When former starting Razorback defensive backs Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks elected to transfer to LSU to finish their college careers earlier this year, from the outside looking in, it could have been perceived as the Hogs’ taking a hit from their SEC Western Division rival.
Naturally, one would rather current Hogs remain in the program, but if they choose to go elsewhere, you’d rather they elect to go outside the SEC.
However in this situation, Foucha and Brooks may have seen that their opportunity to start at LSU — which experienced a sea change in personnel following the firing of Ed Ogeron and the hiring of Brian Kelly — during the 2022 season was greater than their opportunity at Arkansas.
Brooks had already lost some of his playing time last fall to Jayden Johnson (6-2, 216), then a freshman and now a rising sophomore, who started in three of the last four games, and no doubt Foucha could see his playing time at safety shrinking with the return to health of All-SEC and All-American candidate Jalen Catalon (5-10, 199) and the quick improvement of rising junior Myles Slusher (6-0, 193) once he garnered some experience last fall.
For Hog fans, it’s never pleasant to see good players and people exit the program for perceived greener pastures, but in this day of basically unrestricted movement, it’s going to happen. However, it should be heartening to understand that the move came because the talent level in the Razorback secondary is on the rise.
When older players lose playing time or starting jobs to younger players, it is a sign that a program is on the rise, and honestly when a player is beaten out, it’s often better for that player to move along than to stay around and sulk or to become an issue in the locker room.
Credit Razorback defensive coordinator and safeties coach Barry Odom for that uptick in talent.
Odom’s leadership and coaching ability is unquestioned. There was a massive positive change in the attitude of Arkansas’ defensive players and their performance from his first game of heading up the defense in 2020, and the Razorbacks only improved in 2021.
I’d expect to see improvement in the Razorbacks’ defensive play in 2022, as well, even with the loss of several key players on the defensive line and linebackers Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry to graduation.
During his career, Odom has specialized in creating pressure with multiple looks. At Memphis, Missouri, and Arkansas, he has adjusted his scheme to fit his talent, and currently, it seems the Hogs’ strength is in the secondary, where Catalon — along with grad-senior linebacker Bumper Poole — is the unquestioned on-the-field general at safety.
The junior, who has been projected to be a first-round NFL Draft Pick next spring if he elects to forego his senior season, has recovered from the hand and shoulder injuries that sidelined him for the last half of the 2022 season.
Catalon is an explosive hitter who plays like a heat-seeking missile. It might behoove him and the Hogs if he picked his spots a bit more judiciously when exploding on receivers and ball-carriers, but then again, it’s hard to inhibit the instincts of a head-hunter like Catalon. It would be asking him to deny one of his greatest traits as a ballplayer, that motor that revs at 100 percent all the time.
Catalon’s running mate at safety is senior Simeon Blair (5-10, 209), who specializes in being in the right place at the right time thanks to his preparation and execution. Expect him to be challenged by Johnson, whose physical presence and speed is tantalizing as a safety.
Latavious Brini (6-2, 211) is a senior transfer from Georgia, who performed well in the spring and is expected to see extensive playing time at any of the three safety spots.
Slusher is a likely starter at nickel back, but is adept at either of the other two safety positions. His size and speed is an asset, and the playing time he garnered last year when Catalon was hurt should prove invaluable as he stakes his claim on a staring spot this year. Khari Johnson (6-0, 191) will also see time at safety as well as at cornerback.
While the roles of the three safety positions vary, Odom cross trains his personnel so players can more easily shift in case of an injury.
First-year Razorback coach Dominique Bowman works with the cornerbacks, and he has a solid and fairly experienced group to work with.
Junior Hudson Clark (6-2, 178) returns and has the inside shot at starting at one corner because of his experience with junior Malik Chavis (6-2, 200) or possibly senior LSU transfer Dwight McGlothren (6-2, 182) at the other. Chavis has excellent speed and size as does McGlothren.
LaDarrius Bishop (6-0, 200) will also push for playing time and perhaps starting role, but all four will get plenty of work and playing time in the fall if they remain healthy. Speedy redshirt freshman Keuan Parker (5-11, 178) will see playing time at corner and nickel, too.
Odom believes in cross training members of the secondary to make sure each player knows and understands the responsibilities of multiple positions in case of injuries crop up within a game.
With solid talent and good depth, the Razorbacks are outfitted as well in the secondary as they have been in recent memory. The secondary should be a strength of the defense and the team as a whole.