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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 has a mean streak as wide as the Mississippi

Arkansas v LSU
Henre Toliver and the Hog secondary hope to limit the Tide’s developing passing attack.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Ever heard the distinctively Alabama colloquialism, “he’s so mad he’d run at you like a bitin’ sow?” When one considers the Arkansas Razorbacks’ usually hard-nosed approach to smash-mouth football, the phrase comes to mind. Razorback teams are typically as tough and physical as their rip-snorting namesakes, and the annual fisticuffs with the bunch from across the Mississippi leaves both sides with ample bumps and bruises.

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 like the teams the coach fielded during his tenure at Wisconsin. They run the ball well behind a big, physical line, and they play the run well defensively, forcing opponents to beat them through the air.

This year is no different, 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. Just ask Texas A&M, who got all they wanted from an outgunned Razorback team a few weeks ago

Again in 2017, one can expect yet another brawl, as Alabama has returned to something more akin to its traditional mode of pro-style attack. And, it just so happens, the Razorbacks are well-versed in attacking pro-style offenses. Sure, Alabama has won the most recent contests since Bielema took over, but often, those wins have not been pretty. Coming off a rough outing against Texas A&M, Alabama needs a dominant performance to hold its swagger…the Tide needs flex its considerable muscle.

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 struggling 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, Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Robert Foster, and Josh Jacobs? Will the Razorbacks accomplish what they’ve failed to do in the previous few meetings by finally knocking off the Tide? Or will the Tide crush the Razorbacks as they have all other challengers this season? 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 just aren’t very deep, a characteristic which has haunted them already in the early going this season. The Razorbacks are also struggling to replace some solid talent in the front seven, as players like Deatrich Wise, Taiwan Johnson, JaMichael Winston, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Brooks Ellis, and Josh Williams have all moved on.

The result is that while the Razorbacks have solid starters, the men backing them up in the two-deep are mostly freshmen and sophomores with little true playing time to their credit. Physical defenses need to be able to rotate due to the play-after-play beating they dish (and receive), and thin depth can leave a unit gasping by the end of the third quarter.

That said, the starting defensive front for Arkansas represents the cream of the Razorback crop regarding talent, with several excellent big bodies who form the foundation for what defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads like to accomplish defensively. After yielding a league-worst 6.75 yards per play last year, Bielema and Rhoads have pivoted from the Hogs’ previous 4-3 front to a new 3-4 alignment which offers more personnel versatility to better deal with the divergent offenses of the SEC. The 3-4 front now consists of a heavy nose, two true ends, and a Razor linebacker-safety hybrid who spends a lot of time with his hand in the dirt as a pass rush specialist, much like Bama’s Jack linebacker.

Starting at defensive end is sophomore McTelvin Agim (6-3, 286 pounds), a player who is tailor-made for the 3-4 defensive end position with great reach and a good first step. Agim is a force of nature, a highly-regarded former five-star recruit who burst onto the scene for the Razorbacks last year while forcing himself into the lineup behind Ledbetter at tackle. Playing in his more natural position of end, 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 has been a statistical juggernaut thus far, accounting for 18 tackles, four tackles for loss, a sack, two passes broken up, and three quarterback hurries. Behind Agim are up-and-coming freshman Jonathan Marshall (6-3, 310 pounds), and junior Armon Watts (6-5, 309 pounds). Marshall has been active early, with three tackles and two quarterback hurries, while Watts has four tackles on the season.

The other end is held by sophomore T.J. Smith (6-3, 290 pounds), who while not a raw talent on par with Agim, has held his own well for Rhoads this season. Smith has 11 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble in the starting role this year. He is contributing despite little playing time before earning the starting role this season. Behind Smith is junior Jake Hall (6-5, 263 pounds) and freshman Briston Guidry (6-2, 279 pounds), both of whom have been called on to spell the starter this season. Hall has four tackles and a sack in 2017, while Guidry has three tackles and a forced fumble.

The nose is a critical position in any 3-4 scheme, as a large-bodied, block-soaking tackle is needed to seal the inside and free lanes for the aggressively attacking linebackers in pass rush and run defense. The Razorbacks have just that in the behemoth senior Bijhon Jackson (6-1, 339 pounds), a run-snuffer who can hold the point of attack for his defense and give them a chance to leverage the true advantage of the 3-4 style. Jackson may not post great stats (he has six tackles and a quarterback hurry in 2017), but that’s not his role. He is charged with taking blockers away from other more agile defenders, and he turns the running lanes between the tackles into an unnavigable maelstrom (He excels at both responsibilities). Behind Jackson is his heir apparent, sophomore Austin Capps (6-4, 300 pounds), another physically-imposing run-stuffer who has eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss on the season. 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. Freshman Dylan Hays is also expected to offer more depth at some point, though he hasn’t seen much playing time to date.

