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Previewing Alabama vs Arkansas: The Razorback defense

Facing a familiar foe in former Tennessee, LSU, and Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis, the Tide will bring a new toolbox into battle against the Razorbacks this season

Arkansas v Texas A&M
The Arkansas defense is improving, but still has a way to go.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When Kevin Sumlin was released from Texas A&M after the 2017 season, so too was one of the most decorated defensive coordinators in SEC history: John “Chief” Chavis. The architect of many historically-good Tennessee and LSU defenses, Chavis was able to get the defense-averse Aggies to play to a standard even though ultimately, he couldn’t replicate his previous successes during the tenure in College Station.

Chavis’ latest stop is in Fayetteville under first-year head coach Chad Morris. Chavis inherited a decent roster of defenders thanks to previous head coach Bret Bielema’s affinity for rugged defense, but thus far, the returns have not been overwhelmingly positive. The Hog defense is improving, but the improvement is measured to say the least. Chavis’ system is a complex one, and the Razorbacks have had a seemingly difficult time of adjusting.

Midway through the season in 2018, the Razorbacks are struggling by most measures. While not a dumpster fire scenario just yet, the Arkansas defense is ranked 92nd in the nation in scoring defense, 57th in total defense, 12th in third-down defense, 22nd in rushing defense, and 50th in sacks. There are still some areas of improvement to be sure (pass defense being the most glaring, as the Razorbacks are 99th in passing yardage allowed and 65th in team pass efficiency defense), but in watching the Arky defense, it’s not hard to see that with the players in place to run Chavis’ defense, dramatic improvement is only a step away.

However, does anyone expect them to dismantle the Crimson Tide’s seemingly unstoppable, multi-faceted offensive attack? Alabama’s offense under new coordinator Mike Locksley has seemingly evolved into a beast of terrifying capabilities. The passing attack has become nearly unstoppable. The interior running lanes which were clogged all too often in the opening weeks of the 2018 season have started to loosen. To date, no team has figured out how to rob Alabama of its myriad offensive options. Key on any of the Tide’s four big-play backs, and Tua Tagovailoa (or alternately, Jalen Hurts) will torch you. Try to drop a maximum number of men into coverage, and that commitment will result in your dispatching through the wave-behind-pounding-wave of a well-blocked running game. Load the box, and Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle will make you wish you’d stuck the edges.

There apparently aren’t many ways to stop one of the Tide’s methods of attack, and there are no ways to stop them all. Arkansas’s defense, improved or not, will have a difficult time dealing with what the Tide brings to the table this week. They will bring the pressure, they will try to clog passing lanes with aggressive DBs, and they will attempt to stop the run through unconventional sets. But will the result be any different from the results of games with other teams who figured they could stop Alabama’s offense? We will have to see. Until then, let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

Though it’s his first year with the Razorbacks after a stint in College Station, Chavis has many of the specific kinds of defensive players he leverages within the confines of his scheme already on the roster. As was the case at LSU and Texas A&M, Chavis likes to employ larger-framed defensive backs at the corners, physical defensive backs over 6’ feet in height who can run. He treats his safeties as linebackers with mad coverage skills, asking them to play a variety of coverages (Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover any-other-damn-number-you-can-think-of, Man, Zone, Press…he runs the gamut) while utilizing them as proxy linebackers against the run. His linebackers are the quarterbacks of the offense, while his defensive line is broken into two units: ends, who aggressively rush upfield as quarterback hunters, and tackles who eat space and snarl interior running lanes.

The strength of the Arkansas defense is its front seven, and it all starts with the big men up front. As has been Chavis’ preference in the past, he lines up two massive tackles inside, one traditional big end, and a more athletic speed rushing end on the other side. This year that speed rusher is senior Randy Ramsey (6-4, 236 pounds), a long, rangy speed demon around the end who gets up field with his agility and quickness. He’s a handful for opposing tackles and can snare up passing lanes with his long arms while in pursuit of the quarterback. Ramsey is off to a good start with 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry. Behind Ramsey is another veteran with great size and quickness in junior Gabe Richardson (6-3, 247 pounds). Richardson also has 11 tackles to go long with 1.5 tackles for loss, one pass broken up, two quarterback hurries, and one fumble recovery.

