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Previewing Alabama versus Arkansas: The Razorback defense

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Usually underrated yet talented, this year’s incarnation of the Hog defense has experience and a mean streak as wide as the Mississippi

NCAA Football: Southwest Classic-Arkansas vs Texas A&M
Arkansas is much more fundamentally sound than they were when Bielema took over.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

During the Bret Bielema era of Arkansas football, there’s one thing that can be counted upon: namely, a physical, bruising style of play on both sides of the ball.

Known for their gargantuan players in the trenches and speedy, talented skill position players mined from neighboring states like Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, the Razorbacks under Bielema have been quite similar to the teams the coach fielded during his tenure at Wisconsin. They run the ball well behind a massive line with safe (if unspectacular) quarterback play, and they play the run well defensively, forcing opponents to beat them through the air.

This year may mark a slight departure from that usual caste, but some things will ever change so long as Bielema is at Arkansas. What may be refreshing for the Tide in this week’s game against the Razorbacks is the throwback nature of the contest at hand, as the Razorbacks represent a type of foe that Alabama doesn’t face often these days in the era of spread, fast-paced, flighty offenses. They are old-school, they are pro-style, and when the game is over, players on both sides of the ball will feel the aftershocks for days. It’s the kind of game that Nick Saban relishes, a throwback to the style prevalent in his own playing days, a game that separates men from boys and tests the mettle of those brave enough to step into the gridiron cage.

This year, one can expect little difference from the previous two years, when, despite the high-flying antics of Lane Kiffin’s offense, the Razorbacks have found a way to grind Alabama’s juggernaut to a near halt. Sure, Alabama has won both of the most recent contests, but neither win was pretty. Neither win saw the Tide flex its considerable muscle. Neither contest was reassuring for Tide fans looking for a glimmer of dominance heading into the always difficult midseason SEC stretch. As Saban’s defense has transitioned to a lighter, faster defense built to halt hurry-up, spread opponents, games against the likes of Arkansas’ ogres are all the more difficult.

Defensively, Arkansas has a veteran unit that rivals the one assembled by Alabama in terms of starts and experience, if not on the same par in terms of five-star talent. They’re big, they’re seasoned, and they’ll be out for blood as Alabama rolls into Fayetteville, giving the one-loss Hogs a chance to make a mark by beating the nation’s top-rated team.

Does the Arkansas defense really have what it takes to stop the likes of Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley and Josh Jacobs? Will the return of several key offensive playmakers for the Tide overwhelm the Hog defense despite their veteran status? Or will the Razorbacks accomplish what they’ve failed to do in the previous two meetings by finally knocking off the Tide? Questions will be answered, to be sure.

Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

In brief, Arkansas is big, athletic, and experienced at almost every position. They entered 2016 with nine of 11 starters from an underrated 2015 team returning to the fold, a stat which can’t be underestimated among SEC teams. Bear in mind, those two open spots were left vacant by the lofty likes of tackle DeMarcus Hodge and safety Rohan Gaines, but the players stepping behind them into the starting positions are not greenhorns. The Hogs have some five-star talent on the roster along the defensive line, and the linebackers are savvy and explosive. With a secondary that is only now beginning to come into its own, Arkansas’ defense is a unit that will only get better as the season progresses.

Nowhere is the Razorback defense deeper and more talented that along their defensive front. Starting at defensive end is junior Tevin Beanum (6-4, 251 pounds), a player who is tailor-made for the 4-3 defensive end position with great reach and a good first step. Beanum has been active in early 2016, accounting for 10 tackles. Behind him is another steady junior in Karl Roesler (6-1, 256 pounds), a player who would make a great jack linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, but in the 4-3 enters on passing downs as a pass rush specialist. Also in the rotation at end is sophomore Randy Ramsey (6-4, 228 pounds), another strong athlete who while seemingly undersized as an end at 228 pounds, is a ferocious pass rusher and edge-setting end. (Ramsey also sees time at linebacker situationally.) Ramsey has accounted for seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in relief this season.

