Tom Murphy is a sports 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. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Tiger ties: Williams set to face alma mater
Arkansas defensive coordinator Travis Williams reacts, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, during the Razorbacks’ first practice of fall camp at the Fred W. Smith Football Center in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Last week’s game day proved to be an emotionally-charged scene for Arkansas interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton as the Razorbacks rallied around their new play-caller to upset Florida 39-36 in overtime at Gainesville, Fla.
This week against SEC West opponent Auburn, the Hogs’ emotional focus could shift to the other side of the ball.
First-year defensive coordinator Travis Williams racked up more than 150 tackles as an Auburn linebacker from 2001 to 2005 and put in 15 years as a player and coach for the Tigers.
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman was asked about the possibility of creating a wild postgame locker room scene with Williams on Saturday like the Razorbacks created for Guiton.
“Certainly would be awesome to find out, wouldn’t it?” Pittman said.
Arkansas linebackers Chris “Pooh” Paul and Jaheim Thomas were asked if they sensed Saturday’s matchup against the Tigers as being special for Williams.
“Oh yeah, it is,” Paul said. “Coach T-Will, he’s a more energetic guy in general. He’s just emphasizing on going 1-0 this week and playing the Arkansas brand of football.”
Added Thomas, “I would say most definitely, just focusing, like Pooh said, on going 1-0 and bringing that energy and passion every practice and every week so we’re ready for the game.”
The “Arkansas brand” of football under Williams has only nine games of data behind it, but the numbers are impressive. Despite returning essentially only three starters — end Landon Jackson and defensive backs Hudson Clark and Dwight McGlothern — and adding a large amount of new talent, the defense has held the Razorbacks in a series of tight games and earned respect throughout the SEC.
The Razorbacks have dropped their total defense by roughly 125 yards per game, from one of the nation’s worst at 465.2 last season to 337.3 per game now. That’s a reduction of 82 spots in the FBS rankings, from 123rd to 41st.
Similarly, the Razorbacks are allowing fewer rushing yards (128.6 now versus 170.5) and fewer passing yards (210.2 versus an FBS-worst 294.7) per game under Williams.
“I think they’re playing really good defense right now,” Auburn Coach Hugh Freeze said.
Pittman said he’s certain Williams will have added motivation to put forth a strong defensive effort against his alma mater.
“We haven’t spoken about it, but I’m sure there is,” Pittman said. “Any time you play someone that you obviously went to school there, coached there, whatever that may be, you want to do well.”
Williams is not the only Arkansas defensive coach with ties to Auburn. Co-defensive coordinator Marcus Woodson was defensive backs coach for the Tigers from 2018-19 on the same staff with Williams.
“Marcus Woodson coached over at Auburn as well,” Pittman said. “I’m sure they want to do well, but I’m not sure it’s any different than any other game, to be honest with you.”
Williams, 40, has spent 15 years, more than half of his adult life, living and working on the Plains.
After a short stint in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, Williams began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Auburn (2009-11), then took a defensive analyst role at his alma mater (2014-15) before landing his first on-field college job as linebackers coach under Gus Malzahn in 2016.
Williams stayed at Auburn the next five years, adding his first co-defensive coordinator role in 2019, before moving on to Central Florida with Malzahn in 2021.
“Obviously through my friendship with Gus, I know of Travis and his reputation,” Freeze said. “I think he’s an outstanding recruiter, number one. Then you put on the tape and see how hard his kids are playing defensively and that’s a great testament to his leadership.”
In his first season with the Razorbacks, one SEC head coach after the next has touted the work Williams and the mostly new defensive staff has done.
The Razorbacks are allowing 24.3 points, basically a touchdown per game less than last year’s unit gave up, with an average of 30.6 points per game.
Arkansas will face a Read Zone ground attack that averages 190 yards and has been finding its footing in recent games, including a 219-yard performance with two touchdowns against Georgia, the most yardage the Bulldogs have surrendered on the ground since 2018.
Tailback Jarquez Hunter, who has amassed 418 rushing yards the past three weeks, ranks sixth in the SEC with 79.5 rushing yards per game.
“He’s pretty shifty,” Thomas said. “We’ve just got to be able to fill our gaps and just gang tackle every play.”
Payton Thorne, a 6-2, 210-pound junior transfer from Michigan State, has taken the bulk of the quarterback work in recent games over Robby Ashford, though Freeze said he believes there is still a role for both.
“I think he’s [Thorne] earned the right to function the entirety of what we’re trying to do a little better than the others,” Freeze said. “As long as he continues to perform like that in our base offense, I think it’s his.
“Do we always have a package for Robby? Yes. We haven’t gotten to it the last two weeks because we really didn’t need it. Will that be the case this Saturday? I’m not sure.”
Thorne, second on the team in rushing with 337 yards and two touchdowns, had a 123 yards on the ground against Samford and 92 against Georgia.
“Thorne, he is much more athletic than I thought he would be, and he can run,” Pittman said. “They’re going to run their total RPO offense with him, and I’m sure that’s why they got him to begin with. He’s throwing the ball well. He’s a good quarterback.”
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