FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The shift to a 3-4 defense has Arkansas in search of its three best defensive linemen to receive a majority of the snaps this season.
Two linemen — McTelvin “Sosa” Agim at end and Bijhon Jackson at nose tackle — seemingly are locked in as starters. Coach Bret Bielema says the other end spot, for now, belongs to sophomore T.J. Smith entering the second week of fall practice.
Redshirt freshmen Briston Guidry and Jonathan Marshall and a “couple of others” also are in contention, according to Bielema. But Smith is in position to play significantly because of the growth he showed in the spring.
Smith played in just five games as a redshirt freshman last season, recording 4 tackles and 1½ tackles for loss. He was buried on the depth chart, behind mostly experienced players who have since departed. But it wasn’t a good sign that Smith was passed by Agim and, for the most part, Austin Capps — both of whom were freshmen in 2016. Anytime someone loses playing time to younger players, it stands to reason that they may never get a shot at regular playing time.
And it wasn’t as if Arkansas had no need to get others into the defensive rotation. After all, the Hogs gave up an FBS-worst 39 rushing touchdowns last season.
However, Smith was undeterred by his inability to carve out significant playing time. He simply went into the offseason and did everything he could to become a mainstay on the field in his third season on campus. He was particularly outstanding in Arkansas’ last true scrimmage in April, in which he had 3 “touch” sacks.
“When we looked at it after the entire collection of spring practice, [Smith] graded out the highest percentage,” Bielema said last week while explaining why Smith is listed as a starter.
“T.J. has had a really good summer. He is a very productive player. He weighs 292 pounds and runs pretty well and is very intelligent.”
Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads has also been impressed with Smith. But he’s been quick to point out that a “multitude” of players will be featured on the defensive line and “competition is at the forefront” in fall camp.
Rhoads wants a few more players proving they can make an impact. The Hogs will need that in order to find the minimum six-player rotation they want to use.
“[Depth] is one of the reasons why we’ve switched to a 3-4 system,” Rhoads said. “You don’t have to have eight to have a 2-deep; you have to have six to have a 2-deep. We’re seeing how high a level all these guys can play. But with the guys that we’ve seen through spring practice and heading into pads tomorrow with camp, yeah, I think we can get to a quality depth position. I really do.”
That “quality depth” is certain to come, assuming a few others can show the type of growth Smith has demonstrated since the end of last season.