The other bookend is likely early-round NFL Draft pick Deatrich Wise (6-5, 271 pounds). The senior is extremely talented and extremely active in both run defense and the pass rush. Wise is a terror when chasing quarterbacks, as offensive linemen have a hard time gaining the leverage advantage against him because of his polished technique, speed, and agility. He has excellent lean and generates a great deal of stress on blockers at the point of attack. Easily the Hogs’ best pass rusher, Wise has been a monster statistically-speaking in the early going of 2016, as he has recorded 22 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks a pass broken up and a forced fumble. Wise has the skill set that NFL scouts are looking for in a defensive end, and by this time next year he will be vying for playing time on an NFL roster somewhere. Spelling Wise is another senior in JaMichael Winston (6-4, 260 pounds), who has posted scant stats in 2016 in relief of Wise (three tackles).

As good as the Razorback defense ends are, the tackles may be equally as potent. Senior tackle Taiwan Johnson (6-2, 284 pounds) has been around the Razorback program for what seems like forever, and while he may be somewhat light for a prototypical SEC interior defender, he is no less explosive. Johnson is aggressive and fast, and he uses his slimmer frame as an advantage by playing fast and slippery. Johnson has accounted for 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and forced fumble, and provides a steady veteran presence in the heart of the Hog run defense.

The Hogs have a deep rotation at tackle as well, with freshman Austin Capps (6-4, 309 pounds) earning early playing time behind Johnson. Capps is Arkansas’ version of Da’ron Payne, as the big, powerful tackle can reportedly squat 600 pounds and has been called one of the strongest players on the team by none other than Bielema himself. Also in the mix at tackle is junior Bijhon Jackson (6-2, 335 pounds), who is an absolute load of run-stopping power up the middle. Think of Jackson as a player hand-cut to be a 3-4 nose tackle in Nick Saban’s system, and you’ll understand what kind of physical attributes and skill set he brings to the table.

At the other tackle position, the Hogs field steady senior Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 280 pounds) in the role previously filled by the now-departed Hodge. Ledbetter is an athletic tackle who sees a lot of action on passing downs, as his ability to rush the passer is bordering on elite. So far in 2016, Ledbetter has been responsible for 21 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two passes broken up, and a forced fumble. As with the other positions on the DL, Ledbetter has excellent depth behind him. True freshman McTelvin Agim is a force of nature, a highly-regarded five-star recruit who has burst onto the scene for the Razorbacks this year while forcing himself into the lineup. Agim is a future NFL prospect to be sure, with rare explosiveness that allows him to physically dominate more experienced offensive linemen. An excellent pass rusher with intuitive, inborn ability, Agim could end up unseating Ledbetter by season’s end…that’s just how good the guy is. In relief time this season, he has already posted nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Alabama will definitely need to be on top of its game in dealing with Agim and Ledbetter, as they are excellent pass rushers.

Though the defensive line is the strength of the team in regard to talent and depth, the linebacking corps is well-seasoned and talented in its own right. As is the case in many 4-3 base defenses, the linebackers in the Hog lineup are versatile and intelligent, as they handle a number of responsibilities from pass rush to run defense to coverage (at times). Senior Josh Williams (6-1, 249 pounds) mans the Sam LB role, and he is effective, with adequate speed and good football sense. Williams has accounted for 16 tackles this season. Spelling Williams is the aforementioned Ramsey, who when not seeing time at defensive end as a pass rush specialist, plays on the strong side of the Razorback defense as a linebacker.

In the middle at the Mike LB position, senior Brooks Ellis (6-2, 245 pounds) holds things down. Ellis is outstanding against the run as an extremely gap-sound decision maker who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to assist with bringing down the ball carrier. Ellis is having himself a year already in 2016, with 34 tackles, four tackles for loss, and an interception to his credit. Reliving Ellis is true freshman De’Jon Harris (6-0, 255 pounds), another excellent run defender who has proven wise beyond his years in the early going. Harris has already accounted for 11 tackles and half a sack despite limited playing time behind Ellis.

