John Chavis has spent the last 23 years as a defensive coordinator at three SEC schools. He won a national title with Tennessee in 1998 and the Broyles Award at LSU in 2011. He’s arguably as respected and accomplished as any defensive coordinator in college football.
Still, his hiring at Arkansas under new coach Chad Morris comes with skepticism among some Razorbacks fans as to whether Chavis can rebuild the Hogs defense. After all, Arkansas allowed an SEC-worst 36 points per game last season.
The timing of the hire isn’t ideal as far as public perception is concerned. Chavis’ defense at Texas A&M allowed 55 points in a loss to Wake Forest on Dec. 29 in the Belk Bowl, his final game with the Aggies.
But viewing a single performance as a reason to downplay Chavis’ ability as a coach shows a lack of understanding in what Chavis accomplished at Texas A&M. He definitely leaves the Aggies defense better than he found it.
When Chavis arrived in College Station for the 2015 season, the Aggies were coming off consecutive seasons finishing last in the SEC in defense. They finished eighth, 10th and ninth in three seasons under Chavis. While that isn’t dominant defense by any stretch, it’s a notable improvement.
The same is true of Chavis’ tenure at LSU (2009 to 2014). The Tigers were ninth in the conference in defense the year prior to his arrival. They improved to sixth in his first season and never finished worse than third in his final five seasons.
Arkansas’ defense has lacked an identity the last two seasons. There wasn’t any area in which the Hogs noticeably excelled on that side of the ball. Expect that to change under Chavis, which itself is an improvement.
Chavis has a reputation for building his defense around his strongest position group. At LSU, that was often the secondary. The Tigers twice led the SEC in passing defense under him. At Texas A&M, it was the defensive line. The Aggies led the SEC in sacks last season and never finished lower than third in that category with him at the helm.
So, what about the perceived lack of defensive talent at Arkansas? While the Hogs don’t have much depth, they do have All-SEC-caliber defenders.
Defensive lineman McTelvin “Sosa” Agim could play for any team in the country. Same for middle linebacker De’Jon Harris, who finished second in the SEC in tackles per game last season. Ryan Pulley will be back from injury to lead the secondary as a lockdown cornerback and NFL prospect. That core of players should be enough for the new Hogs defensive coordinator to build a respectable defense.
Arkansas fans shouldn’t expect the defense to reach the top of the SEC. They should, however, expect immediate improvement. And that is reason enough to say Chavis is the right coach for the job.