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2007 Arkansas Preview - Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 30, 2007


Preview 2007 Arkansas Razorback Defense

Arkansas Razorbacks

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Arkansas Preview | 2007 Arkansas Offense Preview
-
2007 Arkansas Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Arkansas Preview 

What you need to know:
It'll be a good defense, but there are some big-time talent losses in linemen Jamaal Anderson and Keith Jackson, corner Chris Houston, and linebacker Sam Olajubutu. There's plenty of speed and athleticism to go around in what should be a solid back seven, but everyone has to stay healthy. The line needs tackle depth with Marcus Harrison questionable after tearing his knee this spring. Overall, coordinator Reggie Herring will keep things aggressive with tons of plays in the backfield, along with lots of pressure applied by the defensive backs.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Weston Dacus, 95
Sacks: Antwain Robinson, 8.5
Interceptions: Michael Grant, 3

Star of the defense: Junior DE Antwain Robinson
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior DT Ernest Mitchell
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Ryan Powers
Best pro prospect: Senior DT Marcus Harrison
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Robinson, 2) Harrison, 3) FS Michael Grant
Strength of the defense: Speed, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Proven starters, proven leader

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The line is full of major question marks, and none bigger than the knee of 6-3, 307-pound senior Marcus Harrison, after tearing his ACL early in spring ball. On the plus side, the injury happened early enough for him to possibly be back at some point in the first month of the season, but that's still optimistic. When healthy, he's a top plugger on the inside with 42 tackles last season and 3.5 tackles for loss. If he's out for the year, it'll be devastating.

The other concern is with fellow starting end Antwain Robinson, who has all-star talent, but struggled through a hip problem this spring as well as some legal issues. The 6-2, 255-pound junior flourished on the other side of Jamaal Anderson last year, and now he's supposed to be the team's top pass rusher after making 68 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.

Back at his starting tackle spot will be 6-2, 292-pound junior Ernest Mitchell, a reliable cog in the system who made 41 tackles with a sack and nine tackles for loss. He's big and tough against the run, and he could be one of the team's most valuable players if Harrison's knee isn't right.

Trying to take over for Jamaal Anderson on the outside will be 6-2, 255-pound sophomore Malcolm Sheppard, a very fast, very promising former tackle who should be good against the run while growing into a decent pass rusher. He made 12 tackles with eight quarterback hurries in a limited role. A great athlete, he's a rising star on the line.

Projected Top Reserves: Working behind Robinson will be 6-5, 258-pound senior Chris Wade to take over. The former JUCO All-American is a speed rusher who didn't do enough speed rushing last year, making 15 tackles with a sack and three tackles for loss. He's had knee problems in the past, but appears ready for a nice final year.

Soon to be a major factor in the backfield is 6-4, 235-pound sophomore Adrian Davis, who might be linebacker sized, but he has the speed to become a star pass rusher. He made 19 tackles in a reserve role, and now he'll be a bigger player with the Robinson's injury questions.

If and when Harrison isn't in the mix for an extended period of time, 6-3, 314-pound senior Fred Bledsoe will step in and start at right tackle. Part offensive lineman, part defensive tackle, he's a big, physical defender who won't get into the backfield all that often, but will be strong, in time, against the run.

One of the key reserves in the tackle rotation is 6-1, 292-pound junior Cord Gray after making 20 tackles and a tackle for loss. The former offensive lineman isn't the most athletic player around, but he's tough behind Mitchell on the left side.

Watch Out For ... the line to have to scramble. Even if Harrison is able to play, it's asking a whole bunch for him to be able to hold up for a full season, much less be consistently effective in SEC play. Consider him 50/50 at best, while Robinson's variety of issues makes him a bit of a question mark.
Strength
:
Speed on the outside. Robinson, Sheppard, Davis and Wade can all move. While it'll be asking a lot to replace Anderson, generating pressure won't be a problem.
Weakness
:
Sure-thing veterans. While there's depth, are there any full-time starters who can be difference makers if Harrison is out and Robinson doesn't shine as the number one go-to end? 
Outlook: The strength of the defense almost by default, it'll be a great line if Marcus Harrison can be healthy on the inside and if Antwain Robinson can have an All-SEC season on the end. Replacing NFL talent like Jamaal Anderson and Keith Jackson certainly won't be easy, but there are several options to rotate in at each spot. There's a nice overall combination of speed, size and skill, but time might be needed to develop.
Rating: 7


Linebackers


Projected Starters: There are some big holes to fill in the linebacking corps, but there's some good news with the return of 6-2, 222-pound sophomore Freddie Fairchild from a knee injury that kept him out almost all of last year. An All-SEC caliber talent who made 12 tackles in two games, he spent all of spring ball recovering and should be ready to be one of the team's leaders come fall. Two years ago, he made 59 tackles as a freshman showing excellent speed and a good nose for getting into the backfield.

Starting again in the middle will be 6-2, 230-pound senior Weston Dacus, a serviceable veteran who was third on the team with 95 tackles and eight tackles for loss. While not all that big, he's quick and versatile, with the talent to play anywhere in the corps. He's strong at making plays when they're funneled towards him.

The big problem is on the weakside, where heart-and-soul all-star Sam Olajubutu, who made 233 tackles over the last two seasons, will be replayed by 6-1, 210-pound sophomore Ryan Powers. A hamstring injury kept him from getting his feet wet last year. He might be undersized, but he has cornerback speed and should make up for any problems by being all over the field.

Projected Top Reserves: 6-1, 220-pound sophomore Wendel Davis has better speed than Dacus in the middle with great range. He turned in a nice true freshman season making 20 tackles and two tackles for loss as a reserve, and now he'll play a big role in the rotation.