Will linebacker Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 226 pounds) may be the youngest among the starting linebackers (he is a sophomore), but he is just as talented as his senior counterparts. Greenlaw has been a force so far in 2016, roaming sideline to sideline with his above-average speed en route to a team-leading 35 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, an interception, and two forced fumbles. Greenlaw is disruptive and fast, and he can drop into coverage to become a proxy safety if the Razorbacks want a nickel look without the personnel changes.

Though the secondary may be considered the weakest link in an altogether excellent Razorback defense, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still one of the better secondaries the Tide has faced to date this season. At corner, the Hogs are starting senior Jared Collins (5-11, 173 pounds) and junior Henre’ Tolliver (6-1, 185 pounds). Collins is as seasoned as they come, as he and his back-up, fellow senior D.J. Dean (5-11, 199 pounds), have nearly 40 starts between them. Though Collins is undersized for an SEC corner, he is tenacious and skilled, especially when matched up against shifty-type receivers who rely on speed and quickness rather than size. Collins has recorded five tackles and a pass broken up this season, while Dean has three tackles on his ledger.

Tolliver is more similar to what observers expect in a SEC corner, physically speaking. Tolliver has elite speed and above-average coverage skills, though he is prone to a bust from time to time against top-flite talent. Tolliver has been very active thus far this season, as he is credited with 22 tackles, one tackle for loss, and an interception. Backing up Tolliver is sophomore Ryan Pulley (5-11, 198 pounds), and Pulley has seen a great deal of playing time for the Hogs this year with 17 tackles, an interception, and seven passes defended.

When the Razorbacks elect for a nickel look, they will often bring in safety Kevin Richardson, who has done an adequate job in that role (as well as in relief of the starters at times), as he has accounted for seven tackles.

How Arkansas’ defense can attack Alabama’s offense

The Arkansas defense is helmed by Robb Smith, who brings an old-school, physical mentality to the Arkansas defense. Smith’s task this season has been to find a way shore up what has been a less-than-stellar secondary over the previous few seasons. Last season, the Razorbacks were 117th in pass defense, which is just plain awful for a team with as much talent as the Hogs have on the defensive side of the ball. Part of the problem was an anemic pass rush that ranked 107th last season in team sacks, and outside of Wise, the Hogs lacked a dominant pass rusher despite lots of potential candidates.

To remedy the situation, Bielema and Smith went after two game-changing defenders up front, both of whom have pass rusher credentials and the potential to become some of the best defensive linemen to play at Arkansas in ages. Freshmen Agim and Capps are the real deal, and you won’t find two more impressive first-year players in the league on any defensive front seven. Because of these additions, and a focus on pressuring the passer, the Razorbacks have seen an amazing turnaround in their sack numbers, with the Hogs now rated in the nation’s top-50 in team sacks (33rd, to be exact).

Not only have the Razorbacks seen their sack numbers increase over the previous season, but that has translated to a solid pass defense and better play out of the secondary. Arkansas now has the nation’s 46th ranked pass defense, allowing only 211 yards through the air per game. With Alabama’s passing game still a work in progress, this new-and-improved pass defense could cause problems for the Tide as quarterback Jalen Hurts continues to develop. Alabama’s receivers will have the size advantage over the Hogs’ somewhat-undersized corners, but their aggressive style of play and the newfound ferocity of the pass rush create a combination that could be problematic for Alabama as it continues to make progress in the air attack.

And don’t expect a whole lot of nickel looks against Alabama, either, as the Razorbacks largely trust their corners to do their jobs, rotating between zone coverage, Cover-Two, press, and man, depending on the opponent. When opponents go three- and four-wides, the Arkansas may bring on an extra defensive back, but otherwise, they try to get the job done with more conventional sets, often asking their coverage-savvy linebackers to contribute. In regard to pass defense, the recipe is simple: physical play and aggressive pass rush up front with steady, hold-the-rope play from the corners and safeties on the back-end.

