Razorback Defensive Line Prepares For Season

Nate Allen Aug. 18 football 

FAYETTEVILLE – Adding three transfers and possibly one ready-to-play freshman to an Arkansas defensive line group graduating all but one 2020 starter should mean a deeper D-line for 2021.

“It’s all-around better, too,” returning defensive linemen Dorian Gerald and Eric Gregory asserted to media following Wednesday morning’s practice.

Second-year Arkansas Head Coach Sam Pittman, second-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom, and new defensive line coach Jermial Ashley have challenged the D-line group to catch up to the Arkansas secondary in quality depth so that Odom can can freely mix a 4-2-5 scheme  with the 3-2-6 he used so often last year because of the D-line drop-off beyond graduated to the New York Jets nose tackle Jonathan Marshall.

All believe the additions of defensive end Tre Williams, and 3-technique defensive tackle Markell Utsey from Missouri, where 2015-2019 Mizzou Head Coach Odom had coached them, plus John Ridgeway, the 6-6, 320 transfer nose tackle from Illinois State, and the healthy return of 2018 starting defensive end Dorian Gerald for a bonus senior year after two injury-plagued seasons, and precocious 6-5, 310 true freshman defensive tackle Cameron Ball infuse competition with a returning group including end/tackle Eric Gregory, tackles Isaiah Nichols and Taurean Carter, and ends Zach Williams and Jashaud Stewart are bound to improve after a full season and spring and this preseason under the Pittman regime and Odom’s system.

Ashley welcomes them all, especially expecting he’ll need a large rotation of large bodies trying to stay fresh in what could be a sweltering Sept. 4 1 p.m. season opener against the Rice Owls at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Asked how many he would like to rotate against Rice, Ashley replied Wednesday, “As many as Coach Pittman allows me to.”

That they play more as 4-man front than last year’s customary three also is a goal. Especially with Pittman challenging the D-line to show it has the quality depth that Pittman sees in the secondary.

“I’m a competitor, man,” Gregory said.  “So anything like negatively that I hear a little bit, I feel like I’m trying to work on it.”

So are his fellow D-linemen. Gregory said.

“We have a lot of depth,” Gregory said.  “We’ve gotten way better in a 4-man front. We’re making plays. I feel like we’re way better in the aspect of the game and getting to quarterback and holding our gaps against the runs. So I feel like we’re way better.”

Gerald also takes it as a personal and group challenge.

“Just seeing the challenge we’ve been through that Coach has put up to us, we’ve answered,” Gerald said.  “I think we’ve got everything we need to have s successful D-line.”

Especially with Williams, Utsey and Ridgeway added.

Ashley was asked to synopsize the new trio.

“”I’ll start with Tre Williams,” Ashley said. ?He’s a very athletic guy. He’s a great edge rusher. He will give you a presence coming off the edge. Ridgeway, he’s a big guy. 326 pounds, I believe. Has the type of mindset that we look for in the middle. Just an aggressive guy to bang and battle play in and play out. Utsey, he’s an athletic big guy. He brings a little athleticism to the 3-tech spot. He’s also a banger.”

With so much experience returning plus three experienced transfers it seems difficult to forecast Ball of Atlanta, playing right away.

But Ball “absolutely”  could, Ashley said.

“”He’s an athletic young guy,” Ashley said. “It’s going to be a transition to understanding the playbook and things like that. That’s just one of the things we work on daily, just him growing mentally and being able to handle what we ask of him when the bullets start flying.”

The Razorbacks have Thursday and Friday morning practices leading into Saturday morning’s second and final preseason scrimmage before next Monday’s start of UA fall semester classes.

 What does Ashley want most from his D-linemen Saturday?

“Carrying out your assignment under pressure,” Ashley said. “Being able to function at a high level during the midst of playing at a high level.”

Running backs Trelon Smith and AJ Green were withheld from Wednesday’s practice creating more work for  track sprinter Josh Oglesby and freshmen Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and Javion Hunt.

Pittman has said some obvious first-teamers like Trelon Smith and receiver Treylon Burks might scrimmage just a little or not at all Saturday to minimize the injury risk as the season-opener approaches.

Starting quarterback KJ Jefferson and his backups all practice  in no-contact caution jerseys.


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