FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — John Chavis has long been considered one of the top defensive coordinators in not just the SEC, but college football.
Chavis is set to begin his second season at Arkansas. He has been a defensive coordinator in the SEC since the 1995 season at Tennessee. He was the defensive line and linebackers coach from 1989-94 before taking over as coordinator in 1995. He was then at LSU from 2009-14 and Texas A&M 2015-17.
Chavis said Monday he is looking forward to this season that opens on Saturday at home against Portland State. He likes what he has seen from the team this fall.
“The biggest thing is understanding our philosophy and how we do it,” Chavis said. “I think our players understand what we’re doing and playing faster. The kids are playing faster than they did last year. You can slow players down, try to do too much scheme wise and who knows maybe we did that at times last year, but the players are more comfortable with the scheme. They can cut it loose and play.
“At linebacker, I think we’re probably as improved as much at that position, in terms of depth, getting a second, maybe third guy at times, we’ve probably improved as much there as we have any position.”
The Razorbacks released their first depth chart of the preseason on Monday and four true freshmen were listed on the two-deep. Greg Brooks Jr. is the starter at nickel back, Jalen Catalon is a backup free safety, Mataio Soli is a second-team defensive end and Devin Bush is a backup cornerback. Others could also play.
“I like to describe it like this, I like coaching a young football team,” Chavis said. “When they’re young sometimes they don’t know they don’t know. They will work hard, play hard and do those type things. I’ve been around that other stops we were every bit as young as this team is and they grew into really good football teams and that’s what we intend to do here with some of these young guys. Some of them are very talented. Some of them will get an opportunity to play and play early. We’ve got to have them.
“Depth is a big issue when you start looking around the SEC. If you don’t have depth you may play good at times, but when you get into some of those games where you’ve got to play 69 to 89 plays, but when you play that many plays you’ve got to have depth. We like to keep our guys to around 50 plays.”
Brooks may not get the chance to start the game on Saturday since the Hogs could start in a base defense with three linebackers instead of a nickel back. Chavis talked about what Portland State does that will lead to the Razorbacks playing maybe more base than they do most games.
“They play a lot of 12 personnel, they play two tight ends,” Chavis said. “The thing about it is you never know where they’re gonna be. They’ll be in two tight ends and they’ll be empty in the backfield. They mix it up and give you a lot of formations. They play a lot of big personnel.
“They run a little bit of option. They’ve got two quarterbacks they play in almost every game. It will be interesting to see what their plan is. Certainly there’s some things we’re gonna do because of who we are and then we’ve got to find out how they’re gonna try to attack us and we may have to make adjustments as we go. We will play some base personnel for sure.”
Portland State’s tight end is senior Charlie Taumoepeau. In nine games last fall, he led the Vikings with 28 receptions for 580 yards and five touchdowns. Chavis is impressed with the 6-foot-3, 245-pound three-year letterman.
“He’s a really good player,” Chavis said. “He has NFL talent there’s no doubt about that. That’s nothing we’re not accustomed to. When you play against the SEC teams you play against that type of talent each week. He’s a really good player and I think he will up having a long career in the NFL.”
One thing that has been impressive for Chavis and the Hogs is the starting 11 listed on the depth chart are pretty much the same ones they ran out with the first unit when practice started.
“The best way to answer that is to say some of the best teams I’ve been around are the ones who started almost every single week the same 11,” Chavis said. “Obviously, we got it right when we started the season and kept them healthy. Those have been some of the better teams I’ve been on.”
In addition to Soli at defensive end, Chavis has three seniors in the depth chart. Soli is behind Gabe Richardson while Dorian Gerald is listed ahead of Jamario Bell at the other end. How important is it for those three seniors to play well this fall?
“Steve Caldwell has done a great job with them and I think, again, mentioning linebackers in terms of what they’ve done in terms of improvement, that front has gotten better and some of it is going to include freshmen,” Chavis said. “In my opinion, it’ll be as good or a better front than we had last year and those seniors have to lead the way when you start looking inside at what Sosa (Agim) is doing for us right now. He’s playing so much better, and he played good for us last year, but he’s playing so much better for us right now. He can be disruptive. He’s going to get some attention, too. Those three ends are doing a really, really good job for us. Again, we have to bring those other guys along.
“Coach Morris mentioned to us as a staff that we’re building a program, not just a football team. That’s what we’ve got to do, and we’ve got to get those young kids ready to play. But it’s good to have those three seniors out there leading the way for them.”
Jarques McClellion and Montaric Brown are sophomores who are slated to start at cornerback. Chavis knows they are young, but he likes what the pair brings to the game.
“We’re excited,” Chavis said. “Those two guys are going to have to play well for us, and we feel very, very comfortable having them both out there. Again, that will be another position where we will have freshmen that will play for us. Those guys aren’t going to be able to carry the load by themselves. I think we will be, again, in my opinion, before the season is over, we’ll be better at that position than we were last year, and that’s exciting to know as you watch them grown.
“And we’ve got to continue to recruit. In our scheme, you’ve got to have really, really talented corners for it to hold up, and you’ve got to have pass rushers. We’re getting closer to that. We’re not there yet, but we are getting closer.”
As with any new season, the concern about tackling is always there for a defensive coach. Do you feel you guys have done enough tackling this preseason?
“I think we did (tackle enough in camp),” Chavis said. “I think you can practice tackling without being as physical as you have to be in the game. You can practice technique, and I assure you of this, even the first day we went out there we started practice technique and footwork and approach and all of the things that are important to being a good tackler. The thing you have to do is be able to defeat blocks and tackle to play good defensive football.
“There’s been very, very few days that we’ve been on that field that we did not practice tackling. It’s going to be one of the first things we do. As a coach, you don’t ever get enough of it, but at some point you have to make a decision to get them to the field healthy.”
Arkansas and Portland State will kickoff at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.