Though the defensive line is the strength of the team in regard to talent and depth, the linebacking corps is also well-seasoned and talented. As is the case in many 3-4 base defenses, the linebackers in the Hog lineup have specialized roles and must be intelligent, as they collectively handle many responsibilities from pass rush to run defense to coverage (at times).

In the middle at the Mike LB position, sophomore De’Jon Harris (6-0, 242 pounds) holds things down. Though new to a starting role, Harris 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. Harris is having himself a year already in 2017, with a team-leading 43 tackles, three tackles for loss, and two passes broken up to his credit. Relieving Harris is true freshman Grant Morgan (5-11, 220 pounds), another excellent run defender who has proven wise beyond his years in the early going. Morgan has already accounted for 14 tackles and half a tfl, two passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry despite limited playing time behind the starter.

Junior Will linebacker Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 229 pounds) offers a solid presence at the position after earning a starting role as a sophomore in 2016. Greenlaw has been a force so far in 2017, roaming sideline to sideline with his above-average speed en route to a team-leading 39 tackles, one pass broken up, and one quarterback hurry. 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. Once again, the second-stringer is a freshman, as Dee Walker steps in to spell Greenlaw. Walker has only four tackles in limited playing time.

At the Hog position (another colorful term in the Arky vocabulary) is senior Dwayne Eugene (6-1, 240 pounds). This spring, Bielema said the Hog is a linebacker-safety hybrid who can drop into coverage and give them a true nickel defense without nickel personnel. Eugene fits the bill to the letter, with excellent speed coupled with a big body. Eugene is asked to play the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage, giving the defense another element of subterfuge. Eugene has 17 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks on the season in his new role. Eugene is spelled by junior Gabe Richardson (6-3, 239 pounds), who has a single tackle in 2017.

At the pass rush specialist linebacking position known as the Razor in the Arkansas defensive vernacular is junior Randy Ramsey (6-4, 228 pounds), a player who would make a great Jack linebacker in Alabama’s style of 3-4 alignment, as he is primarily a pass rush specialist. Randy is another strong athlete who, while seemingly undersized as a proxy end at 228 pounds, is a ferocious pass rusher and edge-setting force for Rhoads. Ramsey has accounted for 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry as a starter this season.

Though the secondary may be considered the weakest link in an altogether decent 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 Henre’ Toliver (6-1, 185 pounds) and freshman Kamren Curl (6-1, 193 pounds). Tolliver is as seasoned as they come, with several years of starts under his belt. Toliver is exactly what observers expect in a SEC corner, physically speaking. The senior has elite speed and above-average coverage skills, though he is prone to a bust from time to time against top-flite talent. Toliver has been very active thus far this season, as he is credited with 10 tackles, three passes broken up, a fumble recovery, and an interception. Backing up Toliver is sophomore Brito Tutt (6-1, 179 pounds), though Tutt has only a single tackle on his stat line.

Kurl is a newcomer to the Razorback secondary, but he has excellent physical measurables and has acquitted himself well in the early going with 19 tackles and four passes broken up. Behind Curl is fellow freshman Chevin Calloway (5-10, 188 pounds), and the young corner has five tackles so far this season.

When the Razorbacks elect for a nickel look, they will often bring in former safety Kevin Richardson, who has done an excellent job in that role, as he has accounted for 14 tackles, one pass broken up, and an interception. The back-up nickel is freshman Micahh Smith (6-2, 211 pounds), another converted safety who can not only serve in coverage, but who has the bulk to help with the run. Smith has two tackles and a forced fumble to his credit.

The Razorbacks have a solid tandem of SEC-caliber safeties in senior free safety Josh Liddell (6-1, 211 pounds) and junior strong safety Santos Ramirez (6-2, 198 pounds). Liddell has been steady if unspectacular, as he has 11 tackles and a forced fumble on the season. However, his veteran presence is a steadying factor for a Arky secondary with four underclassmen in the two deep. Ramirez is a typical head-hunting strong safety who hits like a ton of dynamite, and he is adequate in coverage but devastating in run support. Ramirez is having an excellent year as a starter, with 24 tackles, a tackle for loss, four passes broken up, two forced fumbles, and an interception to date. Spelling Liddell is fellow senior DeAndre Coley (6-1, 211 pounds), who has five tackles on the season. Ramirez is backed by junior sparkplug Reid Miller (5-9, 201 pounds), who has two tackles this year.

