FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is hoping the bye week has the defense healthier and mentally fresh as they prepare for the final five games of the regular season.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Paul Jr. is sixth on the team with 23 tackles. Paul has 12 solo tackles, three for loss, a sack, one quarterback hurry, forced a fumble and recovered one. Sam Pittman has taken notice of Paul’s play.
“I think he’ll just continue to get better,” Pittman said. “He’s very talented. He’s physical, can run. If he had problems, they would be just eye violations or some type of mental bust. But those are becoming fewer and fewer, which they will as a young kid gets to play more. I think he’s really talented. I think he’s going to be a really good linebacker for us because he can run, he’s very, very physical and I think that’s helped us. We’re putting him in on third down right now because Bump’s (Bumper Pool) situation a little bit, so it’s certainly going to help us in the future and has helped us recently.”
Two young defensive linemen who have also caught Pittman’s eye are defensive end Landon Jackson and defensive tackle Cam Ball.
“I’m really excited about Cam,” Pittman said. “I think he’s made some big strides. Landon, as well. I’d like for Landon to gain some more weight. He’s lost quite a bit of weight since he’s been here and we’ve already went with the nutritionist and all that trying to get the weight back on him. I think he’s a little too light. He’s around 240 right now. I think he’s light. But he plays extremely hard, and has done a nice job. Cam, I think, moved pretty fast in what he’s been able to do from his first year to now. I really like where he’s at.”
Pittman went on to explain more about Jackson’s weight loss.
“I asked him about it and he said he’s eating and all that kind of stuff,” Pittman said. “But we do have… It was concerning to me, so I got him with Julia (Zalewski) to make sure that he’s eating whatever he needs to eat to make sure that he can gain some weight. Because I think he wanted to, at first, take a little pressure off that knee and make it feel better and all and move a little better, but he needs… I think he’s probably 265-270 pound guy, that he needs to be for what we’re asking him to do.”
Jackson has 17 tackles, eight solo, 2.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, a pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and forced a fumble. Ball has 15 tackles, three solo and one for loss. Defensive end Zach Williams also had weight issues when he first got to Arkansas a freshman out of Joe T. Robinson. But he has been able to add weight and is enjoying a very good season. He has 19 tackles, five solo, four for loss, three sacks and four quarterback hurries.
“I think he’s about 255 right now, he’s holding pretty steady,” Pittman said. “I imagine when he quits playing, he’ll go back to 220. He has to maintain it. Some guys do and some guys, it’s easy for ’em to gain weight, but he’s holding in there pretty good. And a lot of it has to do with, you know, he’s not having to play every single snap and all those things.”
Defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols also provided an update on true freshman Sam Mbake’s transition to cornerback from wide receiver in recent weeks.
“I think he’s come a long way,” Nichols said. “Obviously I don’t know everything about technique and everything that goes on on the back end, but I remember when he told me he’s coming to the dark side, the defensive side. It’s been a pleasure having him in the room. You stand on the sideline when he’s out at practice and you see him making plays and he’s flying around, being around the ball. It’s enjoyable to see somebody come over to our side of the ball and embrace the culture that we have over here and embrace who we are as a defense.”
Nichols has nine tackles, five solo and one pass breakup so far this season. He feels the bye week definitely benefitted the defense and entire team.
“This coaching staff made a big emphasis on taking care of our bodies,” Nichols said. “We got some work in, but we also took care of our bodies. Having some days off to reset physically as well as mentally, like, as the season gets long you can kind of get down mentally. But being able to have those couple of days off to reset, refocus and go over what you need to do better and what you want to be better for the rest of the season, I think it’s going to be really good for us.”
Arkansas and Auburn will kickoff at 11 a.m. on Saturday with the game televised on the SEC Network.