A Visit from the Razorbacks (Previewing Arkansas at Auburn)
This may be one of the harder teams to figure out, this year
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the another Auburn SEC game preview! On September 22nd, Auburn will host the Arkansas Razorbacks at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The last couple of seasons, Auburn has totally destroyed Arkansas, 56–3 in Auburn and 52–20 in Fayetteville. Those scores were certainly part of the reason Arkansas fired head coach Bret Bielema, and, after making a run at Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, Arkansas ended up hiring offensive guru Chad Morris from SMU.
Morris is another one of those up and coming coaches that likes to run the hurry up, no huddle offense. Unfortunately for Morris, the Razorback roster is built in the mold of Big Ten power football. It will likely take some time to bring in players to run the new system. That said, it is usually an easier transition going from pro style to the hurry up than going the other way.
The Arkansas schedule is quite favorable for early development. Arkansas hosts Eastern Illinois and then goes on the road to Colorado State. Coach Mike Bobo’s Colorado State team might be a bit of a trap game. Arkansas hosts North Texas in game 3 before traveling to Auburn for the SEC opener for the Razorbacks. Auburn will have played Washington in Atlanta and hosted Alabama State and LSU. Auburn should be battle tested by the time Arkansas rolls into town.
Arkansas has some pretty good offensive skill players returning, including a deep running-back corps. The real issue the past couple of seasons has been the offensive line. Arkansas has given up a ton of sacks the past few years, and those blows took a toll on the Razorback quarterbacks. Run blocking was OK last year as Arkansas averaged 4.4 yards per carry on the season. By comparison, Auburn averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Negative sack yardage hurt both teams’ averages.
Last year Arkansas tried to go to a 3–4 defense and gave up a lot of big plays. Worse, they allowed opponents to average 5.0 yards per carry. Head coach Chad Morris immediately hired veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis to shore up the defense. The Razorbacks will go back to a 4-man front and to try and control things at the point of attack rather than getting overly fancy with schemes.
It’s hard to compare special teams with a new staff coming in that may do things very differently. Arkansas was pretty good on kick and punt coverage last year as well as returning kicks effectively. Veteran kicker Connor Limpert was money in the back place kicking, hitting 8 of 9 field goal attempts. Arkansas just could not get into field goal range enough last year. Where Arkansas was weak was in punting and punt returns. The Razorbacks only returned 4 punts the entire year!
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Arkansas offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown. Junior strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side is a rotation between sophomores TD Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. Arkansas counters from left to right with junior Colton Jackson, senior Hjalte Froholdt, sophomore Dylan Hays at center, and seniors Johnny Gibson and Brian Wallace at right tackle. These guys struggled last season, and the hurry up offense may help them. On the other hand, Auburn has too much depth for pace to wear the defense out. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Arkansas backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Senior Deshaun Davis leads the bunch, seniors Darrell Williams and Montravious Atkinson are able to play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Auburn has lots of depth behind the starters as well. Auburn’s linebackers play with leverage and are sure tacklers. Arkansas will likely use H-backs a lot as it has senior Kendrick Jackson and junior Hayden Johnson on the roster. Both are excellent lead blockers. They will open holes for junior Devwah Whaley and some younger backs. Whaley is a power back, whereas younger guys like Chase Hayden and Maleek Williams are shifty guys. Junior T. J. Hammonds is also a good option. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Arkansas receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in juniors Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean. Junior Jeremiah Dinson could move over from safety, if needed. Sophomore converted wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene turned heads this spring and could be a co-starter on either side. John Broussard Jr. provides quality depth. The most dangerous of the Arkansas receivers is senior Jared Cornelius, but he has had some awful injury luck through his career. He missed this year’s spring game and may or may not be ready by September. Senior Jonathan Nance led the team with 37 receptions last year. One guy to watch is freshman Michael Woods, an early enrollee who is already working with the first unit. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Arkansas secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features juniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. Thomas was an experienced backup last season, and Dinson played nickel back. Dinson can play every position in the secondary well but has missed considerable time with injuries over the past 3 seasons. Sophomore Jordyn Peters is listed as Auburn’s top nickel back as of now. Auburn is very young behind the starters. Arkansas will likely go with Brandon Martin as a 3rd receiver, or Jared Cornelius could be moved around. Junior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady is a weapon. It is quite possible that Arkansas will use 2 quarterbacks. Sophomore Cole Kelly backed up Austin Allen last season and got several starts. Junior Ty Storey has reportedly greatly benefited from the new offense and is running neck and neck with Kelly. Kelly is one of those big quarterbacks that is mobile in the pocket and hard to bring down. Advantage: Even.
Punting: For now, sophomore Aiden Marshall is the starter, backed up by Ian Shannon. Both were inconsistent last year and didn’t do much to impress in Auburn’s A-Day game in bad weather. Australian import Arryn Siposs is expected to come in and win the starting punting job this fall. Last season, Shannon averaged 39.8 yards per punt, and Marshall averaged 39.4. Arkansas is in similar shape with junior Blake Johnson, who averaged 38.6 yards per punt last year. Arkansas was good in coverage, allowing 11 returns for a 3.6 yards per return average. Auburn was not good last season, giving up 11.4 yards per return. Both teams are still auditioning return men. Advantage: Arkansas.
