Morris: Defensive pieces in place for Year 2 improvement

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Arkansas linebacker De'Jon Harris speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Arkansas linebacker De'Jon Harris speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Arkansas coach Chad Morris made it clear Wednesday at SEC Media Days that one of the Razorbacks' goals entering his second season is to return to postseason play.

The program has fallen on hard times the last two years and is coming off its first 10-loss season. Arkansas has not reached a bowl game since 2016 when it blew a 24-0 halftime lead and lost to Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.

To get back into bowl contention, the Razorbacks must - among many other things - show improvement defensively in Year 2 under defensive coordinator John Chavis. Arkansas finished the 2018 season No. 108 in scoring defense, allowing 34.8 points per game.

Only four Power 5 teams (Ole Miss, Louisville, Oregon State, Illinois) allowed more points per game.

"We made the bed, we’re going to lay in it," said senior defensive lineman McTelvin Agim, who totaled 45 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season. "We’ve been laying in it and now it’s time to get up out of it.”

The advancement of the defense begins with Agim and linebacker De'Jon Harris, both of whom opted to put the NFL on hold after their junior seasons. Morris added that he feels confident Arkansas has the pieces, thanks to a solid recruiting class, in place around them to make strides on that side of the ball.

Multiple times throughout the day, Morris labeled the SEC a "line-of-scrimmage league." Player development up front has been a major focus, and he called on linemen Dorian Gerald, Gabe Richardson, Jamario Bell and Jonathan Marshall to take the next step.

"Coach Chavis and I talked a lot about this: We had to create depth. We had a good nucleus coming back, but we had to go sign seven guys," he said. "Creating that depth there ... that will help us."

Those returnees paired with freshmen Taurean Carter, Warren star Marcus Miller, Mataio Soli and others bring the staff reason for optimism with the group. Agim also mentioned redshirt freshman Isaiah Nichols, a former Springdale High standout, as a young player who has made an impression on him this offseason, citing his work ethic and improved physique.

Harris, who has finished with 100-plus tackles each of the last two seasons, leads a linebackers unit that lost Dre Greenlaw to the NFL Draft. However, Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan (53 combined tackles in 2018) gained valuable reps in spring practice due to Harris' foot injury.

"I expect great things out of (Pool)," Morris said. "I know Coach Chavis, who coaches the linebackers, demands those guys play at a very, very high level."

Arkansas' secondary will play a key role in the team's success, too, and features a number of young players with potential like Kam Curl, Joe Foucha, Jarques McClellion and Montaric Brown.

Incoming freshmen Greg Brooks, Devin Bush and Jalen Catalon, who Morris described in February as one of the top five high school football players he's ever seen, also enter with hype surrounding them.

The Razorbacks ranked 87th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (245.3), ahead of only Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Missouri in the SEC, and opposing quarterbacks collectively totaled a league-high 152.4 passer rating against Arkansas last season, according to cfbanalytics.com.

"Kam Curl is a leader for us, and Joe Foucha," Morris added. "I'm excited about Joe. Joe is a young man that played a lot last year as a true freshman. His experience with Kam Curl's leadership should make the back end better."

SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy said there were very few instances last fall in which Arkansas' defense appeared SEC caliber. He expects progress, but questioned if enough would be made to deem the season a success.

"On the inside, they might be OK," he said. "But the other 7-8 positions on the defense, they've got to get on the same page. It's a difficult challenge. ... I do, obviously, think there's a lot of room for growth on that side."

When asked about expectations, Morris stopped short of predicting a win total this fall, but said players and coaches have had those discussions since last November. For the leaders and seniors on the roster, becoming bowl eligible would be special.

"It would mean a lot," Harris said. "I haven’t played in a bowl game since my freshman year, and I actually haven’t played in a bowl game, like, legitimate snaps aside from special teams.

"It would mean a lot just getting this program back bowling and to win a bowl game this year."

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