State of the Hogs: After all these years, Chavis finds a first at Arkansas

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, April 20, 2018
John Chavis, Arkansas defensive coordinator, leads drills Saturday, March 3, 2018, during Arkansas football spring practice at the Fred W. Smith Football Center in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
John Chavis, Arkansas defensive coordinator, leads drills Saturday, March 3, 2018, during Arkansas football spring practice at the Fred W. Smith Football Center in Fayetteville.

— John Chavis has been through plenty in 40 years of coaching big-time college football, but nothing like the “fun” of building from scratch with a new head coach.

Chavis has worked with SEC head coaches Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, Les Miles at LSU and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. But never has Chavis shown up at the same time as a head coach, like he has done this spring with Chad Morris at Arkansas.

During a lengthy interview in his office, the new Arkansas defensive coordinator bubbled with enthusiasm about several topics, including Morris, his new Arkansas players and an annual golf tournament that he'll host in Knoxville, Tenn., in May that benefits the Tennessee Children's Home.

Morris bragged that he would hire the “best defensive coordinator” in the country the day he was hired and it was clear just a few days later that it was always going to be the 61-year-old Chavis. Morris' plan intrigued Chavis from the first time they spoke. Getting in on the ground floor was the spark that lit the fire for the man players have always called “The Chief.”

From the way Morris coaches offense, to his fire in recruiting, to the way he manages his staff and motivates his players, all enticed Chavis. He knew things were headed perfectly when Morris hired Steve Caldwell to coach defensive ends. Chavis and Caldwell spent 13 years together at Tennessee and Caldwell later coached three years at Arkansas.

“I knew Steve could recruit, coach and had a background in this area,” Chavis said. “He grew up in the area, coached here and was a perfect fit. We had coached together for 20 years. I knew then that I needed to come with Coach Morris.”

Chavis is more impressed every day. He believes in the Morris plan.

“What we intend to do is follow the vision that Chad Morris has for this program,” Chavis said. “That's what it's all about. I think he's got a great vision. Obviously, I'm as excited as I've ever been.

“This is a first-time experience and it's fun. It's fun being a part of it. Some people will say, 'Is this the biggest challenge you've ever had?' I don't look at it as a challenge. I look at it as a great opportunity. That's what we've got here at Arkansas, a great opportunity.

“Coach Morris has put together a great staff. He's put together a great staff in the weight room. To get the most out of our program, everyone who touches our kids has to be on board. Everyone has to be pulling together and to see the vision the head coach has. It's fun being at what I call ground level in terms of building this program and to be part of the Chad Morris era. I'm fired up and excited.”

There are aspects of the defensive roster that get him fired up, especially inside linebackers Dre Greenlaw and De'Jon Harris. Chavis coaches the linebackers.

“We have some people who have some dynamics,” Chavis said. “Two is not enough and we have to deal with this, but we have two linebackers who have played a lot of good football in this league. They are both talented guys. If they keep developing they have a chance to be NFL players. That's real.

“Now, to have the kind of program that we envision, we have to have five, six or eight guys like that at linebacker. But it's not like we are walking in without any players.”

Chavis sees other players with a chance to be great, too. Defensive end Randy Ramsey and strong safety Kamren Curl both sparkled in the spring after sliding to new spots. Ramsey was at outside linebacker and Curl at cornerback last season.

Santos Ramirez was solid at free safety. Ryan Pulley excels at corner. McTelvin “Sosa” Agim has proven a good fit for both end and tackle and will play both.

“You look at Ramsey and moving him to defensive end and you see a guy who has some real dynamics,” Chavis said. “He's starting to feel that and see that.

“I feel the same way about the move with Curl to strong safety. His temperament is ideal for what we are looking for.

“In a perfect world to play in the back end, you'd like to have nine or 10 corners with the idea that at least two of those guys could play safety. A lot of times those safeties are going to be matched up on slot receivers scheme wise. They need to have the skills to be able to play man-to-man. But his temperament is better suited to be a safety.

“Curl is pretty aggressive. It's not that you can't be aggressive at corner, but safety is a position that fits him.

“When you have three or four safeties who can really play, then you feel comfortable staying away from big plays.”

The task is to play aggressive up front, but eliminate the big plays with solid play at safety.

