FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas’ defensive line is undergoing an overhaul for the third time in as many years.
Under new coach Chad Morris and defensive coordinator John Chavis, the Razorbacks will return to a defense primarily featuring a four-player line. The Hogs deployed a 3-4 scheme as their base defense in 2017 after using the 4-3 system during Bret Bielema’s first four seasons.
Technically, the Hogs plan to be “multiple” with their base defense, according to Morris and Chavis, so neither coach will say the 4-3 definitely is back. However, both have confirmed a four-player front will be featured more than any other combination.
“We choose that direction because if we can recruit the right speed on the edge, it gives us an opportunity to affect the quarterback even quicker,” Chavis said. “We have had great success [doing that], even this past year.”
Chavis is correct. His defense at Texas A&M was exceptional at rushing the passer last season. The Aggies led the SEC with 43 sacks. Arkansas, meanwhile, was worst in the conference with 19 sacks.
It wasn’t that Chavis was working with far better talent at A&M last season. The Aggies had four players — Landis Durham, Jarrett Johnson, Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson — with at least 5½ sacks last season. (By comparison, linebacker De’Jon Harris led Arkansas’ with 3½ sacks). But none of those players are projected as NFL draft picks.
“We did it with guys that were just hard workers, not elite players,” Chavis said.
Chavis is going to have to do more of that at Arkansas, at least early on, considering the level of talent in Fayetteville. McTelvin Agim is the only defensive lineman on the roster who appears to be on track for a future in the NFL.
At least Chavis has a plan and a track record of success. Because of that, the Hogs’ shift to a four-player defensive line is clearly the right decision.
Here’s a look at several defensive linemen on the current roster who likely will see their roles change, and as a result could play a vital part in the new system:
- McTelvin Agim, junior: Agim will likely play wherever he’s needed on the defensive front depending on the matchup. He has the size (6-foot-3, 285 pounds), strength and athleticism to play either spot. He thrived as an end in the 4-3 scheme in 2016 as a freshman. Last season he got off to a slow start playing end in the 3-4 before finishing the season with some very strong performances.
- Jamario Bell, junior: A former 4-star recruit, Bell’s physical tools have always stood out. But he’s failed to find a positional fit, going from defensive end to tight end to outside linebacker in his three years at Arkansas. With the Hogs shifting back to the 4-3, Bell (6-5, 260) seems likely to be given a renewed opportunity at end.
- Austin Capps, junior: Capps (6-4, 300) is very likely to start at a tackle spot. He’s one of the more experienced defensive linemen on the roster. He was a regular in the rotation the last two seasons and a sturdy presence when on the field.
- Kyrei Fisher, sophomore: Fisher was a standout rush end in high school at Tulsa (Okla.) Union. He has the size (6-1, 235) and quickness to potentially play that role at Arkansas. Don’t expect him to be an every-down player, but he definitely has a chance to be in the rotation. He could compete for playing time at outside linebacker, where he spent last season.
- Briston Guidry, sophomore: Like Agim, Guidry (6-2, 280) can be shifted between end and tackle as needed. He’d likely be most comfortable at end and is the top candidate to start at that spot opposite Agim. He’s a certainty to be in the rotation and has the talent to be a potential breakout player next season.
- Johnathan Marshall, sophomore: Marshall (6-3, 310) has added more than 30 pounds since his days playing end in high school. He’s carried the additional weight well, which should make him a valuable piece in the tackle rotation.
- Randy Ramsey, senior: Ramsey is without question one of the best athletes on the team. At times, he’s used those abilities to show glimpses of the elite pass rusher he can be. Under Chavis, expect him to be used in a variety of ways. Many of those will be aimed at getting him in one-on-one situations to rush the passer. Because of that, Ramsey (6-4, 230) stands to benefit from this change as much as any player on the roster.
- Gabe Richardson, junior: Richardson (6-3, 240) forced a fumble in the 2016 opener. He hardly played the rest of the season. He didn’t seem to fit well with the responsibilities that come with playing outside linebacker in the 3-4. He’s now most likely to be used at end. That change could result in a more productive version of Richardson, who had 18½ tackles for loss and 6 sacks in 2016 at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
- T.J. Smith, junior: After starting all 12 games last season at end in the 3-4, Smith (6-3, 290) could play end or tackle in the 4-3. He doesn’t do any one thing that stands out, but he’s generally been a reliable contributor who is likely to at least be in Chavis’ rotation.
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