What happens when perceived team strength ends up being a glaring team weakness?
In the case of Arkansas’ defensive line last season, it meant a change in defensive coordinator, defensive line coach, and defensive scheme for the 2017 season.
While Arkansas’ defensive problems in 2016 weren’t isolated on the defensive front, one could argue that’s exactly where the issues began, and the changes Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema made back that up.
Bielema promoted former Iowa State head coach and Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhodes from defensive back coach to defensive coordinator after allowing Robb Smith to find another defensive coordinator job at Minnesota.
Bielema let Rory Segrest go as defensive line coach in early February and hired John Scott Jr. away from the New York Jets to take his place.
Bielema also began the transition from a 4-3 defensive alignment to a 3-4 for this season. The 3-4 scheme allows for more creative and easier to disguise ways of pressuring the quarterback as well as a more balanced alignment, which in theory should help in defending the various spread offenses that are all the rage around the SEC.
Beyond the aforementioned strategic advantage, the switch to the 3-4 addresses the shortage of SEC-caliber defensive linemen, which are in demand by not only every school in the league but also every school in other conferences.
There are only so many big, strong, nasty, and nimble athletes that can truly compete at the SEC level. To be effective in the SEC, a team needs two and preferably three for each defensive line position.
Bielema believes the Razorbacks’ recruiting footprint has a better chance of yielding depth for four linebackers and three defensive linemen, rather than the other way around.
That reasoning makes sense, until you consider the Hogs have had trouble fielding a full complement of SEC-caliber linebackers throughout its 25-year history in the SEC. But, I digress.
Bielema is confident that the moves he made in the off-season will be better for the Razorback program going forward. However, he also has conceded that there are no quick fixes.
There will be a learning curve at every level of the Hogs’ defense this season. Instead of reading and reacting like in the 4-3 defense, defensive linemen in the 3-4 occupy blockers in the run game to allow the linebackers to roam free to make tackles. Keeping those linebackers clean is the key.
Certainly, Bielema, Rhodes, and Scott want a push from their front-line trio, but it’s more important for them to clog the middle and keep blockers from getting to the second level than it is for them to get up field quickly.
That will be an adjustment for the Razorbacks’ defensive linemen. How quickly and how disciplined they are in adapting to the new scheme will be important.
Discipline and consistency was an issue on the defensive line. The Razorbacks gave up 205 yards per game and 39 rushing touchdowns on the season. The Hogs struggled to turn runners back inside, which put even more pressure on safeties to make plays in space and in traffic.
More focus and a better team attitude should make for a better defensive effort up front this season. However, the question is how much better?
The nose guard can be a key position in the 3-4. A dominant nose guard only makes the linebackers more dangerous. Senior Bijhon Jackson (6-1, 339) fits the mold in terms of stature, and he does have experience, but he has yet to prove to be a dominant lineman on the SEC level. The Hogs will need him to play his best football of his career. Sophomore Austin Capps (6-4, 300) and red-shirt freshman and former offensive lineman Dylan Hays (6-3, 298) are working Jackson.
McTelvin “Sosa” Agim (6-3, 286) is the Razorbacks’ most athletic lineman on either side of the football. He could be poised to have a breakout year at the left end spot. He is explosive and powerful. Red-shirt freshman Briston Guidry (6-2, 279) and junior Michael Taylor (6-2, 258) are backing up Agim.
In somewhat of a surprise, sophomore T.J. Smith (6-3, 290) has been running with the starters at right end in early practices, but the Razorbacks have yet to scrimmage. Junior Armon Watts (6-5, 309) and junior Jake Hall (6-5, 263) are working as his backups.
How ready this group is for the rigors of SEC play remains to be seen, but one this is for certain, it won’t take much for them to be more effective than the Hogs’ defensive line play was last season.