Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Barry's blueprint: Odom shows other SEC defenses the way
Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom watches a July 2020 workout in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — A University of Arkansas defense that put up scads of film the past two years that was ticketed straight for the burn pile has suddenly become a recommended study across the SEC.
It’s not that the Razorbacks (2-2) are throwing up an impenetrable brick wall. They’re making opponents earn every bit of ground, standing tall in the red zone, taking the ball away at an impressive rate and intercepting more passes than anyone in the country.
The defense nobody wanted to emulate in 2018 and 2019 has become the go-to look in SEC circles.
“This is the biggest turnaround I’ve ever seen for a defense in this short of time, and don’t forget they had no spring practice,” former Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said on the SEC Network during the Razorbacks’ 33-21 win Oct. 17 over an Ole Miss team that had been averaging 573 yards and 41.7 points per game.
First-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom and his staff are winning acclaim throughout the SEC.
“This defense looks like these guys have been playing for Barry Odom for four years,” Chizik said. “You never see a guy out of place. When you look at these guys, sometimes it looks like they’re playing with 12 guys. They’re never out of place and they’re very physical.
“When they arrive at the point of attack, they hit you. The spacing and the tempo, all the things that Ole Miss does to give you problems, has been zero problems for this defense because of how well they’re being coached.”
Arkansas players had confidence in their game plan for the Rebels.
“I mean, you look at Ole Miss, they were a great offense,” said safety Jalen Catalon, who had a fumble recovery and a 35-yard pick-six to kick off the Hogs’ takeaway parade. “[Ole Miss Coach] Lane Kiffin, who’s a great head coach and OC, and then you’ve got Matt Corral. I mean, explosive receivers.
“Going in, of course I think those offenses are meant to intimidate and get you to try to experience and do things you’re not comfortable doing or either stick to things they want you to stick to. But I already knew what we had going in before was going to work.”
The Razorbacks used similar schemes in their two wins, largely dropping eight defenders into zone coverages and bringing occasional blitzes. They held Mississippi State’s “Air Raid” offense — which had piled up 632 yards in a 44-34 season-opening win at defending national champion LSU — to 400 yards while picking off three passes in a 21-14 win over the No. 16 Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss.
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral managed just 200 passing yards on 20-of-38 passing while throwing 6 interceptions in the game.
“It was a unique look that they had because they never had a loaded box once, meaning … the run-game numbers were good,” Corral said. “And we struggled trying to get the run game going. So we tried to throw it. I knew they’d drop eight.
“With the drop eight, the windows were smaller. Having all 11 sets of eyes on you like that, you know they’re going to read it. So when I’m just looking at one defender, keying that player, that Mike [middle linebacker] is going with him, so if it’s not a perfectly thrown ball it’s getting tipped or intercepted.”
Arkansas middle linebacker Grant Morgan had 19 tackles, 3 pass breakups and a game-clinching 23-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Rebels.
“We talked about it throughout the week, that we wanted to set the standard for what other teams did against these offenses,” Morgan said after the Rebels managed 442 yards but had seven turnovers against the ball-hawking Hogs. “That we played them so good they were able to say, ‘All right, we want to do what Arkansas did against these teams.’ ”
And that’s exactly what has happened.
Kentucky held Mississippi State to 295 yards in a 24-2 win the week after Arkansas frustrated the Bulldogs. Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was asked whether watching the Hogs’ defensive video against Mississippi State helped in his team’s planning.
“It most certainly did,” Stoops said. “I think Barry is outstanding. I think that’s a good matchup there with Barry being at Arkansas.”
Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said he and his defensive staff benefited from watching the same tape before the Aggies held Mississippi State to 217 total yards in a 28-14 win last week.
“Oh, no doubt,” Fisher said. “I mean, you look at everybody who has success against an opponent you’re going to play and you try to conceptually see how that builds into what you do and how you do it. Barry and those guys did a tremendous job against them, and it definitely helps, no doubt.”
Kiffin said the Rebels have to be prepared for schemes just like Arkansas used.
“You better figure it out, especially in this conference,” Kiffin said. “You’ve got really good coaches, so they’re going to copy it. So once somebody figures out how to stop you, you better figure out the answers to that because the next week you’re going to see the same thing.”
Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn sang Odom’s praises last week.
“I think Barry’s the coach of the year at this point with what he’s done,” Malzahn said. “What stands out to me is their guys are playing extremely hard. And then he’s got little tweaks each week to be specific.”
The Razorbacks are allowing 418.8 yards per game to rank 46th among the 77 FBS teams who had played entering the weekend. That’s a higher average than the 2018 Arkansas defense, which gave up 413.2 ypg. The difference comes in scoring allowed and takeaways.
The 2018 Razorbacks allowed 34.8 points per game to rank 108th, while the current edition has allowed 25.5 ppg to rank 28th.
These Razorbacks have an FBS-high 10 interceptions, and their 13 takeaways were tied for second entering the weekend.
They also rank No. 6 nationally in red-zone defense, holding opponents to scores on 61.1% of their excursions inside the Arkansas 20. The Hogs are second in that department in the SEC, trailing only Kentucky (60%).
Arkansas notched three red-zone stops against Ole Miss, two that had reached the Razorbacks’ 1 and another series that started at the Arkansas 17 after a Feleipe Franks fumble. Catalon recovered a fumble to end the first drive; the Razorbacks stuffed Snoop Connor on fourth down from the 1 to open the third quarter; Greg Brooks Jr. intercepted a pass at the Arkansas 2 after the Franks fumble.
Arkansas linebacker Hayden Henry said run support out of the “drop 8” scheme has been paramount.
“There’s nothing wrong with tailoring your defense in the best way possible to be successful, and that’s what Coach Odom has done,” Henry said. “Every week we’ve done a little something different based on what we’re getting. It’s his ideology that we’re going to try to stop the run and then we’re going to defend the pass.
“As far as dropping eight goes, you know we have some dominant defensive linemen that can really rush hard, just three of them, so we have the ability to drop eight, which causes a lot of problems for a quarterback on the back end.
First-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman has doled out commendations for Odom and defensive assistants Derrick LeBlanc, Rion Rhoades and Sam Carter, as well as the program’s analysts for their advance scouting, film work and suggestions.
“They prepare all the film and they obviously have opinions about what has worked, what hasn’t, what we might be able to do,” Pittman said. “And Barry and his staff go together on that. Barry comes in on Sunday at some point and says, ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking. What do you think?’ Most of the time it’s exactly what he’s thinking, and we go from there.”
Democrat-Gazette staff writer Bob Holt contributed to this report.
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