“Big plays show up when those safeties out of position,” Chavis said. “They are the last line of defense for you. That's an obvious statement, but what they have to do is be able to tackle. Missed tackle there, everyone in the stadium notices.

“Curl tackled well for us at safety this spring. It's got to be something we continue to grow with. Having Curl and Santos Ramirez back there, you get comfortable with eliminating big plays.

“You can play 60 to 70 snaps of defense and play really well, but if you give up four or five big plays that's enough to get you beat.”

It doesn't take many big plays to cause real trouble.

“You try not to say this publicly, but you can be sitting around thinking it would be a different outcome except for three plays,” he said. “That's what you have to avoid, those big plays. In doing that you have to have great talent at safety to help you with that.

“You have to have great safeties. You've heard me say this: Our answer is that we play so much man at corner, but to do that you have to be sound and good – no let, me back up, better than good – at safety. We've even taken corners in the past that had never played safety, but because of the spread and all of the things we are seeing, those guys fit in there perfectly.

“You get a little bit different skill set with corner. At safety, it's a little bit more of a mentality you are looking for in guys that are sure tacklers. Obviously, you have to teach and drill those kind of things, but when you have those guys you have a chance to have a great defense.”

What about the heart of the defense, the two tackles?

“We've got some guys inside who got better and better all spring,” he said. “Certainly, we have a couple of guys because of injuries they couldn't practice.

“To watch T. J. Smith, Armon Watts and Jonathan Marshall really, really develop and also the play of a young guy like Isaiah Nichols improve - we also saw in limited snaps good play from Briston Guidry. One guy we didn't see at all was Austin Capps but I've been told I'll like him.

“That's a group of guys you can win with. That's what gets me excited.”

Still, it starts with Morris. Chavis thinks the Arkansas head coach has players as excited as he is.

“You can talk about personnel, but the biggest thing is the mindset and the attitude,” he said. “Coach Morris does an excellent job of promoting the kind of demeanor that you have to have to be a winning player in the SEC.”

Is the culture hard to get right?

“It is, but I've already used this statement: You have to change actions to change character and character changes the culture,” he said. “The point is this, Coach Morris does a tremendous job of being demanding in everything we do but not be demeaning.

“You can correct without doing that. He has a great gift and that's because of who he is, what he stands for - but it doesn't keep him from being competitive. In my opinion, it gives him a great edge.

“You can have all the great knowledge in the world. Certainly, Coach Morris has that, but being able to communicate with people and being able to motivate people is a big part of what goes into coaching football. Some people just have a gift for being able to motivate and communicate. It's so important.”

Chavis is all about gifts, especially his work with his golf tournament for the Tennessee Children's Home with four sites spread across the state. He speaks with his time and his money.

“I've been a part of this for 15 years I think,” he said. “Of course, there are a lot of folks in Tennessee who participate and sponsor, but it's grown with LSU and Texas A&M people. We have people who fly in every year.

“They all have found out what a wonderful job this group does for young people. We feel like Arkansas people are going to want to be a part of it, too.”

It's scheduled for May 18 at Avalon Golf Club in Knoxville. The cost is $150. The contact is Loy Molchan at loymolchan@comcast.net.

“The church we worshipped at in Knoxville asked if I'd be interested in helping promote the golf tournament,” he said. “ Years ago when we got involved, it was not just me promoting, I believe in what's going on. I am going to support it both with my work and my resources.

“It's such a great organization to help kids that can't get placed anywhere else. They take some kids the state doesn't have any place to go. They've had a great success rate returning them to society. They do it in a Christian environment and the kids are better coming out of there.

“You don't have to come to the golf tournament. You can just send a donation. All the funds stay with the children's home.”

The tournament and the reach of college football fans across the SEC touches and excites Chavis every year. There's been a nice mix of orange, purple and maroon on the course. No doubt, there will be some cardinal red added this year.

“I know there are going to be Razorback fans support it from the Knoxville area,” he said. “I already know there are quite a few in that area of the state who will be involved. We'll have some fun.”

Yes, there is a lot of fun these days for John Chavis.

“You bet,” he said, “and I'll be ready to talk Arkansas football at the golf tournament and what we are building.”

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