FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas’ defensive line play has been mostly abysmal the past two seasons.
In 16 SEC games over that time, the Razorbacks compiled just 57 tackles for loss. That ranks last in the conference by a comfortable margin. The Hogs haven’t been much better rushing the passer with just 21 sacks in conference games the past two seasons. Only Vanderbilt, with 20, was worse.
It hasn’t been because of a complete lack of talent across the defensive front, though. Deatrich Wise (New England Patriots) and Jeremiah Ledbetter (Detroit Lions) from the 2016 squad both played regularly for their NFL teams last season. Wise even started three games for the AFC champion Patriots. McTelvin Agim, who will be a junior next season, has been prominently featured on the defensive line each of the past two seasons. He’s been mostly stellar and has the potential to be a high draft pick in the future.
So, why has the position group been a glaring deficiency despite having some very talented players? It’s clearly a lack of depth. Arkansas has had quality, just not enough of it to compete in the SEC West. In this division, every coach will say a team needs a very deep rotation of quality defensive linemen to compete.
Getting Arkansas’ defensive line up to par is at the top of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ to-do list. And “The Chief” is the perfect coach for the job.
Texas A&M improved its sack total in conference games each of the three seasons (2015-17) Chavis served as defensive coordinator. The Aggies led the SEC with an average of 4 sacks per game (32 total) against conference opponents last season. They also led the conference in tackles for loss per SEC game each of the past two seasons.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a coach that’s going to tell you, ‘We’ve got enough depth, we’ve got everything we need,'” Chavis said. “But we’re going to build it and we’re going to build it the right way over time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It happens that way.”
Rebuilding the unit is already well underway with Arkansas signing five defensive linemen in its 2018 class. The top signee in the group is junior college prospect Dorian Gerald. He comes to the Hogs as a 4-star prospect and the No. 1 JUCO defensive end recruit in the class, according to ESPN. Without Chavis being hired by Chad Morris in early January, it’s unlikely Gerald would’ve even considered the Razorbacks.
“The recruiting process, to me, was all about relationships,” Gerald told Brandon Dunn of ABC 15 Sports. “I was committed to Tennessee. I felt like I had the best relationship with those guys, but they left. The next school up was Texas A&M and coach John Chavis. We had been building a huge relationship. He moved to Arkansas, brought a great staff with him and I just felt it was best.”
Pairing Gerald with Agim at end and Austin Capps at tackle — both juniors next season — and Arkansas has a solid foundation up front. Obviously, that surely won’t be enough for a noticeable turnaround within the group.
It’ll likely take players such as Briston Guidry, T.J. Smith and Jonathan Marshall reaching their potential or any of the four high school signees proving capable of making an immediate impact for Arkansas to have a dynamic SEC defensive line next season. But at least the Hogs have a start and the coach who knows how to turn around the unit.
“We got on some kids that we needed to meet some needs,” Chavis said. “We’re excited about the kids we got and the ones we’re going to look forward to. I think they can come in here, several of them, and be productive early and that’s what we’re looking for.
“We’re going to build the defensive line with good quality, character young men and also guys that have talent to play and compete in the SEC.”