Schematically, Arkansas likes to play a lot of base quarters coverages (with some thirds, situationally) and a heavy dose of cover-3 against pro-style teams so that a safety can be committed to run support. Expect to see some man free coverage from the Razorbacks as well, at least until Alabama proves it can consistently torch the Arky defensive backs on short and intermediate routes. It will be interesting to see if the Arkansas defensive backs are up to the challenge of playing much press against Alabama’s physical receivers, as against big-bodied guys like Gehrig Dieter and O.J. Howard, blown attempts at press could result in big plays or routine third-down conversions.

When not in a nickel package, Arkansas will hope to control the middle short- and intermediate-range routes with their adept linebackers, specifically Ellis. This is a tactic that has had moderate success for the Razorbacks, as with confidence in Ellis’ ability to snuff out slants and screens underneath, Smith can dedicate his defensive backs to other responsibilities, such as helping out over the top to prevent his corners from being stuck on islands of man coverage, or using the quick defensive backs in the pass rush. Expect to see Toliver used as a blitzer several times in the game, as the Razorbacks like his speed against the lumbering tackles.

Surprisingly, it is in regard to the run defense that the Razorbacks are struggling to a larger degree this season, as they are allowing 163.4 yards per game (73rd nationally). While not as bad as Kentucky’s run defense, Arkansas is usually excellent versus the run while being mediocre against the pass. This will be a point of emphasis for Alabama, as with Hurts still not hitting on all cylinders as a passer and Josh Jacobs emerging as a home run threat at running back (as wella s the likely return of starter Damien Harris), expect Alabama to pressure the Hog front seven with the running game early on. Alabama, after all, is averaging 231.6 yards per game on the ground, good for 25th nationally. And it’s not like that yardage all comes from the running back position, as Hurts has become a weapon when he uses his legs to extend plays or pick up first-downs.

This reversal of fortunes in regard to run defense has not been earth-shattering for the Razorbacks, however, as they still only cede 374.4 yards per game of total offense (52nd nationally) and 23.2 points per game (47th) in scoring defense.

Don’t expect anything out of the ordinary from Arkansas, as they don’t have the razzle-dazzle of Ole Miss’ 4-2-5 or any of the other, more exotic systems that are permeating college football these days. What they do is as old as the Ozark foothills. They’ll stack beef in the box and attempt to stop the run in physical fashion. On obvious passing downs, they’ll send a blitzer or two, but in many cases, they’ll try to generate pressure with the four-man front and protect their secondary in the passing game with extra personnel (even if that manifests itself as a linebacker dropping into coverage). It’s a simple, tried-and-true system, and it depends heavily on execution. With a veteran defense like the one the Razorbacks field, execution shouldn’t be a problem.

The major knock against the Razorbacks this season has been their third-down defense, which is allowing conversions 47.8 percent of the time (which is good, or bad as it were, for 115th nationally). That does not bode well for Arkansas against Alabama, as the Tide sports a 48.7 percent conversion rate offensively, good for 23rd best in the nation. It won’t matter how well Arkansas plays on the other downs if they can’t stop Hurts and the Tide from converting third-downs. If the defense can’t get off the field, there is little chance they’ll stop the Tide offense, which thrives on long, pounding drives featuring a lot of plays and short gains.

The Result

First off, expect a physical, grinding game. Arkansas is good enough in pass defense to keep the Alabama offense vanilla early. That, in turn, will result in a great deal of the match-up between the Tide’s improving running game and Arkansas still somewhat suspect run defense. The Razorbacks have some girth in the heart of their defense, and they will attempt to keep Alabama from spreading them out, preferring instead to force the Tide’s running game back inside where their solid tackles and linebackers can make plays against the ball carriers.

When the Razorbacks see Alabama in an obvious run formation, expect to see the standard 4-3 look: Smith will load the box with a safety or two and hope to outman the Bama blocking scheme in the middle of the field.

