Hogs' defense looks to bounce back, tackle better

By: Tom Murphy Tom Murphy's Twitter account
Published: Friday, November 17, 2023
Arkansas linebacker Jaheim Thomas (28) tackles Auburn punt returner Koy Moore (0), Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, during the third quarter of the Razorbacks’ 48-10 loss to the Tigers at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
( Hank Layton)
Arkansas linebacker Jaheim Thomas (28) tackles Auburn punt returner Koy Moore (0), Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, during the third quarter of the Razorbacks’ 48-10 loss to the Tigers at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas defense had been much improved and competitive through nine games this season, even with the offensive side of the ball struggling for much of SEC play.

Game 10 ended that trend.

Arkansas could not get pressure on Auburn’s read-option attack, consistently gave up the edge to quarterback Payton Thorne and struggled to tackle and cover in its 48-10 loss last week.

“We just weren’t executing the play to be honest,” defensive end Landon Jackson said. “We weren’t playing our style of football, weren’t wrapping up.

“Our tackling was by far the worst that it’s been all year in that game. So, that’s our biggest thing. Stressing that when we’re thudding in practice, to really thud and wrap the guy up. That’s something we did not do.”

Coach Sam Pittman said the Razorbacks’ tackling, which has been lacking in the last two games against Florida and Auburn, must improve for Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game against Florida International at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

“Auburn’s backs were incredibly physical and did a good job and their offensive line did a really good job of blocking,” Pittman said on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “The second thing is that tackling has a lot to do with one-on-one. It also has something to do with buddy tackling. People coming around. Swarming to the football.

“We did not do that well last Saturday. The main problem is in the secondary we weren’t wrapping up. In the linebacker position, our head was going down. We weren’t basically tackling what you see because we were seeing the ground.”

Pittman said the emphasis on fundamental tackling has been stressed this week.

“Basically, it’s a wrap-up problem,” he said. “It’s a getting more people to the ball carrier problem, and the closer you get to the ball it’s about seeing what you hit. We certainly have worked on that this week, but those are the things that we saw on film that we need to get corrected.”

Linebacker Chris Paul said defensive coordinator Travis Williams, whose overall work this year earned a nomination for the Broyles Award as the country’s top assistant coach, has emphasized reasserting the unit’s identity this week.

“Nobody feels like they played Arkansas’ brand of football,” Paul said in reference to last week. “With Coach T-Will, it was just ‘How do we get back to that Arkansas brand? How do we get back to that physical, flying around, playing fast, communicating defense that we were?’

“We’ve been heavy in the film room like we’ve been doing. Coach T-Will has not changed his coaching style at all. He’s still a highly energetic guy that’s going to run around. We feed off his energy. He’s still going to coach us hard. He’s still going to give us tough love and things like that. So, we just listen to him.”

Since notching 5 sacks for 34 lost yards in a 24-21 loss at Alabama on Oct. 14, the Hogs have just 5 sacks for 15 yards in their last three games.

The tackling problems against Auburn turned potential short gains into chain-moving opportunities throughout the game, starting on their first drive.

“There were a lot of plays that we got the guy stopped on the one, two yard line [of gain] and didn’t get him down,” Jackson said. “So, that was a big thing that we didn’t really do great on in practice. Lot of mental errors that game, so just an all around bad game.

“I guess a lot of our defensive guys didn’t really have the right mindset going into that game. That’s definitely something that we’re getting changed and we’re working on every day in meetings, practice and our focus level has been phenomenal these past few days, so I mean I’m ready to see us go out there and get to work for FIU this week.”

FIU Coach Mike MacIntyre talked up what he’s seen from the Arkansas defense.

“I see big athletic D-linemen that are very physical,” MacIntyre said. “I’m seeing linebackers that can run and hit. Coverage wise, they’re doing a lot of good things back there.

“But the thing that’s real is they’re so big and physical up front is what we keep seeing watching them on film. Their overall physical size is impressive.”

The Razorbacks will be facing a young, lighter-than-average offensive front — called a “JV” offensive line in regard to age by MacIntyre — with a true freshman quarterback in Keyone Jenkins, who has 1,900 passing yards, a 59.1% completion percentage, 6 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions.

“Even though he’s a freshman, he’s a very athletic guy,” Paul said. “He has speed on him, but he can also sling it. We’ve just got to keep upbeat tempo on them guys, just picking up on little factors like what do O-linemen stances tell us? What does running back depth say, things like that.”

Pittman said he liked Jenkins and junior Grayson James, who started the opener, a 14-12 loss at Louisiana Tech.

“He’s athletic,” Pittman said of the 5-11, 190-pound Jenkins. “They’ve got a real thrower behind him now. [James] can spin it. So can the starter. But he is an athletic guy … Jenkins. They’ve got some fine receivers. They’re probably maybe even more athletic up front because they’re not quite as big as what we’ve been used to. A lot of reads and runs with the quarterback and things of that nature.”

The Panthers have three offensive line starters who weigh 290 pounds or less, including 6-5, 250-pound right tackle Phillip Houston and 6-9, 290-pound left tackle Travis Burke, who are both sophomores.

“Their line is a little bit smaller,” Jackson said. “Their left tackle, I feel like is a talented O-lineman. He’s 6-9, 290, but he has great length. The biggest thing is to just use our strength to our advantage and to really just try dominating the game.”


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