FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas added six defensive linemen in the Class of 2021 and hired a new coach from Tulsa.
Jermial Ashley is highly regarded in the coaching circles. The Razorbacks spent a lot of time using a 3-man front on the defensive line last season, but that appears to possibly be changing this year. Ashley was asked if it is 50-50 in practice between a 3-man and 4-man front?
“Mainly 4-man,” Ashley said. “We’re working a lot of 4-man right now. If we’ve got guys to put out there, and we can go with 4-man, that’s what we’ll be.”
Basically all the defensive linemen who played meaningful snaps last season are back except for Jonathan Marshall, Xavier Kelly and Julius Coates. Arkansas brought in two high school defensive linemen, a junior college transfer and then three transfers from four-year schools.
From Missouri came defensive end Tre Williams, 6-5, 255, and Markell Utsey, 6-4, 290, who can play inside or at end. John Ridgeway, 6-6, 320, is a big man in the middle who came from Illinois State. Ashley likes all three.
“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. He’s a solid guy in the middle. 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. He’s aggressive and plays with good technique and leverage and all those things.”
How nice is it to have a player such as Ridgeway in the middle?
“It’s extremely nice,” Ashley said. “It’s always nice to have bigger guys that can hold up in the middle and give you a little push, especially guys that work hard like Ridgeway and the other guys that are sitting in there.”
With so many returning players how has it gone with them and the newcomers?
“Well as a group, I think those guys out there working really hard,” Ashley said. “They come to work every day. They’re learning. They’re helping each other, and the ultimate goal is to develop and become what they want as a unit.
“It’s just the simple fact that the guys have come in willing to work, just like the guys that are already there. They’re willing to work. It’s just a group of guys that are hungry and ready to work for what they can get.”
Junior defensive end Zach Williams was undersized when he came in from Joe T. Robinson as a talented recruit. But now he’s listed at 6-4, 255, and may be bigger than that.
“He’s doing great,” Ashley said. “He’s in there in meetings asking questions. He’s working day in and day out. He’s learning the position, growing and steady progressing.”
Ashley also is impressed with how Williams can move with the additional weight.
“Absolutely, I’ve seen the before and after pictures and it’s kind of like night and day,” Ashley said. “He is an athletic kid. The biggest thing with all the guys is learning and understanding the position. Once they get to the point of understanding what they’re doing through and through, they can kind of go out and let their bird fly.”
A defensive lineman who was in the same recruiting class with Williams is Eric Gregory. Gregory, 6-4, 295, who is a redshirt sophomore. Ashley is impressed with him.
“Eric Gregory, he’s a unique guy that honestly can play the end or inside for us,” Ashley said. “The biggest thing for him is there’s a little bit more on his plate because he’s not just sitting inside all the time. Sometimes he’s on the edge. So, I think for him it’s just growing. He’s kind of getting double work, so he has to get the information and handle it from that stance.”
Is it difficult to play both inside and at end on defense?
“Yes, definitely,” Ashley said. “To me it’s definitely more difficult. It’s just like, to me, it’s really like the same technique, but it’s just different. I’m taking on double teams in the three three, in the nose. So, at the end I really wasn’t watching out for them, looking for that, except when the tight end come. I wasn’t really prepared for double teams, so just moving there and just trying to figure that out. And also the pass rush is different inside and outside. Everything is more quicker inside, so I had to learn to adapt to that and fight off that from just moving from the outside to inside.”
True freshman Cameron Ball, 6-5, 310, is very athletic and seems to be a possibility to see immediate action.
“Absolutely, he’s an athletic young guy,” Ashley said. “With any guy coming into a new program, 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.”
Redshirt junior Isaiah Nichols, 6-3, 300, saw a lot of action last and has been one who has talked about becoming a leader.
“Well, honestly for me, I feel like we have a room full of leaders,”Ashley said. “The reason why I say that is because I wouldn’t say there’s just one person who oversees the room. Everybody picks each other up. When they have a down day, there’s someone else that can pick you up. So, it’s kind of a collective unit type deal. To answer your question, he’s been doing a great job. Dorian Gerald has been doing a great job with that. Taurean Carter has been doing a great job. It’s all guys who have been here that understand the room, and they’re just trying to get everyone together.”
Gerald, 6-3, 265, has battled injuries while at Arkansas and opted to return for his super senior season. Gerald was limited to six games in 2020 and was injured in the first contest during the 2019 season.
“He’s hungry,” Ashley said. “He’s determined. He’s ready to work. He wants to learn, and he wants to understand what he’s doing. On the flipside, he wants to get out there and kind of put it all together.”
Gerald was asked about his bad luck with injuries?
“That’s part of football,” Gerald said. “That’s how injuries happen. That’s behind me. I have great support from my training staff, my coaches, everybody supporting me to help me get back healthy.
“I’m just ready to play. I’m ready to get on the field. I’m healthy again and I’m ready to see what I can do. I’m ready to do whatever I can to put the team in the best position to win.”
Carter, 6-3, 305, is a redshirt sophomore. Ashley likes what he has seen from the former Jalen Catalon teammate at Mansfield (Texas) Legacy.
“He’s having a great camp,” Ashley said. “He’s getting better every day. The technical side of things, I’ve seen the change from spring to now. He’s taking coaching and applying it and it’s showing up on film.”
Defensive end Jashaud Stewart, 6-2, 240, a sophomore, is another player who has impressed.
“Yeah, I love Jashaud,” Gerald said. “Like you mentioned his motor, it’s incredible. I talk to coach (Sam) Pittman all the time about what separates a D-lineman and it always comes back to the same thing, a high motor, and Jashaud has that.”
Ashley had a simple answer when asked how many linemen he would feel comfortable to rotate in a game?
“As many as Coach Pittman allows me to,” Ashley said.
Other scholarship defensive linemen are junior Mataio Soli, 6-4, 245, sophomore Eric Thomas Jr, 6-3, 245, redshirt freshman Andy Boykin, 6-4, 290, junior Jalen Williams, 6-3, 310, redshirt sophomore Marcus Miller,6-5, 295, and freshman Solomon Wright, 6-0, 295. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Hanna, 6-4, 245, and true freshman Jon Hill, 6-5, 250, are walk-on linemen who have shown promise at times in practice.