Barry Odom / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
When first-year Arkansas coach Sam Pittman hired Dave Odom as his associate head coach and defensive coordinator, it was a statement that he was serious about improving the Razorbacks’ defense, which has been a sore spot for much of the last decade.
Odom, who served the last four seasons at his alma mater Missouri as the Tigers head coach, made his name on the defensive side of the football.
He helped revive the Memphis program as its defensive coordinator from 2012-2014 before heading back to Missouri to coordinate Gary Pinkel’s final defense in 2015. He then took over the head coaching chore for the next four seasons.
Odom’s defenses at Missouri and Memphis ranked high nationally during his tenures, and he’s hoping to craft similar results at Arkansas.
That will be a tall task, especially in the secondary where Odom will coach the safeties and his protege Sam Carter will guide the cornerbacks. This is Carter’s first on-the-field coaching position, although the former TCU Horned Frog (2011-14) served as a defensive quality control analyst from 2016-19 for Odom at Missouri.
It’s no fun to rehash the recent past at Arkansas after back-to-back 2-10 seasons under former head coach Chad Morris in 2018 and 2019. It’s even less fun to think about the Razorbacks’ play in the secondary, where missed assignments and poor tackling seemed to be the norm rather than the exception under the coordination of John Chavis.
The Razorbacks ranked 11th in the SEC in passing yardage allow in 2019 with opponents averaging a whopping 229 yards per game. Making matters worse, quarterbacks padded their passer rating against the Razorbacks averaging a 155 mark as a group, according to cfbstats.com, which was worst in the SEC.
So, is it good news or bad that Arkansas returns all key contributors from last year’s secondary except Kamren Curl, who leaped to the NFL after his junior year as a seventh-round pick by the Washington Redskins?
Pittman and Odom have both talked about moving forward rather than focusing on the past with the Razorbacks. Dwelling on the past isn’t going to do the Razorbacks or their fans any good.
Odom and Pittman have praised the work of their athletes in off-season workouts before the coronavirus outbreak shut down all of college athletics just days before Arkansas was to begin spring practices in March. Both have also praised the players’ mental work in online skull sessions, but neither have seen any of their players work on the field.
Their first look is scheduled to come July 24 when the NCAA will allow programs two weeks of unpadded and unhelmeted walk-through workouts before pre-season practices are allowed Aug. 7.
Here is a run down of the Razorbacks’ key personnel in the defensive backfield with a somewhat educated guess of where they may fit into Odom’s defensive scheme.
Once practice begins expect some movement. The great thing about a coaching change is that it is a clean slate for all players, and some players rise while others recede.
Junior Joe Foucha (5-11, 201) of New Orleans returns as a probable starter at free safety. He started every game as a sophomore and was third on the team in tackles with 88 total stops and 44 solo tackles. He made an interception, recovered a fumble, broke up four passes and had a quarterback hurry.
Foucha is one of the Hogs’ most experienced players in the secondary. He has good speed and is a bit of a headhunter. He has shown flashes of ability, but needs to play more consistently.
Micahh Smith (6-0, 210) is a journeyman senior who could back Foucha up, but that might depend on how things shake out at free safety.
Jalen Catalon (5-10, 198) seems like a good fit at free safety. He played in four games last year, but retained his freshman status. An ankle injury slowed him early in the season. Morris called him one of the top five high school players he had ever seen when he played at Mansfield, Texas Legacy High. It sure would be a benefit to the Razorbacks if he can play at that high of a level Catalon may have to fend off a challenge from one of Pittman’s top recruits from his first signing class, Myles Slusher (6-0, 190) of Broken Bow, Okla. He and junior Myles Mason (6-2, 204) of Trussville, Ala., will battle behind Catalon. It’s likely that one of the three will be cross trained at strong safety to manufacture depth if other players don’t rise to the challenge.
At cornerback, Carter will work with returning starters Jarques McClellion (6-0, 174, junior) from Lake Worth, Fla., and Montaric “Busta” Brown (6-0, 190, junior) of Ashdown. Though both had their moments last season, expect LaDarrius Bishop (6-0, 193, sophomore) of Ashdown, Malik Chavis (6-2, 199, redshirt freshman) of Rison and Devin Bush (6-0, 208, redshirt freshman) of New Orleans to push them for possible starting roles.
The prevalence of spread offenses makes a nickel back a necessity in today’s brand of football rather than a choice. Greg Brooks (5-11, 177 sophomore) of Harvey, La. did some good things in the spot a year ago. Senior Jerry Jacobs (5-11, 206) of Atlanta and freshman Nick Turner (5-11, 180) of New Orleans are also candidates to fill in the hybrid role.
At Memphis and Missouri, Odom based his defense out of a four-man front, but tended to play to his players strengths.
Odom would not commit to scheme in interviews this summer, saying that he needs to work with the players first and see what they are best at. He added he won’t ask them to play a formation unfit for their talent.
Though depth in the secondary remains a concern, the Razorbacks do seem to be more athletic across the board. Maybe that, plus experience gained last year and a new start with a new coaching staff will prompt much-needed improvement this season.