How Arkansas’ defense can attack Alabama’s offense

Rhoads brings and old-school, physical, Big 10 mentality to the Arkansas defense, and his addition to the roster was in part driven by a need for the Hogs to shore up what has been a less-than-stellar secondary over the previous few seasons, and to convert the defense to a more versatile 3-4 scheme. Last season, the Razorbacks allowed 6.75 yards per play, which is just plain awful for a team with as much talent as the Hogs have on the defensive side of the ball.

The switch to the 3-4 has been somewhat painful, as evidenced by the Hogs’ defensive stats in the first half of the season. While the Razorbacks were well-suited in terms of personnel with some legitimate 3-4 talent in the front seven, the improvement hasn’t necessarily been instant. Such is to be expected, as the switch doesn’t just involve tinkered alignments and fancy new catch-names for positions, but rather, it is a more systemic change that takes time to fully implement.

The biggest change is that unlike the traditional 4-3, which is a one-gapping defense that allows linemen to hold set while linebackers crash through and aggressively attack gaps, the 3-4 is a two-gap defense. Players in the front are responsible for reading and reacting to the offense and selecting the proper gap responsibility, rather than simply attacking an assigned gap aggressively as is the case with more 4-3 defenses. There must still be aggressive play of course, but the 3-4 is a more cerebral scheme that requires repetition until the reads become instinctual and second nature.

Arkansas has not yet reached that point in their defensive evolution apparently, if the numbers are any indicator. Against the weaker half of their schedule, the Hogs have not fared particularly well in most major defensive categories, though they’ve likewise not been an absolute dumpster-fire defense. They are ranked 40th in overall defense (allowing 350.6 yards per game), 59th in rushing defense (146.0 yards per game), 39th in passing defense (204 yards per game), and 97th in scoring defense (31.4 points per game allowed).

Painted in those broad strokes, the Arkansas defense doesn’t look that bad, does it? But delving more deeply into more specific stats, it’s easy to see that the Hogs have some critical problems that are masked to a degree by those general numbers. Take, for example, the third-down defense. The Hogs are ranked 93rd, allowing conversions on nearly 42 percent of attempts. That is simply not a number that allows a physical, ball-control team like Arky to develop a winning formula. The red zone defense is even worse, ranked 104th nationally while allowing scores on 89.5 percent of opponent trips inside the 20. Again, for a team that wants to control the ball and win the field position battle, a red zone conversion rate like that can be a death knell.

There is also an overall lack of explosiveness that has hamstrung the Arkansas defense in large part, making the job of the offense that much more difficult to accomplish. In lieu of advanced S&P+ and Havoc metrics (which are only measured after Week 7 of the season), let’s look at the typical categories of explosiveness by which defenses are measured. The Razorbacks are ranked 93rd in team sacks thus far, with only eight sacks total (1.6 per game). The tackle for loss numbers are even more dire, as the Hogs are ranked 117th in that metric, with a mere 21 tackles for loss (by contrast, Alabama, ranked 65th, as 36). That breaks down to only 4.2 per game. These numbers are important because they point towards the damning end result: extended drives, a higher chance of offensive options on early downs, and the ability of the opposing offense to keep a defense off-balance.

It’s clear that Arkansas isn’t disrupting the passer, but are they making big plays in other ways? The answer is a decided, “no.” Another major indicator of defensive explosiveness comes in the form of turnovers. Arkansas is tied for 92nd in interceptions, as the entire cadre of veteran defensive backs has snared a grand total of three interceptions in 2017. Bama corner Levi Wallace alone has three interceptions, just for reference (the Tide has nine total). The Hogs are ranked 88th in turnover margin at minus-two, as they’ve only generated six turnovers over the entirety of the season to date.

Quite simply, no matter what the Razorbacks decide to do defensively, they are going to struggle to contain Alabama’s stable of elite playmakers. They’ll have to contend with not only Hurts as a runner, but Hurts as an improved passer. They’ll be forced to pitch underclassmen in against wave after wave of brutalizing running backs. They’ll have to hope their veteran secondary can cover for extended periods of time given their total lack of an effective pass rush (and Bama’s rigid O line that has allowed a mere seven sacks this season…good for 20th nationally). It’s hard to cypher a path to victory for a defense that seems to struggle against what the Tide does best, and that is so outgunned by skill position talent that regardless of scheme, it will be difficult to keep Bama in check.