At the other end position, big junior McTelvin Agim (6-3, 280 pounds) fits the bill as an edge-setting anchor on the opposite side from Ramsey. Agim is off to a great start for the Hogs, registering 15 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass broken up, seven quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, and two forced fumbles. Agim’s back-up is senior Michael Taylor II (6-3, 252 pounds), and Taylor has been effective in relief with nine tackles, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble.

The Hogs always produce solid tackles, and they have a girthy duo inside again this season. Senior Armon Watts (6-5, 309 pounds) and junior T.J. Smith (6-3, 306 pounds) start in the heart of the Razorback defense, and they provide a wall of run-stopping power that is at least partly responsible for the Hogs’ formidable run defense. Watts leads defensive linemen in tackles (17) and sacks (4), in addition to 4.5 tackles for loss, a pass broken up, two quarterback hurries, and two forced fumbles. Smith is off to a slower start with 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack. Behind them are a pair of strong sophomores in Briston Guidry (6-3, 304 pounds) and Jonathan Marshall (6-3, 307 pounds). Guidry has nine tackles, a tackle for loss, two passes broken up, and a fumble recovery. Marshall is credited with four tackles.

The linebacking corps is led by longtime starter and senior Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 226 pounds). Greenlaw has the hitting power of a linebacker with the speed of a safety and is a worthy leader of the Hog defense. Greenlaw has 31 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble to his credit. He is spelled by the interestingly named true freshman Bumper Pool (6-2, 214 pounds), a future starter who already has 13 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up, a quarterback hurry, a fumble recovery, and a blocked kick on his ledger this season.

The Razorbacks’ leading tackler thus far in the year is Mike LB De’Jon Harris (6-0, 239 pounds), a lumbering heavy-hitter who plays well between the tackles. He has 53 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, four passes broken up, and a forced fumble. He is a weapon against the running game, though he has good lateral quickness for a big man. Behind him is sophomore Grant Morgan (5-11, 230 pounds), and Morgan has seen enough playing time to register 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and a quarterback hurry.

At Sam, sophomore Hayden Henry (6-1, 211 pounds) is first up, and he has seven tackles on the season. Behind him is another sophomore in Deon Edwards (6-1, 215 pounds). Edwards has five tackles on the year and an assist on a tackle for loss.

The secondary is the trouble spot for the Arkansas defense, not because of a lack of talent but rather a lack of experience. There are only two upper classmen in the starting rotation. One of them is corner Ryan Pulley (5-11, 198 pounds). Pulley has been active, with 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, and three passes broken up. He is relieved by redshirt freshman Montaric Brown (6-0, 181 pounds), though Brown has seen only marginal playing time and has registered just three tackles.

At the other corner position is a redshirt freshman, Jarques McClellion (6-0, 172 pounds). Though a first-time starter, McClellion has been active with 13 tackles and three passes broken up. Brown does double-duty as a reserve at both corners, but the Razorbacks will also stick senior Nate Dalton (6-3, 188 pounds) at corner at times. Dalton rotates in at nickel as well and has seven tackles on the season.

The primary nickel when the Razorbacks go into five DB looks is sophomore D’Vone McClure (6-2, 222 pounds), a prototypical safety-type player with corner speed. McClure has 12 tackles this season in addition to a sack, two passes broken up, and a forced fumble. When he goes out, sophomore Derrick Munson enters, and he has 12 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack this season.

The starting free safety is the well-seasoned senior Santos Ramirez (6-2, 195 pounds). He has a solid skill set and could be the best defensive back on the Hogs’ roster. So far this year, he’s been busy, with 35 tackles and a fumble recovery to his credit. The depth is shallow behind him (as is the case throughout the secondary), as he is backed up by a true freshman in Joseph Foucha (5-11, 190 pounds. Foucha has three tackles this season.

The strong safety is sophomore Kamren Curl (6-2, 188 pounds), a newcomer who has an excellent skill set and is developing his grasp on the Chavis system. He’s gotten better with each week as he acclimates to his role in coverage and run support. Curl has 24 tackles, three passes broken up, and a forced fumble this season. Once again, his relief comes in the form of freshman Myles Mason (6-2, 205 pounds), who has a single tackle in 2018.

