FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The front line of the Arkansas defense, simply put, has not been good the last two years. Injuries, scheme changes and outside influences took their toll on the defensive line’s output.
That doesn’t mean, though, the unit lacks talent.
McTelvin Agim, obviously, has the goods. He was a 5-star recruit, and after a freshman season in which he learned the speed of the SEC, Agim had a good — albeit not great — sophomore season. The biggest reason for the caveat were those around him.
Arkansas needs another playmaker up front. Whether defensive coordinator John Chavis rolls a 3-4 or a 4-3 or something else, the Razorbacks need to win more in the trenches.
TJ Smith is a possibility. Like the last player written about in this series, offensive lineman Brian Wallace, Smith was so good his first year on campus, the coaching staff considered burning his redshirt if injuries or poor play would have forced their hand.
There was, in theory, no need to rush him, though. The season Smith redshirted, Arkansas was second in the SEC in rushing defense. More than any other unit, that number is a reflection of the defensive line. Then, with all of them back in 2016, Smith could again mostly sit and learn. That was the theory, anyway. Instead, the unit took a big step backward (10th in rushing defense and eighth in sacks). Smith played in five games and was hit-and-miss.
All of the sudden, those guys who received all the playing time were gone. Smith, potential and all, was thrust into the spotlight. In the team’s brand new 3-4 scheme and with a bad defensive line the previous season, this sophomore was being counted on to help turn things around.
It was too much. Not because Smith couldn’t handle it, but because Arkansas was ill-equipped to help him.
Smith can handle it. He’s a tweener — not totally a defensive end, not totally a defensive tackle — which can be an issue, but he’s still talented. And now, after the issue was borne out in 2017, he’s experienced, too.
Odds are, with his body size and type, Smith won’t be a monster with sacks — especially with Agim on the other side (assuming Smith stays at end with Arkansas likely reverting to the 4-3). But the best possible thing he can do is become the caliber of player that requires attention. Too many times last year, opponents could focus on doubling Agim because they knew Smith and others would rarely beat offensive linemen 1-on-1.
Don’t count on that being the case as often in 2018. The numbers won’t be huge, but he’s our bet for breakout player on Arkansas’ defensive line next year.