbacks. Knile Davis is the smallest of the group, and he comes in at around 6'0 and 220 pounds. Broderick Green and Ronnie Wingo are even bigger, coming in at roughly 230 and 250 pounds, respectively. It hasn't been a productive running attack to date, but even so it is one that will require an opposing defense to be strong and physical along the interior to stop. Furthermore, as the season progresses, LSU and South Carolina look to sport physical running games, and we'll have to play accordingly to stop those attacks. In that regard, this move could at least be partially driven by an effort to improve our run defense in the coming weeks.
The question now becomes, I suppose, who plays the Will position if Harris stays outside? Nico Johnson started there a year ago after the knee injury to Dont'a Hightower, but for whatever reason his playing time has decreased significantly this season, and he seems an unlikely candidate at the moment. Furthermore, true freshman C.J. Mosley has seen increased playing time week-by-week after some strong early performances, but for now his specialty seems to be pass defense. It seems, for better or for worse, that the job will likely go to Chris Jordan. He was in line to start at the Will position until Harris made the late-camp move inside, and he would give us more size on the defensive interior. As long as he is fully healed from the shoulder injury he suffered against Penn State, which seems to be the case, expect him to start at the Will position if Harris remains outside.