Arkansas preview: Rudderless Hogs have talent better than their record

DEFENSE

Arkansas hasn’t been able to do much on defense this year, a fairly shocking development given the front seven has plenty of experience and was expected to be strong up the middle. The Razorbacks utilize a 4-3 base set. Total defense ranks 87th, with rushing defense coming it at 100th, raw pass defense at 60th and pass efficiency defense at 98th. Scoring defense is 93rd. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme has produced a defense that ranks 26th overall, 40th against the run, 29th in raw pass defense and 17th in pass efficiency defense. Scoring defense chimes in at 13th. And remember, this is allegedly a “down year” for Alabama D.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Alabama would love to have McTelvin Agim in its rotation. Agim, who would be the prototypical 3-4 defensive end, is a bit out of place as a 4-3 tackle, but he has made it work, collecting 5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He’s also tied for the team lead in QB hurries with 3. But he needs help. Fellow senior T.J. Smith has not been productive at the other tackle slot, collecting just 11 tackles in 7 games, although he does have 2.5 sacks.

Overall, Arkansas ranks 37th in sacks, probably right around where analysts were expecting the Razorbacks to rank, but tackles for loss rings in at just 75th in the nation. Isaiah Nichols and Jonathan Marshall have been OK, but nothing special as the top reserves. And that’s basically it for interior linemen. On the edge, Gabe Richardson has been steady, racking up 26 tackles and doing plenty of damage behind the line. But an early injury to Dorian Gerald threw the rest of the depth chart into flux. True freshman Mataio Soli was highly regarded coming in, but hasn’t made much of an impact.

Reserve Jamario Bell has a low tackle count but nearly every time he does something, it’s a high-impact play. Collin Clay adds depth.

Alabama will start D.J. Dale in the middle flanked by Raekwon Davis and either Byron Young or Justin Eboigbe. Young is starting to make his presence felt, but really what he and Eboigbe are being asked to do is tread water until LaBryan Ray can return, which will probably happen against LSU and not this week. Tevita Musika and Stephon Wynn Jr. provide inside depth, while Christian Barmore and Phidarian Mathis can play inside or outside.

Arkansas probably has a slight edge among the inside starters, thanks to Agim’s and Richardson’s senior expertise. But Alabama has much better depth and better overall quality throughout. The Crimson Tide’s superior work against the run tips the scales. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
De’Jon Harris has been hyped as a next-level middle linebacker for four years now, but the production hasn’t been there. He leads the team in tackles, but has just 3 tackles for loss and no sacks. He also has subpar production as a pass rusher. The humorously-named Bumper Pool starts on the weakside. He’s been a little more explosive than Harris but still profiles as an overachiever.

Arkansas has actually gotten decent production from strongside backer Hayden Henry, which is notable given the SLB is usually the first position taken off the field when a 4-3 team goes nickel. This could end up being significant if Alabama spends a lot of time in Ace formations in this game, trying to run for the win with Tagovailoa sidelined. Grant Morgan plays enough to almost be considered a co-starter. He and Deon Edwards are the only two reserve linebackers of note.

Alabama has serious star power on the edges with Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis, and with Lewis finally at 100 percent health, Alabama’s pass rush has become a major concern for opponents. Inside, Shane Lee and Christian Harris will start, but look for a healthy dose of Markail Benton, who has found a role as a nickel/dime ILB for the Crimson Tide due to his experience. Brandon Ale Kaho provides depth inside, while Christopher Allen and Ben Davis support the OLBs.

For Alabama, Lee is almost to De’Jon Harris’ level already, and that’s a true freshman being compared to a senior. The Pool-Henry-Morgan combo is probably superior to Harris at the moment. But Lewis and Jennings give Alabama something Arkansas doesn’t have as edge rushers. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
This was going to be a weakness for Arkansas out of the gate, everybody knew it, and it has come to pass as expected. Safety Kamren Curl has been the exception, a do-everything centerfielder who can support the run, cover well and force big plays for the defense. He just doesn’t have much help. Joe Foucha claimed the free safety spot in the spring, and while being a good cover safety, hasn’t been able to help much around the line of scrimmage against the run. He is also listed as questionable for this game, but the injury was not disclosed. If he can’t go, Arkansas will have true freshmen at both the free safety (Jalen Catalon) and nickel safety (Greg Brooks Jr.) positions.