Kickoffs: Auburn redshirt freshman Anders Carlson has no experience, but given his displayed leg strength on A-Day, I think kicking a lot of touchbacks should be a given next season. Also, there is a new fair catch rule in effect this season that will put the ball at the 20 after a fair catch. I think we will see a lot of fair catches on anything fielded inside the 5. Junior Connor Limpert handled kickoffs for Arkansas last season and notched 21 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. He also kicked the ball out of bounds 6 times. Both teams have dangerous return men. Auburn will return kickoffs with sophomore Noah Igbinoghene, who averaged 23.8 yards per return last season despite only fair-to-poor blocking. Arkansas sophomore De’Vion Warren averaged 26.4 yards per return. Auburn gave up 27.2 yards per return, while Arkansas held its opponents to just 19.3. Advantage: Arkansas.
Place kicking: Anders Carlson of Auburn has no experience, but he did hit 4 of 4 in bad weather in Auburn’s spring game. I watched him in warmups, too. His only miss in practice was from 53 yards, hitting the upright. Junior Connor Limpert was accurate last season, but struggled in this year’s spring game. Like Auburn, Arkansas had rain and bad conditions. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. Arkansas defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked decent on A-Day. Auburn is set at the guard spots with veteran juniors Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell. Left tackle seems solid with junior Prince Tega Wanagho, who has reputedly taken the next step forward this spring after struggling last season in limited starts. Right tackle was a battle this spring between freshmen Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley. Both had good moments, but Auburn has turned around and signed graduate transfer Jack Driscoll from UMass. Driscoll played last season against SEC foes Tennessee and Mississippi State and allowed just 1 quarterback pressure. Center is another big question mark for Auburn. Junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman Nick Brahms were battling for the starting job, but both went out with injuries and may or may not be back for the season opener. Converted H-back/tight end/walk-on Tucker Brown started on A-Day and actually did a good job. This line has a long way to go before September rolls around. One would not know it from all the defensive struggles Arkansas had last season, but they have some good players on the defensive line and some depth. Juniors McTelvin Agim and Austin Capps will provide beef in the middle, and look for senior Armon Watts and junior T. J. Smith to rotate in. At defensive end, senior Randy Ramsey, junior Jamario Bell and sophomore Gabe Richardson all had good moments in the spring game. The John Chavis defense really allows ends to shine. Advantage: Arkansas.
Auburn backs vs. Arkansas linebackers: Auburn features senior H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter, blowing open holes. The real question is who will carry the ball. Junior Kam Martin is blazing fast but has had durability issues in the past. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Sophomore Devan Barrett has been moved to receiver. Auburn played freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin a lot on A-Day. Both were suspect in pass blocking and running sideways or backwards. Whitlow dropped several passes. The best A-Day runner for the second year in a row was junior walk-on C. J. Tolbert, who had 137 yards. Tolbert is on the small side and didn’t have an actual carry in 2017. Arkansas is pretty much set with sophomore Hayden Henry on the strong side, senior Dre Greenlaw on the weak side, and junior De’Jon Harris in the middle. Those guys struggled mightily last season in the open field against Auburn runners, giving up 7.3 yards per carry. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Arkansas corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were juniors Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, and have good height and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had the catch of the day on A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Arkansas’ secondary might be the strongest position on the team. Senior Ryan Pulley and sophomore Chevin Calloway give Arkansas capability on the outside. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Arkansas safeties: This is a strength-against-strength matchup with lots of experience on both sides. Auburn senior Ryan Davis shattered the team single-season receptions mark last year with 84 catches. Teams that gave Davis a cushion last season got eaten up 5 to 10 yards per quick pass. Teams that tried to press were often burned for touchdowns. Auburn depth at the slot took blows with both Will Hastings and Eli Stove having knee injuries and surgeries this spring. Both did a ton of damage last year. Auburn has moved running back Devan Barrett to the slot for depth. Barrett has good hands and is a good runner, but he’s not the breakaway threat the guys above him are. Auburn’s tight end is senior Jalen Harris. Teams can key on him as a blocker only. I think Auburn has targeted Harris maybe 3 times in his 3 years as a starter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a slow start and a propensity to take hits last season but heated up by about game 4 and lit up some SEC secondaries. He’s mobile in the pocket, and can make every throw. It will be incumbent for Stidham to get off to a quick start this year. For the Razorbacks, sophomore Kamren Curl moves to strong safety, and veteran senior Santos Ramirez will start at free safety. Advantage: Even.
Arkansas will have a lot more imagination on offense than we are used to seeing, but they have a really bad matchup against Auburn’s defensive line. There won’t be a lot of time to throw and little room to run. Jordan-Hare Stadium will be a quite hostile environment for young Razorback quarterbacks as well. It will take a good game plan and some inventive plays to get anything done on this Auburn defense.
Offensively, Auburn could have trouble against Arkansas if defensive coordinator John Chavis has them playing together. It all depends upon the development of a solid offensive line for Auburn.
Prediction: Auburn is too much, too early for Arkansas. Final score: Auburn 33, Arkansas 13.
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