How Arkansas will attack the Alabama offense

If John Chavis knows anything, he knows what to expect when he matches up his defense against the Alabama Crimson Tide. At LSU, the Tigers and Tide were involved in countless, high-stakes grudge matches which featured physical defensive play and pounding pro-style offense peppered with big plays. The introduction of Mike Locksley’s advanced iteration of the pro-style pass-first offense with spread concepts may change that dynamic however, as Chavis will need to have his defense primed to protect against an explosive passing game led by Tua. Alabama has diverged from what the team has always done: run the ball, set up the pass off the success of the run, take what defenses are giving, and play field-control football. The Tide offense is now a fully-arrayed war machine capable of dispatching opponents by a number of means, preferably through the dynamic passing game. Whereas last year, Chavis faced a spread, one-read option attack run by Hurts and the Crimson Tide, this year’s scheme will demand that Chavis finds a way to lock down the passing game first before worrying about the run.

That, however, is a problem. Arkansas’ strength as a unit to date has been its run defense. The Hogs are ranked 57th in total defense, giving up 362.4 yards per game. The run defense has been stout in giving up only 105.8 yards per game to rank 22nd in the nation (a good bit better than Alabama’s own usually-stubborn run defense, as the Tide is ranked 43rd, giving up 126.8 yards per game on the ground).

The ugly side of the equation could be what damns the Hogs defensively, as their pass defense has been atrocious. They have allowed 256.6 yards per game through the air (99th nationally), and they’ve yet to play a truly explosive passing offense. That is a weakness that Chavis will have trouble masking, as he’s always depended on elite defensive backs to make his system work. Unfortunately for him, the Razorbacks’ backfield is far from loaded, as they are relying on freshmen or redshirt freshmen with five of them in their two-deep at the corner and safety positions.

Despite the apparent weaknesses of the Razorbacks’ air defense, don’t expect Chavis to go changing his game plan too terribly much. After all, Alabama’s offense still likes to create space for its elite receiving targets with spread concepts, and the Tide has one of the nation’s premier mobile quarterbacks in Tagovailoa. Chavis made his living at LSU with a defense designed to negate some of the benefits of those same spread schemes featuring mobile QBs. When no one could stop Johnny Manziel and A&M’s offense in 2012, Chavis proved it could be done. LSU’s defenses under Chavis were always well-equipped against teams with mobile, elusive QBs, and Alabama’s multi-pronged ground attack will create an interesting dynamic when the two old foes meet once again.

Regardless of any apparent talent disparities or tweaks to the Alabama offense to make it more dynamic, Chavis’ defenses have generally given Alabama a test. Arkansas’ defensive talent level in 2018 is a few studs shy of the rosters of Chavis’ LSU teams in their prime, and there’s no doubt that even with a decent Hog pass rush, Arky will have a tough time stopping the Tide’s aerial assault.

Given the eyeball test this season, Arkansas would seem to have an improved run defense, with aggressive play up front and solid linebackers. That would appear at first glance to be a good thing, since the Tide has stuttered in the ground game in the early going. But it won’t be the running game that beats Arkansas this season. The Tide doesn’t have to lean on the running game, and the once one-dimensional Bama game plan has evolved into a hydra able to attack from any angle. How will Chavis deal with that, especially with a lesser roster than he’s accustomed to coaching?

Traditionally speaking, when playing pro-style, run-based offenses, Chavis takes a rather straight-forward approach against the run, at least regarding execution. While his fronts are multiple and offer confusing looks for quarterbacks and offensive linemen, at heart, the scheme is the typical 4-3. Ends apply pressure while acting as contain for outside runs, tackles take on doubles to free ends while clogging interior running lanes, linebackers flow into the gaps after making reads on the action at the snap, and at least one safety plays close to the box as a run-stopper while taking away the underneath middle passing lanes.

Tua is a game-changer in this regard, as he can take advantage of cheating safeties like no Alabama QB in recent memory. The Tide’s receivers and tight end Irv Smith are the medicine for Chavis’ typical mode of attack against a pro-style offense. If the Hogs cheat a safety up, Tua will slice and dice the thinned secondary with surgical passes to receivers who specialize in YAC. If they keep the safeties back in a two-high look to beef up coverage, Locksley can call underneath passes to get the ball in the hands of playmakers and pound in between the tackles with the running game. It’s a pick-your-poison equation for Chavis, and he knows it.

What usually makes Chavis’ packages so effective is the way he masks his schemes with a variety of fronts, as well as the versatility of defensive tactics he can run out of each front. For example, take his spread-killing “mustang” defense. Chavis uses this package against spread teams, or when other offenses go into four- or five-receiver sets. This defense becomes a hybrid, with six defensive backs (including a nickel and dime), three defensive linemen (including a heavy DT playing a traditional nose role) and two linebackers.