Arkansas is already suffering from production issues when extra DBs are on the field, as the quality of the depth seems to fall off quickly. At corner, Jarques McClellion and Montaric Brown get the starting nods, with both players in the average-to-below-average range.

Alabama will start Patrick Surtain II and Trevon Diggs at the cornerback slots, with Xavier McKinney, Shyheim Carter and Jared Mayden as the primary safeties. Josh Jobe, Daniel Wright and Jordan Battle provide depth. The edge at cornerback alone is enough to throw this category to Alabama, and the Crimson Tide no worse than holds its own at safety. McKinney is strong in the places Curl is weak, and vice versa, but Alabama’s other players at safety are stronger than what the Hogs bring to the table. A pretty solid lead overall here. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
The Tennessee game finally brought the long-needed change at punter, as first Will Reichard and then Ty Perine were tried in place of Skyler DeLong. Reichard reinjured a hip flexor, but after watching Perine, it’s going to take something drastic to reopen this position battle. Perine hit two huge punts against Tennessee and then put the exclamation point on his day by making a tackle on punt coverage – it helps when your new punter runs a 4.5 40-yard dash. Joseph Bulovas missed another field goal, but was strong on kickoffs.

Alabama’s return game and coverage units have been stellar. Jaylen Waddle has helped lead Bama to a 2nd-place ranking in punt returns, and kickoff returns come in at 33rd, impressive given how many kickoffs have been purposefully kicked short so as to keep the ball out of Henry Ruggs III’s hands.

Arkansas’ punting situation (109th) has been about as bad as Alabama’s (125th) on the year, and while the Razorbacks are respectable on punt returns, they are one of the worst teams in the country returning kickoffs. Punt return defense has been acceptable, but kickoff return defense is a problem spot.

Alabama covers both very well. Arkansas punter Sam Loy has shown limited ability, but placekicker Connor Limpert has been very solid, going 11-for-14 so far and going 5-for-8 from beyond 40 yards. It’s very possible, given Alabama’s strong edge in the return game, that the Crimson Tide actually leads this category. But until we’ve seen a little more from Perine to make sure he isn’t a mirage, we’ll give Arkansas the edge here based on Limpert alone. Advantage: Arkansas

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Arkansas in two, but it could easily be an 8-0 sweep for the Tide. Alabama strongly leads both OL-DL cross-matchups as well.

Basically, with Tua this is a blowout. An offensively-limited Auburn team beat Arkansas 51-10 last week and Alabama is more explosive than the Tigers by several degrees. With Mac Jones under center, though – and an approaching weather system that threatens to flood the area over the weekend – there is a heap of uncertainty about what Alabama’s gameplan will look like, to say nothing of how Jones can execute it.

The conventional wisdom is that Alabama will approach the game more conservatively, trying to pressure the Razorbacks’ inability to stop the run. But passing games have an edge, to a point, in wet weather.

Of greater concern is what Jones will be asked to do. Expect shorter patterns, possibly more screens, throws to the tight ends and throws to the running backs. It’s unlikely he’ll be asked to navigate riskier, longer-developing plays and patterns.

In the end, we might get a boring game, low-scoring on both sides, made miserable by bad weather. Or, Mac Jones could surprise just about everyone and put on a Tua-like performance. The subplot here is that Jones might just need the latter, because of all the quarterbacks expected to be on campus in the spring vying to replace Tua Tagovailoa, Jones might be the least likely (in the eyes of fans, at least) to emerge with the job. This is a job audition, no question about it. Let’s see how long of a leash he gets.

Alabama 41
Arkansas 17

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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