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Arkansas’ defense has been awful this year but is coming off of its best performance

Missouri would torch the Arkansas defense that has taken the field most of 2017. But last week gives us pause.

NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

There are basically two reasons why Bret Bielema almost certainly won’t be coaching Arkansas next year:

  1. Assistant coach turnover has led to both a lack of continuity and a few dud hires.
  2. Defense.

No. 2 is related to No. 1, obviously, but while No. 1 is part of the reason why the offense hasn’t been as good lately (among others, Bielema lost all-world OL coach Sam Pittman to Georgia last year), No. 2 has been a combination of struggling to find the right coaches and struggling to find the right talent.

In 2014, the Hogs had a legitimately awesome defensive front and ranked seventh in Def. S&P+. That Mizzou was able to move the ball enough to come back on Arkansas in 2014 was awfully impressive.

The problem: that’s the only time Arkansas has ranked better than 64th. This year? The Razorbacks are 106th. Bielema brought former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads in to pull a salvage job, but the combination of youth and a move to a 3-4 set hasn’t fixed anything. Maybe over time it would. Time’s running out.

Defensive Line

NCAA Football: Missouri at Arkansas
Bijhon Jackson
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

DE

  • McTelvin Agim (6’3, 286, So.) — 24.0 tackles, 7.5 TFLs (2.5 sacks), 8 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 2 FF, 32% success rate allowed
  • Jonathan Marshall (6’3, 310, RSFr.) — 4.0 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 2 run stuffs, 33% success rate
  • Armon Watts (6’5, 309, Jr.) — 3.0 tackles, 50% success rate

NT

  • Bijhon Jackson (6’1, 339, Sr.) — 12.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 1 run stuff, 26% success rate
  • Austin Capps (6’4, 300, So.) — 9.0 tackles, 1.5 TFLs (1.5 sacks), 2 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 27% success rate

DE

  • T.J. Smith (6’3, 290, So.) — 15.5 tackles, 3 TFLs (1 sack), 7 run stuffs, 17% success rate
  • Briston Guidry (6’2, 279, RSFr.) — 12.0 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 4 run stuffs, 1 FF, 39% success rate
  • Jake Hall (6’5, 263, Jr.) — 6.0 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 1 PBU, 30% success rate

First things first: McTelvin Agim is very good. The former blue-chipper has made quite a few plays for a lineman in a 3-4, especially against the run, and he should be a nice asset for whoever’s coaching Arkansas next year. And the girthy Bijhon Jackson at least assured that Arkansas had the requisite size at nose tackle, which is never a given.

And yet, Arkansas’ run defense has been horrid. The Hogs are 89th in Rushing S&P+, and that’s only because of positive opponent adjustments: using raw stats, they’re 117th in rushing success rate allowed, 106th in opportunity rate (percentage of rushes gaining at least five yards), 126th in stuff rate, and 130th, dead last, in power success rate. They’ve taken on plenty of good run games this year, so they won’t be intimidated in any way by Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to stop them either.

Linebackers

RAZOR

  • Randy Ramsey (6’4, 228, Jr.) — 30.5 tackles, 6.5 TFLs (3 sacks), 5 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 2 FF, 38% success rate
  • Hayden Henry (6’1, 209, Fr.)

MLB

  • De’Jon Harris (6’0, 242, So.) — 80.5 tackles, 7.5 TFLs (2.5 sacks), 8 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 35% success rate
  • Grant Morgan (5’11, 220, RSFr.) — 24.0 tackles, 3.5 TFLs (1 sack), 5 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 27% success rate

WLB

  • Dre Greenlaw (6’0, 229, Jr.) — 69.5 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 6 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 50% success rate
  • Dee Walker (6’2, 215, RSFr.) — 4.0 tackles, 67% success rate

HOG

  • Dwayne Eugene Jr. (6’1, 240, Sr.) — 24.0 tackles, 5.5 TFLs (2.5 sacks), 6 run stuffs, 40% success rate
  • Gabe Richardson (6’3, 239, So.)
  • Karl Roesler (6’1, 252, Sr.)

Arkansas is coming off of maybe its best defensive performance since September. The Hogs held an excellent Mississippi State attack to 28 points and 4.9 yards per play. Running back Aeris Williams gained only 71 yards in 19 carries — quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, on the other hand, had 20 for 116; call me crazy, but I’m doubting Drew Lock matches that.

