Arkansas Position Preview: Defensive Tackle:

Depth perception: Defensive unit’s ranks help beef up Hogs' thin offensive line

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Arkansas defensive linemen Armon Watts (right) and McTelvin Agim go through a drill during practice Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas defensive linemen Armon Watts (right) and McTelvin Agim go through a drill during practice Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks coaches felt good enough about their depth at defensive tackle that they sent over Deion Malone and Austin Capps to help the ailing, thinning offensive front early in training camp.

One year after Bret Bielema and his brain trust believed a three-man front was the right defensive approach due to low numbers at tackle, the Hogs are back in a four-man front and handing over players like Capps, who figured into the two-deep.

How is that possible?

To start with, McTelvin "Sosa" Agim has been working more inside than outside on the front, though the coaches say he'll still be moved around looking for weaknesses to exploit.

Additionally, a grouping of players who were primarily ends in the 3-4 -- such as starters T.J. Smith and Agim, Jonathan Marshall and Briston Guidry -- are now running at tackle.

Defensive tackles coach John Scott said it has not been a difficult return to a 4-3 under coordinator John "Chief" Chavis after the one-year hiatus.

"For the guys coming back, it's a great opportunity to bring back some of the things they've already learned," Scott said. "And the way we're playing the 4-3 on Chief's defense is different than the way they were playing the 4-3 with Coach B and Robb Smith.

"We're doing it differently. I like the way we're playing it and the guys are excited. You can play a 3-4 a certain way and a 4-3 a certain way, but I think the way we're playing the 4-3 they feel it gives them a little more freedom and places a little more on athletic ability."

Agim is a good example of that, like his fumble-forcing tackle against Mississippi State that led to Guidry's touchdown recovery against Mississippi State last year. The top signee in the University of Arkansas' 2016 class, Agim got as heavy as 290 pounds before trimming back to 279 in camp.

After playing end to a large degree during spring drills, he's been running second team left defensive tackle for several days in a row.

"I'm trying to learn those plays to be able to play both if it comes down to it in a game," Agim said. "I've been getting pushed in with the ones. Right now, I'm just trying to get sprinkled in with the ones a little bit."

Agim also takes on nose guard duties in the team's "Mustang" package.

"I just feel like it's hard to know where I'm coming from and when I'm coming like that," Agim said. "It's just basically like you disguise it a little bit."

The most frequent first-team players in camp have been Smith at right defensive tackle and Armon Watts, who recovered a fumble in Tuesday's practice, on the left.

Smith, a 12-game starter who ranked 12th on the team with 26 tackles and added 2 sacks and 3 quarterback hurries, said he thinks the depth at tackle will hold up.

"This is the most confident I've been in the last few years as far as the guys we have," Smith said. "We definitely have depth at both the tackle and end positions."

Morris listed Watts, Smith and Marshall as three tackles having good camps on Tuesday while outlining what he'd like to see at the two tackle spots.

"These guys, No. 1, they've got to keep them off those linebackers," he said. "That's first and foremost. Obviously playing with their hands and getting off blocks. But their main job is occupy their gaps and keep those linebackers free and let those two, three linebackers make some plays."

There are few players on the Arkansas roster who might benefit from the change in coaching staffs more than Watts, a senior who is listed at 6-5, 298 pounds. Watts had a quarterback hurry that led to an interception at Alabama as a redshirt freshman in 2015, but his career tackle total stands at seven.

"I'm excited," Watts said. "In the past, things have been up and down in my career, so right now I'm just staying positive, taking it one day at a time and making the best of it.

"One thing I challenged myself on this offseason is to just try to move forward. I know with the old staff I had a lot of ups and downs. I'm thankful for the opportunity they gave me, but Coach Morris and Coach Scott have been pleased with what they see. I'm trying to make the best of this last season."

Guidry, who has battled through a lingering knee injury the past couple of years, is the kind of player who can turn a solid front into an exceptional one if he's healthy.

"He had a very productive summer," Scott said. "He's a very talented guy. He's athletic like Sosa, and he just has an ability to do things you don't have to coach inside. He just instinctively feels things. I'm super excited about what he can do, and his health is good."

The youngest players inside are redshirt freshman David Porter and true freshmen Isaiah Nichols and Billy Ferrell, whose lingering knee issue forced him off the 110-man roster earlier this week.

"I really like our freshman Isaiah Nichols, and I think he's going to be a really good player," Scott said. "I've yet to see what B.J. Ferrell can do, but he's another kid who is super athletic and a big body down inside."

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Sports on 08/15/2018

Defensive tackles glance

Returning starters McTelvin Agim (11 starts at DE in 2017), T.J. Smith (12 at DE)

Losses Bijhon Jackson, Austin Capps (moved to OG)

Who’s back Armon Watts, Jonathan Marshall, Briston Guidry, David Porter

Who’s new Isaiah Nichols, Billy Ferrell

Analysis Agim had flashes of greatness in 2017, but he could be primed for a true breakout year this fall as coordinator John Chavis seeks ways to find productive matchups. Smith is a coach’s delight and he’s solid, if not flashy, on the field. Watts has held down the starter’s spot at left tackle, but he likely will concede snaps to Agim when the action starts. Losing the powerful Capps was a blow to the unit’s depth, but Guidry, Marshall and the youngster Nichols look to be solid supplemental pieces for position coach John Scott.

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