Given the shift to the 3-4, expect Arkansas to first attempt to limit the buzz saw of the Bama running game. They’ll try to drive the run inside by setting the edges. They’ll try to snarl the interior with Jackson and the big ends Agim, Capps, and Smith and keep the Tide ground gains to a minimum. Whether they can do that remains to be seen. But, they couldn’t do it against lesser opposition, so the prospects for stopping Alabama’s battering ram running game are pretty bleak.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Arkansas frustrates the Tide on the ground…what happens then? Alabama’s passing game, still ranked in the bottom third of the nation, has made progress. Hurts is hitting passes that last year would have given him trouble, and there is a little swagger back in the Tide’s passing attack. If Hurts and the offense do need to go to the air, their prospects for taking advantage of thin depth in the second half are favorable at worst. The risk usually associated with passing will likely be diminished by the lack of pressure Hurts will face, as well as the seeming inability of the Razorbacks to generate turnovers, as previously mentioned. In fact, in light of that combination of factors (diminished pass rush, low risk of turnover, solid pass pro from the Bama O line, and skill mismatches between the Tide WRs and Hog DBs), Hurts could have one of his better days as a passer against the Arkansas defense.

How will Arky respond to the Tide air attack? Though they have extra DB schemes, don’t expect a whole lot of nickel looks against Alabama, as the Razorbacks largely trust their corners to do their jobs, rotating between zone coverage, Cover-Two, 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 using unconventional personnel (such as the Razor and Hog positions). In regard to pass defense, the recipe is simple: physical play and aggressive pass rush up front, steady, hold-the-rope play from the corners and safeties on the back-end. They haven’t consistently put that formula to use this season, and it’s doubtful they’ll do it this week against a talented Bama squad.

Surprisingly, it is regarding the run defense that the Razorbacks are struggling somewhat this season, as they are allowing 146 yards per game (59th nationally). While not as bad as Ole Miss’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 displaying better efficiency as a passer and Bama’s elite stable of backs, expect Alabama to pressure the Hog front seven with the running game early on. Alabama, after all, is averaging 301.7 yards per game on the ground, good for seventh 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 Arkansas’ fortunes regarding run defense has not been earth-shattering for the Razorbacks, however, as they still only cede 350.6 yards per game of total offense (40th nationally). However, because of other factors (such as the aforementioned lack of explosiveness and struggles with third-down and red zone defense), the Hog defense is putrid in scoring defense, where they rank 97th nationally, allowing 31.4 points per game.

Don’t expect anything out of the ordinary from Arkansas, as they don’t have the razzle-dazzle of the 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 (including the Razor pass rusher with a hand in the dirt) 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 familiarity and execution. Though there are many veterans on the Arky defense, few are veterans of execution in the 3-4 scheme’s first year. This could spell trouble for the Hogs when they line up across from easily the most talented offense in the conference, if not the nation.

The Result

First off, expect a physical, grinding game. Arkansas is good enough in pass defense (ranked 39th while allowing 204 yards per game, and they are ranked 56th in team passing efficiency 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 to run inside where their solid tackles and linebackers can make plays against the ball carriers.

Alabama seems to have moved away from a lot of quarterback option zone reads under OC Brian Daboll, either as a way of maintaining some suspense, or to allow Hurts to polish his passing skills for future games. The QB runs are still there to be sure, but they aren’t all of the zone-read option variety these days. It could just be that the Tide’s rejuvenated Power running game and bevy of backs makes the trickery of last year’s zone read option attack unnecessarily complex. Regardless, with Arkansas’ more traditional defensive style, one 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.

Though Arkansas doesn’t generate much pressure on the passer, the Arkansas secondary is workmanlike, so don’t expect a lot of downfield shots from the Tide offense early on. There may be more of that as the game wears on and the Hog defenders tire, but the risk-averse Bama offense would much rather run the ball straight between the tusks of the Razorback defense for as long as such a tactic remains profitable. Regardless of specific tactics, with a two-deep studded with freshmen, there’s no doubt that the rotation will be an issue for Arkansas, especially up front. Then, Daboll can allow 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 this week, just as it was last week against Texas A&M, though it likely won’t make for very entertaining viewing. Alabama’s offense has already 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 the Tide offense to change the formula this week. That said, if Alabama has early success with the running game, and if Hurts can run 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. 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. That said, one can again expect to see Alabama test the edges with the short passing and running back screen game. Arkansas will want to resist being spread thin up front, but Daboll can force that adjustment to loosen running lanes by having Hurts hit those effective wide receiver screens and the like. They 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 Daboll 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. After all, Bama is RTDB U, and even if Hurts could sling the ball around the field, the preference will always be to dispatch an ant not with a swatter, but with a warhammer. The Tide running game is that blunt-force weapon, and no matter how salty the Hogs are on Saturday, there is little reason to believe the defense won’t be obliterated by the Bama ground game.