From that set, defensive backs can drop and play a variety of coverages, or he can use the dime, for example, to apply a quick-sting of pressure to the quarterback unblocked, a tactic amplified by the size and speed of his defensive backs. This set will likely be used against Alabama’s offense, which uses spread formations and RPO options to fool defenders while maintaining the smash-mouth, physical inside/ outside zone blocking up front to physically dominate opposing fronts. This scheme can help neutralize some of the inherent benefit of space created by spread formations, and it can allow players from several positions to potentially penetrate and disrupt the timing of Bama’s well-oiled passing attack.

To counter what Chavis and the Razorbacks do with fronts and coverage-masking, Alabama may pivot slightly more to the usage of RPO plays that give Tua the ability to read specific defenders after the snap within a set of packaged plays and choose the best play for the defense. After former OC Brian Daboll used RPOs less prolifically in 2017, Locksley has seemingly resurrected their use in the early going of 2018 thanks to the cerebral Tua under center. The RPOs give offenses a way of neutralizing a bit of the advantage offered by defenses like Chavis’ by luring them (post-snap) into, say, a run look complete with a pulling guard or tight end lead blocker. The quarterback can still elect to pass, thus extending the subterfuge to increase the chances for a successful play against an aggressive defense. While one can expect to see Alabama test the burgeoning confidence of the Razorback run defense with a healthy helping of the ground game, the RPOs will offer the Tide big-play opportunities against an Arky unit that is still learning the mental discipline required to execute the Chavis attack.

Regarding the running game, Alabama will have its share of success running at the spaces vacated by the fast, aggressive pass-rush of the cadre of Razorback defensive ends. The Tide was able to execute that game plan to the letter during Chavis’ tenure in College Station, and they had success on the ground as a result. The ends in Chavis’ defense get upfield so fast that they often bracket the run, forcing it inside into the thick of the Hog front. Against Alabama, though, doing so could create seams that can be exploited by Alabama’s blocking schemes and running backs, especially if some sort of delay or timing call is used to allow time for the space to open. Whereas last season Alabama ran a lot of zone read and inverted veer option packages against Chavis’ Aggie defense that stressed the defense on the edge as well as the interior, Alabama has shifted back to a more straight-up attack on the ground. There’s not as much misdirection and subterfuge, but rather, the Tide relies on physical domination and execution of the blocking scheme to spring the backs, regardless of whether they attack the edges or slash the middle.

While Chavis may not be an advocate of the “mush rush,” one must expect him to find a balance between rattling Alabama’s agile signal caller with the rush and overpursuit that allows Bama to attack the edges of the defense. Alabama has two choices in dealing with the Arkansas ends in the run game: either block them straight up (with a double-team on the end to the play side) and hope the tackles can hold the line against the Razorback’s quick, talented pass rushers, or let the ends over-penetrate purposefully in a rope-a-dope and run to the gaps they vacated.

The Hog defense may try to take chances using their defensive backs (particularly safeties) to fill gaps vacated by the ends, but that will require man coverage from their corners against the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs. Either of the trio has an advantage over any Arkansas DB, and their electric speed and high-point ability will give Bama’s receivers a chance to make plays over the middle. It would be a calculated risk for the Razorbacks, especially with Tua’s command of the passing game, but it may be one the Razorbacks are forced to test if the Tide finds a way to settle into a rhythm on the ground and run at will.

If Alabama’s tackles can’t handle the pass rush created by the Hog D line (their pass rush is decent, ranked 50th nationally with 12 sacks on the season or 2.4 per game), the Tide may be forced to move the pocket to give Tagovailoa an extra second or two to diagnose the defense. Unlike in the last several meetings between a Chavis-coached defense and the Tide offense, Tua can do things through the air that are unprecedented in recent history. He processes defenses, gets the ball out quickly and decisively, and delivers it surgically. There’s not much a defense can do to stop that, and with the quarterback’s ability to execute a play in mere seconds, even a good pass rush will have a hard time disrupting the Tide’s offense.