Ultimately, because the Razorback defense doesn’t have elite speed at the edges, the defensive scheme requires that the outside linebackers work in tandem with the defensive ends to force the run back inside towards the cluster of big bodies between the tackles. Teams that have the speed to get outside of forced edges have success running the ball, and success running around end opens up the lanes inside as well. Therefore, it will be critical for Arkansas to seal the edges, which will be no small task against an Alabama offensive line that found its run-blocking groove. Because of this, the zone option with Hurts and Jacobs/ Harris pressing the edge could be extremely effective, and it will be critical for Arkansas to play that look well if they want to have any hope of stifling the edge running game.

That said, Alabama seems to have moved away from a lot of quarterback option zone reads in recent weeks, either as a way of maintaining some suspense, or to allow Hurts to polish his passing skills for future games. With Arkansas’ more traditional defensive style, we can reasonably expect to see some more of those designed runs for the quarterback, if for no other reason to create doubt in the minds of the Hog front seven defenders, pause that will give Alabama’s backs an extra step to make cuts and select the best gaps.

Because Arkansas does an adequate job of generating pressure on the passer, and because the Arkansas secondary is workmanlike, don’t expect a lot of downfield shots from the Tide offense early on. Even aside from the Razorback’s defense apparent strengths, Kiffin has fallen into a habit of spending the first half engaged in expeditionary probing as a play-caller to dissect a defense and find its weak spot. Once he does so, he allows the talent on the field to slice and dice the defense in the latter stages, as fatigue sets in and Alabama’s overwhelming load of talent takes over with fresh legs.

Such a tack would be wise again this week, though it likely won’t make for very entertaining viewing. Alabama’s offense has begun to draw the “boring style of play” criticism again this year, but what is boring to one man is brutally effective for another. Don’t expect Kiffin and the Tide offense to change the formula this week. That said, if Alabama has early success with the running game, and if Hurts is allowed to run the zone read keepers effectively, Arkansas will have no choice but to add defenders to the box, most likely in the form of safeties. If this happens, as solid as the Hog secondary can be, there is likely not a secondary in the country that can lock down the Tide’s wide receiver talent play-in and play-out. Add into the equation the possible return of Hurts’ favorite receiving target of the early season, ArDarius Stewart, and one can imagine that as the Razorbacks wear down, Hurts will have opportunities for big plays in the passing game.

While Arkansas does have good size and good talent, they are not a defense that blinds opponents with blazing speed. One can again expect to see Alabama test the edges with the short passing and screen game. Arkansas will want to resist being spread thin up front, but Kiffin can force them to make such an adjustment to loosen running lanes by having Hurts hit those effective wide receiver screens and the like.

Those short plays may not be pretty, but they accomplish several things. They draw defenders to the line of scrimmage, which sets up big play potential down field. They spread the defensive front to cheat towards the edges, thus opening interior space for the running game. They frustrate a defense, which can cause them to overplay receivers on short routes and create busted coverages. They keep the ball moving in short spurts, thus extending drives and placing stress on a defense that will eventually wither under the sheer bulk of time of possession.

It's a boring style of offense, some say. Others say it’s downright diabolical. For Kiffin and the Tide offense, it has been effective, and one can only imagine that the steady, crushing, monotonous march of the Tide offense will continue until Hurts develops as an elite downfield passing threat. As good as this Arkansas defense is, they will find it much more difficult to contain the Alabama offense with a legitimate running threat at quarterback. Kiffin has multiple weapons with which to attack the Hogs, and they will likely feel the bite of all of them before the game is over.

Don’t expect Arkansas to simply wilt late in the second half as numerous Tide opponents have done this year in previous contests. The single-most important thing that the Hog defense has in its favor is its experienced depth. There is an ungodly number of players in the two-deep who have more than eight starts beneath their respective belts. They will fight for four quarters, though they may succumb to Alabama’s anaconda strategy as the game wears on.

Make no mistake, while the stats on paper favor the Tide, this Arkansas defense won’t make things easy for Alabama. The Tide will need an excellent game plan from Kiffin, and they’ll need to execute at nearly 100 percent efficiency to come out of Fayetteville unscathed.