Stopping the run 'huge emphasis' for Arkansas

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Arkansas holds spring practice Friday, March 1, 2019, at the Arkansas practice field in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas holds spring practice Friday, March 1, 2019, at the Arkansas practice field in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Only two SEC teams have given up 200-plus rushing yards per game in conference play in the last three seasons.

Arkansas and Ole Miss complete the list.

This preseason, the Razorbacks are aiming to change that, placing an emphasis on limiting teams' success on the ground. And improved depth up front and at linebacker could lead to on-field progress in defensive coordinator John Chavis' second season.

"That's our No. 1 emphasis and we've got the guys to do it," said senior defensive tackle TJ Smith, who totaled 26 tackles and 3.5 for tackles loss last season. "That comes first. Coach (Chavis) always tells us you've got to play with a cheat sheet.

"Part of that is stopping the run first and making teams throw the ball."

Eastern Illinois running back Jamal Scott put together the top individual game on the ground against the Razorbacks in the opening four weeks of last season, rushing for 82 yards on 12 touches, and Auburn's backs combined for three rushing scores on short fields.

Following the loss to the Tigers, though, the wheels fell off for Arkansas, and it allowed an opposing running back or quarterback to rush for at least 90 yards in each of the final eight weeks. Six players, including Rebels quarterback Jordan Ta'amu, surpassed 100 yards.

The run defense later bottomed out on Oct. 27 in a home loss to Vanderbilt in which Ke'Shawn Vaughn ran for 172 yards and three touchdowns.

Linebacker Grant Morgan, a Greenwood, Ark., native, said the rushing performances damaged the defense's psyche.

"It hurt. You don't want to see another team have success in anything," he added. "Them being able to run was (because of) us getting tired down in the fourth quarter a lot. When you play 60-70 snaps, people get tired."

Morgan is encouraged by the depth along the defensive line with Smith, McTelvin Agim and Dorian Gerald returning. Personally, he doesn't view linebacker as a question mark, either. Collectively, he's optimistic Arkansas can force teams to become one dimensional offensively.

"This year we've stepped up big time in depth with our defensive line and linebackers just being able to focus on stopping the run," Morgan said this week. "We've got safeties now that are coming down, too, and making tackles and fitting their run gaps.

"Being able to stop the run demoralizes offenses, and that's exactly what Chief wants to do."

Defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said Tuesday he sees his side of the ball making strides toward improving a run defense that allowed a league-worst nine rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter in 2018. As most position coaches do, Caldwell wants his unit to be more consistent in practice and apply coaching from group work to live team periods.

"I think we’re doing a good job," Caldwell said. "You look at our wet-ball drill, we’ve done some good things in there. Now we have to continue to carry that over. I’d like to see my guys turn it loose and play the same way when we get into the team periods as they do in our inside-run drill. We’re doing a really good job in that."

A pair of defensive tackles coach Kenny Ingram's players, Isaiah Nichols and Nick Fulwider, returned to practice this week after missing multiple days with injury, bolstering the middle of the line behind Smith and Agim. In terms of gearing up to better their numbers from last season, Ingram says his linemen are still growing.

"I think we're doing some things decent," he added. "I think we're still still getting better at that. I've been very pleased with how we're just trying to implement what we're trying to do and the identity we're trying to establish up front. We've been doing well."

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