Arkansas defense looking to replicate Week 1 effort

By: Tom Murphy Tom Murphy's Twitter account
Published: Friday, September 8, 2023
Arkansas linebacker Jaheim Thomas (28) and defensive lineman Taurean Carter (9) tackle Western Carolina running back Desmond Reid (1), Saturday, Sept, 2, 2023, during the second quarter of the Razorbacks’ 56-13 win over the Catamounts at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
( Hank Layton)
Arkansas linebacker Jaheim Thomas (28) and defensive lineman Taurean Carter (9) tackle Western Carolina running back Desmond Reid (1), Saturday, Sept, 2, 2023, during the second quarter of the Razorbacks’ 56-13 win over the Catamounts at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

FAYETTEVILLE — The Travis Williams era of defense for the University of Arkansas is off to a strong start.

Facing an FCS opponent they were expected to overwhelm, the Razorbacks did just that in holding Western Carolina to 291 total yards — 202 of them in the second half as Williams and his assistants Marcus Woodson, Deke Adams and Deron Wilson substituted freely — in a 56-13 rout last week at War Memorial Stadium.

The Razorbacks came out of the game with four interceptions to rank second in the country and 101 interception return yards, the highest total in the country by 13 yards.

“I just thought we flew around the ball,” said defensive back Hudson Clark, who notched his fifth career interception. “We obviously have made mistakes that we need to improve coming into this week, but I think that’s a good start, and then try to improve that going into this week and keep that up.”

Linebacker Brad Spence provided a big highlight play with his 85-yard interception return for a touchdown as an exclamation mark in the fourth quarter.

“I just feel like the defense was flying around, you know, getting to the ball as we’re meant to do,” Spence said. “So you know, it was something that the defense was used to.”

Arkansas, which saw 27 defensive players record at least one tackle, is also the national leader in turnover margin with a +5 advantage in that department.

“I thought T-Will did a great job, along with his assistants over there,” Coach Sam Pittman said. “Five turnovers, four picks. … I thought their communication went well. Not a lot MAs [missed assignments], not a lot of busts, not a lot of guys running free. So, I thought for a first game, they did a wonderful job.”

The degree of difficulty is expected to rise in Saturday’s 3 p.m. campus opener against Kent State, a run-pass option (RPO) team like the Razorbacks, who managed but 240 yards in its 56-6 loss at Central Florida in Week 1. However, the Golden Flashes under Coach Kenni Burns found some traction with their running game in the second half.

Pittman noted Central Florida ran a good amount of zone coverage against Kent State last week.

“You can run zone and make them hand the ball off, or run a lot of man coverage and then you’ve got another one in the box and they’re going to try to throw the RPO,” Pittman said. “It just depends on how you go into the game.

“Any RPO team, if you pressure them, they’ve got an answer for that pressure. So are you going to run a spy in there across the middle? What are you gonna do? And so I like our game plan.”

Burns pointed to the run game as an area he expects rapid growth.

“Well, I’m a running backs coach in my heart, so we’ve got to run the ball better, obviously,” Burns said. “But we’re breaking in five new O-linemen. I think that showed in the game a little bit.

“As the game went on it got better up front. But we’ve got to be able to run the ball. I believe in possessing the ball and controlling the clock a little bit and protecting your defense.”

Pittman is aware of Burns’ thoughts.

“Listening to Coach Burns, and to be honest with you, if they’d have handed the ball off a little more against UCF they would have … they had some lanes to run the ball but they were throwing it quite a bit,” Pittman said on his Wednesday radio show. “They could throw it 100 times against us on Saturday, but listening to him, they’re going to try to establish the run game a little bit more.”

The Golden Flashes will be facing the nation’s No. 24 rush defense after the Hogs allowed 64 yards to Western Carolina.

Burns gave a lengthy assessment of the Arkansas defense, saying, “When you look at the defensive side of the ball, I think it starts with their strong safety, No. 8 [Jayden Johnson]. He’s all over the place.

“He’s a guy that obviously jumps out at you on tape. He does a good job tackling and getting to the ball. And then he kind of rotates with No. 17 [Clark]. They both play all over the field.”

Johnson had his first career interception as well as a forced fumble against the Catamounts.

Asked by Chuck Barrett on the “Sam Pittman Live” radio show on Wednesday if the Razorbacks thought they could be in position to notch several interceptions in the opener, Johnson replied, “Always,” to elicit a round of applause.

“Up front you can see they’re anchored down by their defensive end, Landon Jackson, a captain,” Burns said. “A guy that plays the game the way it should be played. He plays hard, he plays physical, and he does a really good job.

“The other guy that stands out on defense is their corner, Dwight [McGlothern], who is also a really good player and a guy who has played a lot of football for them and has done a great job. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The Razorbacks will be without sophomore linebacker Chris Paul and defensive lineman Quincy Rhodes for the first half after both were ejected for targeting in the second half against Western Carolina.


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