Arkansas’ defense making strides this spring

By Otis Kirk
on 2024-03-08 15:15 PM

FAYETTEVILLE — With Bobby Petrino taking control of the Arkansas offense that side of the ball has gotten a lot of publicity, but the defense is showing some good signs early on as well.

Arkansas just completed its second practice of the spring on Friday. Junior defensive end Nico Davillier returns and currently is getting first-team reps at the spot opposite Landon Jackson. In 12 games last fall, Davillier had 11 tackles, four solo, 3.5 for loss, a sack and one quarterback hurry. Sam Pittman praised Davillier and the other younger ones at that position following Friday’s practice.

“Nico’s made a lot of plays,” Pittman said. “He has. Good player playing hard. Really in great shape, so he’s going hard all the time. Anton (Juncaj), he probably still, he needs to continue to get in better shape, but he’s very, very strong and long. I’m really excited that he’s here. Quincy (Rhodes Jr.), talented now, and big. Quincy’s going to be a really good player. He’s working hard.

“Those two young guys, Kavion Henderson and Charlie Collins, they play 100 miles-an-hour. They may be out of a gap here and there, every now and then, or rush too deep on the quarterback, but they’re going. You can’t evaluate, or you can’t figure out what a kid is unless he goes full speed, and you know exactly what you have in those two guys. They like the game and I’ve been proud of those six guys.”

Pittman was obviously very pleased to get Jackson back. Many expected the senior who has played two seasons at Arkansas and set for third after transferring in from LSU to enter the 2024 NFL Draft.

“Yeah, he’s a great kid,” Pittman said. “I don’t know that we were ever concerned, and it’s not that way with everybody, but I don’t know that we were ever concerned with him leaving and going into the portal. I think it was leaving and going to the NFL. Obviously we had to work through some hoops and different things, but he always wanted to stay.

“It means a lot to the program. The more kids you have like that wanting to come back, and they get into the mold of ‘we have something to prove.’ Last year was not indicative of what the years before were, and things of that nature. I think the more you get around guys that way, it’ll help your team. Obviously with him being a team captain and coming back, I think it was a big deal. And just for who he is.”

Jackson indicated Thursday he didn’t want to leave after a 4-8 season.

“It was hard initially,” Jackson said. “But the more I thought on it I knew where my head was at. Growing up from a young age, my goal was to always to play SEC football. Which, now my goal is to play in the NFL, obviously. But I always grew up watching Arkansas, A&M, LSU, Bama. Always wanted to play in the SEC. I I just really didn’t feel right going out on a 4-8 season. So that was a big decision that played with me coming back. I’m really glad I made that decision and I’m ready to keep this year going.”

After four linebackers entered the transfer portal the Hogs still have some good talent there, but it’s young and inexperienced. Georgia transfer Xavian Sorey Jr. and Brad Spence have been working with the first unit. The Hogs also have Carson Dean, Alex Sanford, Kaden Henley, JuJu Pope and Justin Logan as scholarship linebackers. Two more freshmen, Bradley Shaw and Wyatt Simmons, will report in late May or early June. The Hogs also have some walk-on linebackers who may be in position to at least help on special teams.

“I think those guys, obviously we’ve talked to them, but I think they can see it,” Pittman said. “That they’re setting in there with, Sorey would be the older guy, and he’s not old. He would be the older guy and then you have those three guys and it’s Spence, Sanford, Dean and obviously Juju Pope, but I think those guys see their opportunity. Dean had a fantastic practice today.

“But I think anytime you think you’re getting ready to play, I believe that you prepare a little bit better. You don’t prepare in your mind as I’m a freshman running down on the kickoff team. I think it’s been exciting for those kids and again, I’ll say it again, you can be a good player, you just sometimes need to get the experience. I thought they were good players last year, they just didn’t quite have any experience. This spring ball will give them that experience and we’ll go from there, but I like them.”

Pittman then went into more specific detail about Dean and Spence.

“Dean is very, very talented,” Pittman said. “I mean, athletically, very, very talented, very smart. I think we’re all gonna really like him because he can run, he made some really nice plays today. I just think the key to all this is we just got to stay healthy, so they can get the reps during spring and if they will, I think we’re gonna be fine. 

“I’m not telling you that we won’t try to add to that room. We’d be foolish not to. But I like those guys just like I think you do too. I like those guys.

Arkansas added three players from the transfer portal for the secondary. They are senior Doneiko Slaughter from Tennessee, senior Marquise Robinson (South Alabama) and junior Miguel Mitchell (Florida). The Hogs also have three true freshmen in Selman Bridges, Jaden Allen and Ahkhari Johnson.

“Miguel Mitchell is the one that we’ve just seen partial practice,” Pittman said. “He had the foot. So we’re trying to be smart with him. Doneiko Slaughter’s been really good. He’s done a nice job in his two days. Marquise Robinson has also. He’s very competitive and has also done a nice job. 

“Where they land on the depth chart, I don’t know. But we hit on them. We’ve seen enough out of Miguel as well. But I think we hit on three of those. Where they land on the depth chart, I don’t know yet. But I’ve been pleased with those guys.

“And to be honest with you Jaden Allen and Selman Bridges, they’ve done some really nice things in team and in coverage.”

Redshirt senior cornerback Kee’yon Stewart transferred to Arkansas from TCU prior to last season. He played in 10 games and had eight solo tackles, two assists and a quarterback hurry. Pittman likes how he has looked this spring in the two practices.

“But Stew is a guy that has confidence right now,” Pittman said. “When he got here last year, it was just catch up, make up, catch up. Again, sometimes the portal, if you don’t get them… And we’re going to go try to get some guys, I’m not saying that. But if you don’t get them in January, it’s really hard for them to make a huge difference. We’ve had guys do that. I think right now with the year that he had… What I’m proud of is that he didn’t give up. So he’s come back here, and he’s in a strong battle for the starting corner.”

Arkansas’ entire defensive staff returns from last season.

(Last updated: 2024-03-08 15:15 PM)