Once MSU was leveraged into passing downs, the Hogs closed out drives. Fitzgerald took two passing downs sacks, and MSU was held to a 21 percent passing downs success rate, 10 percentage points below its season average.

Agim had a huge game, racking up 4.5 havoc plays (2.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles), but redshirt freshman linebacker Grant Morgan logged a pair of TFLs as well. Drew Greenlaw and Randy Ramsey each had half a TFL as well. The Arkansas linebackers haven’t been nearly disruptive enough this year, but they potentially have more confidence now than they did a week ago. And their passing downs success should be a concern to Mizzou fans — Mizzou fell into a lot of passing downs last week.

Secondary

CB

  • Kamren Curl (6’1, 193, Fr.) — 37.5 tackles, 1 run stuff, 8 PBU, 84% success rate
  • Chevin Calloway (5’10, 188, Fr.) — 4.5 tackles, 80% success rate

SS

  • Santos Ramirez (6’2, 198, Jr.) — 47.0 tackles, 2 TFLs, 3 run stuffs, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 3 FF, 74% success rate
  • Reid Miller (5’9, 201, Jr.) — 6.0 tackles, 100% success rate

FS

  • Josh Liddell (6’1, 211, Sr.) — 31.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 85% success rate
  • De’Andre Coley (6’1, 211, Sr.) — 8.0 tackles, 75% success rate

CB

  • Henre’ Toliver (6’1, 185, Sr.) — 31.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 run stuff, 1 INT, 8 PBU, 70% success rate
  • Britto Tutt (6’1, 179, So.)

NICKEL

  • Kevin Richardson II (5’11, 185, Sr.) — 30.0 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 2 run stuffs, 3 INT, 3 PBUs, 63% success rate
  • Micahh Smith (6’0, 202, RSFr.)

Like Missouri, Arkansas has been working with an extreme combination of freshmen and upperclassmen in the secondary. Kamren Curl is the Hogs’ version of Adam Sparks, the mid-three-star freshman who has, by some combo of skill and necessity, butted his way into the cornerback rotation. Meanwhile, juniors and seniors fill up the two-deep at safety.

The results haven’t been encouraging. They’ve been like Missouri, only without the second-half surge. Arkansas ranks 82nd in Passing S&P+ and 115th in Passing Downs S&P+. On third down and four or more yards to go, opponents have completed 35 of 69 passes for a gaudy 637 yards, five touchdowns, and two picks. Passer rating: 146.4. That’s pretty bad on first down, much less third-and-long.

Again, though, Arkansas’ weaknesses were not weaknesses last week.

Against MSU, Arkansas stopped the run and dominated on passing downs. Maybe there’s been a late-season epiphany. Or maybe MSU just didn’t play very well. We’ll find out.

(One other note: the Hogs’ defense was best at the start, but MSU’s success rate improved every quarter, from 23 percent to 40, to 43, to 53.)

Full-season Arkansas should expect to get torched by Lock and company (especially if Emanuel Hall gets over his recent bout of the yips). Last week’s Arkansas could at least hold Mizzou in the 20s.

Special Teams

K

  • Connor Limpert (6’1, 180, So.) — 27-28 PAT, 7-8 FG; 58 kickoffs, 35% touchback rate
  • Blake Mazza (5’8, 173, Fr.)

P

  • Blake Johnson (6’1, 185, So.) — 54 punts, 38.6 average, 105th in punt efficiency
  • Cole Kelley (6’7, 268, RSFr.)

KR

  • De’Vion Warren (5’10, 181, Fr.) — 26 KR, 26.4 average, 1 TD
  • Gary Cross (6’1, 185, Jr.)

PR

  • Henre’ Toliver (6’1, 185, Sr.) — 3 PR, 6.0 average, 11 fair catches
  • Deon Stewart (5’11, 162, So.) — 3 fair catches

The Arkansas return game has been pretty good — De’Vion Warren is explosive in kick returns, and at the least, Henre’ Toliver is good at cutting punts off and gaining a few yards. This strength will be tested against a Mizzou kicking game that allows few returns. And if the game comes down to the kickoffs and punts instead of returns, well, advantage: Mizzou.