That said, there are pitfalls for Tua (and likely Jalen Hurts later in the game) through the air, as the Hogs have turnover ability (they have 10 for the season, three passes, seven fumbles), and in the scheme, they will be prime to rob passing routes and create havoc. Still, despite the decent pressure the Arky front has gotten in 2018, the pass defense is lacking. Even their pass efficiency defense numbers look pretty mediocre, as they rank 65th in the country. This is largely due to thin depth and a dependence on largely inexperienced players. Chavis has the bodies he wants (he prefers big defensive backs and has seven on his two-deep over six feet tall), but it’s the minds that must be developed before the Razorbacks can become a formidable secondary. For the moment, however, Alabama will have an opportunity to further hone their passing attack against an Arkansas pass defense that has plenty of weaknesses, especially if the Tide can force the them to keep eight in the box by establishing the run early.

Regardless of the methodology, the Hog defense will do whatever it can to limit the Tide to third-and-long attempts, where they have been above average this season (ranked 12th in third-down defense, allowing conversions on only 28.2 percent of attempts). Three-and-outs are the bread and butter of Chavis defenses, and that’s the only way a stagnant Arkansas offense will be able to match pace with the Tide’s juggernaut. Unlike in past seasons when the Tide depended on the run, this year’s team isn’t as hamstrung by third-downs as its previous incarnations. They are converting at a rate of 59.7 percent (second nationally), so even if the Hogs can create third-down-and-distance situations, they may not be able to snuff the Bama offense with consistency.

In this situation, even if Chavis can get his guys to play up and hit all their keys, there are going to need a great deal of help to pull off a miracle. Chavis’ scheme can only carry them so far, and they’ll need a heaping helping of good fortune to even slow Tua and the Tide. The Razorbacks must be disruptive, take advantage of turnovers when luck strikes, and keep the Tide from converting third downs, which again, is easier said than done.

The Result

There’s no need to beat around the bush. There’s little reason to believe that this Arkansas defense will be able to do what no other defense has done to date.

Alabama’s weapons far outpace those of the Hog defense, and barring unforeseen circumstances, the Tide offense will roll on them just as it did on the first two SEC opponents on Bama’s schedule this season. While Arkansas’ run defense is better than the one the Tide faced in Oxford, the secondary is equally as wretched…and we all see how that turned out. Arkansas was in a dogfight with A&M last week but came out on the short end of the stick. If that defense couldn’t shut down Kellen Mond and an offense that the Tide largely corralled, there’s no reason to believe Arkansas can do that to a vastly more explosive Bama offense.

Sure, John Chavis has already drummed improvement into the Arkansas defense. But that doesn’t mean they have the bodies on the field to handle the Tide. Six of the eight players in the two-deep at corner and safety are freshmen or sophomores. That doesn’t sound like the recipe for stemming the Tide’s passing attack with a generational talent calling the shots and a bevy of elite receivers.

Chavis’ system works best with elite talent at key positions. He must have world-beaters on the defensive line. He must have big physical corners with elite cover skills. He needs safeties who have the size to be head-hunters in run support but who can also pivot and cover receivers with equal aptitude. He had that talent in Tennessee, and he had it on the Bayou. At Texas A&M, with marginal talent in the secondary (at best), the shine began to fade on the Chavis defense. With Arkansas’ limited recruiting base, that shine will all but oxidize away while the Razorbacks continue to struggle against elite teams.

Schematically, in terms of this match-up, the strength of the Arkansas unit is its rush defense. In most years, that could be a cause for concern for the Tide as a run-driven offense. This year, the Tide has put the running game on the back-burner, choosing instead to let Tua distribute the ball to a host of targets and move the chains in chunks without the need for the running game to carry the load. There is hope that Alabama will learn to dominate on the ground in the instance it ever needs to do that in a cage-fight with a future opponent. In the meantime, however, no one can stop the pass, and that includes an Arkansas defense that rates just a click inside the top-100 nationally.

Alabama will do what Alabama does. Locksley will loose Tagovailoa and the dynamic offense on an outmanned, overmatched Razorback secondary. The ball comes out so quickly that the Hogs’ pass rush probably won’t even come into play. Tua will likely be sitting by halftime, giving Jalen Hurts a chance to torch the secondary before deferring to Mac Jones.

The likely result is one that’s played out all season long. The Tide will deliver shock-and-awe in the first quarter, cruise to a huge early lead, begin to rotate players, and watch the lead grow after halftime along with the desperation of the opposing team. That formula works for Alabama, and there doesn’t seem to be anybody who can do anything about it. Arkansas definitely can’t, and as a result, the Tide offense will likely have its way.