BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
One year after putting on blinders, Arkansas defensive backs sported boxing gloves during Thursday’s 12th of 25 scheduled preseason practices.
It’s all about becoming a better overall defender according to Razorback defensive coordinator Barry Odom, now in his third season in Fayetteville.
“It’s just an emphasis that we feel like we had to make,” Odom said. “We have got officials at every practice and if you go back and review the practice film, you get tired and your habits start to slip a little bit.
“And usually at defensive back when you are in man coverage, what is your first reaction? It’s to grab and hold. It was an emphasis that we wanted to make today.”
Indeed Arkansas wide receivers made some spectacular catches that might otherwise been knocked away by defensive backs, who Odom put blinders on them during preseason practices in 2021.
“I didn’t think there was going to be a fair fight,” Odom said. “But I think it is something that is wise to do at this point because it snaps back to your attention and your focus to really your eyes, your feet, your stance, your start and what that is supposed to look like.”
It was the first donning of the boxing gloves in this camp, but is something that Odom has done previously as a defensive coordinator at Memphis and head coach at Missouri.
“It is something that I have done for a long time and I thought it was important for us to break that back out,” Odom said. “I can’t argue the (referee) calls, it doesn’t do me any good so we just try to fix it ourselves.”
Odom also thought it might liven things up during a tough preseason.
“It was day 12 and you get a little tired, but that’s the way it is,” Odom said. “Camp is hard and it is supposed to be. It’s awesome though. Just trying to correct some mistakes and focus on all the other stuff that I mentioned with technique.
“I thought it was good for us. It made it more difficult for us , but also we get to teach off of that tape. We are going to start in stance, start with alignment, start with eye placement and then you get into the angles that you are coming out of breaks and where your eyes are, is your chin down and all the things that go into man-to-man coverage. Take the hands out of it and teach everything else with that.”
Arkansas is slated to have a short practice on Friday morning before a scrimmage on Saturday, when the season will be just two weeks away.
“Isn’t it amazing that Saturday morning we’ll wake up 14 days away? Odom noted. “With that, and as a defensive staff, we’ll have a long discussion as a staff on what we kind of want Saturday to look like. I’m sure Coach Pittman is giving it a lot of thought up to this point.
“We’ll talk more in detail tonight about that, then we’ll break off defensive staff-wise and kind of see number of plays we want each guy to get.
“You want to establish as close as you can your top 11. You want to establish who is the top 22, and really you look at it at this point if we were playing Saturday who can help us in what positions, play winning football and who is ready to go do that.
“And it’s always about creating the guy behind him that there’s competition, but also getting them game ready. There’s a difference between performing well in a scrimmage and then performing well on Sept. 3 in front of 78,000 people.
“A lot of discussions have got to take place between now and the end of Saturday. We won’t base everything on just Saturday’s performance at that scrimmage. It’s a body of work from when we started through today.”
Odom is pleased with how camp has gone to this point with his troops showing a lot of versatility.
“Excited that we’ve had 11 or 12 practices, and we’re making really good progress,” Odom said. “I like to this point where guys are moving around at a lot of different spots. We are cross-training guys at a lot of different positions. We’re settling in to an extent on, if we were playing on Saturday, kind of how closely we’re getting to get guys in those positions ready to go play.”
Arkansas has been rotating Hudson Clark, Malik Chavis, LaDarrius Bishop and LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern as the first team cornerbacks.
They are working under the tutelage of defensive backs coach Dominque Bowman, who was hired in the offseason to replace Sam Carter, now at Ole Miss.
“Coach Bowman has done a really nice job with them,” Odom said. “ I think they’ve all improved what their skillset is. They’ve all improved their knowledge of the defense. That’s one thing with having a chance to be here going on year three, which I’m so thrilled about, guys have been in the system now, the guys that have been here, going on another opportunity to learn the defense.
“Coaching is teaching. You have to be a great teacher. It doesn’t really matter what I know if they don’t know it and can’t go execute it. So, I’ve been able to throw a lot at them. We’re doing more right now than at any point since I’ve been here and it’s because they can handle it and it’s a veteran group on the back end. I’m sure excited about the progress they’ve made.
Myles Slusher has been the lead guy at the nickel spot although he was limited with a hip injury on Thursday.
“Sore hip/hamstring area,” Odom said. “I would expect he’d be back tomorrow and ready to roll.
“At that spot, a lot of versatility…Trent Gordon has played well. Jacorrei Turner came back from an injury early on from the offseason. He came back and has played well. Jayden Johnson has gotten reps there and did again today.
“A number of guys are going to roll in there, and with Slush being out it allowed those guys to get those reps. It’s something that I’d be naive to think that we would go through a season and think we would not have an injury. I look at it as an opportunity for the next guy to get into that role and step up and go play.”
All-American candidate Jalen Catalon, veteran Simeon Blair, Johnson and Georgia transfer Latavius Brini are among those working at safety.
Odom believes Brini, who started 11 games for the national champion Bulldogs last season season, is set to be a significant contributor in the secondary and is getting more comfortable with Arkansas’ way of playing defense.
“I think so,” Odom said. “That’s fair for any new player, right? You’re going through a new system and schematic change and terminology and the way we practice. There was some carryover in practice structure it sounds like on the place that he came from. And he’s playing a different spot than he did at Georgia. I like the way that he’s progressing, and I think he’s going to play winning football.”
An improved secondary is likely to lead to more blitzes from Arkansas. That’s something that Odom called on in spring practice.
He expects to use Alabama transfer linebacker Drew Sanders (6-5, 240), who is slated to start alongside senior star Bumper Pool, as an edge rusher at times.
“I think Drew’s got a terrific skillset,” Odom said. “He’s tall, he’s smart and can run, got great instincts, he’s quick. Some of the qualities that I never had as a player. Man, he’s determined. He’s a fierce competitor. You throw all those things in and he wants to be great, and I think he’s got a really good coach in Mike Scherer.”
The secondary has proven to Odom they will be able to play more man-to-man coverage this season.
“Yeah, we’ve been able to carry a lot into fall camp because they showed that they could do it,” Odom said. “ Now you’ve got to do it again in different situations and I think we’ve got a core group that really understands when we call a pressure, if there is a weakness, where it is, is the ball coming out quick, they get an understanding for it and they’ve got an understanding for it.
“They’re a group that looks like they’re veterans and they’ve been in the system and it’s fun because we’ve been able to keep throwing things on them. We’ve got another heavy install going in tonight. We’ll go through the next few days with that and then we’ll start fine tuning what we want to take into Week 1.
Odom and Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman have been encourage with the preseason play of a pair of defensive tackle additions – Arkansas State transfer Terry Hampton and true freshman and former Maumelle standout Nico Davillier – to go along with returnees Isaiah Nichols, Eric Gregory and Cam Ball among others.
“I think 4-5 guys there that are set to play and Nico is… the one guy on the defensive side that we didn’t have here as an early enrollee, so he’s been in a practice situation now for 12 days and that’s it,” Odom said. “The progress he’s made is a little surprising to me.
“I knew he (Davillier) was a great athlete, but just being able to carry over the habits that it takes at that position from the meeting room, on the field and then to apply it, says a lot about him.”