Let's get the jokes out of the way early. Yes, indeed, Arkansas DOES have a defense. After finishing 12th in the SEC in total defense in 2013, it's not out of the question for some to hold their doubts. But this year, the Arkansas defense has a different tone, a more resolute will...something to prove, perhaps.
Thus far in 2014, the Arkansas defense has been a huge part of the progress the Razorbacks have made in their second year under Bret Bielema. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith has willed a squad that would be considered short on talent (in light of Arkansas' considerably more star-studded SEC West brethren) to play well above their heads.
A big part of that success can be attributed to the play of the defensive line, and in particular, the continued, steady performance of Trey Flowers.
Who in the heck is Trey Flowers?
A native Alabamian out of Huntsville's Columbia High School, Flowers wasn't offered by either in-state power. He did draw offers from UAB, Georgia Tech and South Alabama, but ultimately, the call of then-SEC-contender Arkansas (PMA = pre-motorcycle accident) was too much to ignore.
Despite the considerable turnover and instability of the program over the last five years, Flowers has been a constant. Since becoming a starter during his freshman campaign, Flowers has more than exceeded what little hype heralded his arrival in Fayetteville. Now a senior defensive end for the resurgent Arkansas defense, Flowers is off to the kind of season he hoped would propel both his Razorbacks and his draft stock (he was projected as a third-rounder in the '14 NFL Draft) forward in 2014.
After his All-SEC Freshman year in 2011, Flowers was a fixture on various All-SEC second and third teams in 2012 and 2013. Prior to the 2014 season, he was named to the All-SEC Pre-Season first team defense, based presumably upon his strong showing the previous year.
Thus far in 2014, Flowers' numbers have been strong for a leader of an Arkansas defense that has faced some formidable offensive threats thus far (Texas A&M and Texas Tech among them). He has accrued 26 total tackles (13 solo, 13 assists), four tackles for loss (for a total loss of 20 yards), one sack (for a loss of 11 yards), three PBU's and a forced fumble.
In 2013, Flowers had 44 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception, two passes broken up and five quarterback hurries. In a word, Flowers was a force from the defensive end position, playing opposite the now-departed former Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith (a fifth round selection of the Jacksonville Jaguars). Flowers had the stats and attention to take his chances in the 2014 NFL draft, but after receiving a third-round grade from the draft selection committee, he elected to stay his senior year with the Hogs in hopes of bettering his profile.
Flowers has been nothing if not consistent. Last season's numbers weren't an aberration, as he posted very similar numbers in 2012. In 2012, Flowers averaged 1.08 tackles for loss per game, and in 2013, he saw that average increase to 1.23 tfl's per game. Though that number has dropped slightly to 0.80 tfl's per game in 2014, the season is still young.
A multi-talented athlete (Flowers also played basketball for Columbia HS), Flowers has the prototypical build for a college defensive end. Long and lean, NFL scouts have rated Flowers' greatest asset his long, powerful arms, which allow him to win the leverage battle at the point of attack and shed blockers in pursuit of the quarterback. When he ropes in ball-carriers, he is aggressive in punching for the ball, as evidenced by his consistently-high forced fumble totals. Though not particularly quick or "fast-twitch," Flowers is known as a consistent pursuer who uses his physical assets and relentlessness to give opposing offensive linemen fits.
Not only is Flowers an impact-maker on the field, but he also serves as the grizzled veteran of an Arkansas defensive unit that fields a great deal of young talent, especially along the defensive line. After all, during Flowers' tenure at Arkansas, he's seen it all. He's had four different defensive coordinators in four years, not to mention playing for three head coaches in that same time frame. His fellow players respect his command on the field, said sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Lewis.
"Trey has been a great leader since we got here. He pretty much helped us get through our last season when it was like all of our first times playing and getting adjusted to going out and playing in front of big crowds. Trey just guided us and told us what we needed to do and what we didn't."
Flowers, an Economics major, is also an academic stalwart, having been named several times to the SEC Student-Athlete Academic Honor Roll. This rare combination of brawn and brains is why many scouts are interested in Flowers, despite his playing for an underwhelming defensive unit overall. (Here is a clip of Flowers at 2014 SEC Media Days.)
What to expect from Trey Flowers against Alabama
This, in short, is the week for Trey Flowers to shine against Alabama. Alabama's offensive line is dinged-up at best; a ramshackle, patchwork unit at worst. First-year left tackle Cameron Robinson has been fantastic for Alabama this season, playing well above the head of an 18-year-old true freshman. Austin Shepard has been strong against the pass rush, despite his woes in run blocking. From there, however, there is a great disturbance in the Force when it comes to the offensive line, with two starters (Arie Kouandjio and Ryan Kelly) possibly missing from an already underwhelming unit.
Whether Flowers lines up against Robinson or Shepard, expect him to wreak at least a little havoc. Sure, CamRob has been spectacular to date, but how will he fare against a cagey veteran in Flowers. If Flowers is matched against Shepard, expect Bama's most veteran offensive lineman to hold his own against the pass rush. In the run game, however, Flowers could make an impact when battling Bama's hot-and-cold right tackle.
Expect Flowers and fellow defensive linemen Darius Philon and Deatrich Wise Jr. to be disruptive versus both the pass and the run. There's just little chance that the Bama offensive line can be dominant in its current state, at the current time, when facing the kind of talent Arkansas has along the defensive line. Though Bama should still be able to make plays with their elite offensive talent, the rough-sledding in the running game will likely continue.
Flowers will be able to make his plays, and given his penchant for forcing fumbles, those plays could be catastrophic ones for an Alabama offense that routinely turns the ball over on fumbles. Despite what head coach Nick Saban has called an increased emphasis on ball protection, the results have not materialized. Flowers has incorporated tactics to exploit such weaknesses against opponents, so expect to see the ball on the ground again this weekend against Arkansas.
Alabama is also an offense that depends on positive yardage on early downs. If Flowers can continue his run of tackles for loss (especially on first and second downs), Alabama's chances of converting third downs will diminish, especially considering that the running game will likely sputter to an extent regardless of opponent with the offensive line substitutions.
Trey Flowers isn't Robert Nkemdiche. He is, however, an elite athlete with four years of seasoning in SEC trench warfare. Against a depleted Bama O line, that may be enough to cause problems. Stay tuned...
(To see a little more of Flowers and 2013 partner-in-crime Chris Smith vs. aTm, click here...)