Looking to see time on the weakside is 6-2, 214-pound junior Desmond Williams, a former safety who'll look to carve out a niche for himself. Mostly a special teamer so far, making two tackles last year, he has to quickly grow into a steady performer if Powers has a hard time holding up for a full season.

Former high school running back and defensive back Chip Gregory bulked up to 225 pounds and should be a strong, very fast option behind Fairchild on the strongside. He's fast enough to play on either outside position.

Watch Out For ... Powers to be great in place of Olajubutu. Fine, so he's not going to be an All-America caliber defender right away like Olajubutu was, but he has the toughness, speed and playmaking potential to be one of the team's leading tacklers and a major disruptive force.
Strength
:
Speed. By design, this isn't all that big a group, but everyone can run, especially on the outside. Powers and Fairchild are faster than most defensive backs.
Weakness
:
Possibly, durability. The corps is relying on Fairchild to be as good as new on a retooled knee, while Powers has to stay healthy after his hamstring injury cost him most of 2006. If they're out, it's uh-oh time.
Outlook: It won't be the doom and gloom some might predict, but there will be a bit of a drop-off in overall production unless Ryan Powers is a superstar from day one and if Freddie Fairchild is healthy. Weston Dacus is a good veteran who'll help things out in the middle, and he has to be the steady force for everyone to work around. This will likely be a star corps going into 2008, and will certainly be better as the season goes on.
Rating: 7.5


Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The secondary would've been stellar if Chris Houston had returned for his senior year. Now that he's gone, it'll likely be to senior Matterral Richardson to be the new number one, lock down corner. Expected to be a top starter going into last year, "Red" made 63 tackles and an interception with ten broken up passes as a good second corner. He's a strong 6-0 and 197 pounds with good skills, but he's not a special defender like Houston was.

On the other side will be 6-0, 184-ound sophomore Jerell Norton, who made 15 tackles as a backup. With sub-4.4 speed, he'll have no problem staying with the faster receivers, but his consistency will be a question mark, and there will be a huge drop in the physical play at the position after Houston beat everyone up last year.

Filling in at strong safety for second leading tackler Randy Kelly will be 6-3, 215-pound senior Matt Hewitt. The former linebacker had a big year making 63 tackles with three tackles for loss, and now he should shine with more room to roam. The former JUCO transfer has decent speed and big hitting ability.

Stepping in at free safety is 5-11, 182-pound senior Michael Grant after injuring his knee last year. The former corner made 41 tackles and three picks in nine games before getting hurt, and while he should be as good as new by the start of the season, he'll have to quickly find his next-level speed that made him such an all-around playmaker.

Projected Top Reserves: 5-10, 194-pound senior Kevin Woods did a great job of stepping in and starting for Grant at free safety over the final four games of the year, finishing with 45 tackles and two interceptions. While he doesn't have Grant's speed, he's a good hitting veteran who can take over and produce at either safety spot.

Pushing for time at left corner is 6-1, 191-pound junior Jamar Love, a big, fast option who made 16 tackles with three broken up passes. He has the wheels to see time as a third corner, and see time in the rotation with Norton. He's physical enough to do a little of what Chris Houston was able to.

Watch Out For ... less man coverage. The coaching staff likes its corners to press and jam the receivers, and that worked with an NFL first round draft pick corner like Chris Houston. Richardson and Norton are big and physical, but there will be a bit more zone coverages to play to their strengths.
Strength
:
Solid playmakers. Richardson is more than fine at one corner, Hewitt is a veteran defender who'll be great now that he moved back to safety, and Grant should be special once he feels back to 100% on his injured knee.
Weakness
:
Interceptions. The Hogs came up with 16 last year, but three were made by the defensive line. There weren't enough big plays made by the secondary in key moments. There's enough speed and skill to be even more lethal when teams challenge the corners.
Outlook: It's not the sexiest secondary around, but it'll be very, very good as long as everyone is healthy and as long as Jerell Norton comes through with a nice season at corner. Matt Hewitt has to play like a safety, and not a linebacker playing safety, while Michael Grant has to show off the speed that made him such a good playmaker before hurting his knee. This will be an aggressive group that'll hit like a ton of bricks.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The kicking game was a major issue last year with Jeremy Davis and Stephen Arnold combining to hit six of 14 field goals, so the desperate hope is for junior Brian Vavra to provide some consistency, or hope and pray for true freshman Alex Tejada to play up to his hype.

Davis might have struggled as a placekicker, and now he'll try to be more reliable as a punter, taking over for Jacob Skinner and his mediocre 38.1-yard average. However, Skinner put 26 inside the 20.

Watch Out For ... a placekicking battle up until the opener against Troy. Vavra wasn't awful in spring ball, but everyone outside of the Vavra household is hoping for Tejada to be the real deal.
Strength
:
Kickoff returns. Felix Jones is special, averaging 24.1 yards per return last season. Darren McFadden isn't bad, either, averaging 26.2 yards per try.
Weakness
:
Kick coverage. The field goal kicking can't be much worse, and there can't be less pop on punts. Allowing 8.2 yards per punt return and 21.4 yards per kickoff return isn't going to get the job done.
Outlook: If it wasn't for Felix Jones, the special teams would be the worst in the SEC. It's amazing the Hogs got by with things so bad, but they lost two games late, to LSU and Wisconsin, by a total of eight points. With field position meaning everything, and every point precious against the top teams, the kicking game has to be far, far better.
Rating: 5

 

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2007 Arkansas Preview - Depth Chart
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