Arkansas faces tough test against Georgia’s defense
FAYETTEVILLE — If you were drawing up the perfect Game One opponent for the new Kendal Briles offense at the University of Arkansas to break in against with a little wiggle room for error, well, the one the Razorbacks will see on Saturday isn't it.
In fact, it's probably as far removed from that as possible.
The defense for No. 4 Georgia is a monster.
New quarterback Feleipe Franks, ace tailback Rakeem Boyd and the Razorback offense will test Briles' schemes against what projects as one of the best defenses in the country on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Bulldogs led the FBS in rushing defense and scoring defense last season, allowing 74.6 rushing yards per game, 2.6 yards per carry and 12.6 points per game.
From that unit, 17 players who have started at some point or were meaningful contributors in 2019 are back.
A reporter said he'd read somewhere that Georgia might have the best defense in the country in 2020 when asking coach Sam Pittman about the Bulldogs this week.
“My thought would be whoever said they were, they're correct,” Pittman said.
“They're big. They're physical. They're well-coached. They run to the football, and they're very physical when they get to the football. Any big plays excites their defense even more, so negative plays, interceptions, anything of that nature … we're certainly going to try to stay away from that.”
The Bulldogs' defense, coordinated by Dan Lanning with defensive guru head coach Kirby Smart overseeing the works, gave up 20 touchdowns last season, four in the 37-10 loss to LSU in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs gave up two rushing touchdowns all season, both on quarterback runs.
Franks faced the Bulldogs twice during his years at Florida — falling 42-7 as a freshman backup in 2017 and losing 36-17 as a starter and team captain in 2018 — so he's familiar with the athletes and schemes Georgia presents.
“The last couple of times I've played them, Kirby and all them always does a great job,” Franks said. “Those guys are tough, physical, anything that you would imagine an SEC team to be.
“Those guys, they have really good players. But we have good players as well. It's gonna be a hard-fought battle. We just need to be out there and be able to execute our game plan and what we've installed [to] go out there and be successful.”
On the front, 330-pound nose guard Jordan Davis is the anchor, with veteran ends Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt flanking him. The trio averages 303 pounds.
Inside linebackers Monty Rice and Nakobe Dean are the nerve centers and the heart of the unit, while veteran like safety Richard LeCounte and cornerback Eric Stokes lead the secondary while ranking among the best at their positions in the country.
“They are defensively sound,” said Boyd, a 1,133yard rusher last season who averaged a healthy 6.2 yards per carry. “We're going to have to come with it. We've
been practicing hard.
“We know what’s at stake. We know how hard we’ve got to play going up against Georgia.”
Franks was asked if getting the ball out quickly to pre-set reads would help keep the aggressive Bulldogs on their heels.
“I don’t think our whole game plan has to do with getting the ball out quick and pre-conceived reads,” Franks said. “I think we’ve got a bunch of different mixes inside the game plan. And … that will be an exciting opportunity for me to get out there and get outside of the picture of practice and see what they can do in a game, when it’s real live contact.
“They have a good scheme and that’s why it’s successful year in and year out. At the same time, Coach Briles has us and we have a good scheme as well. So I’ll be excited to go out there and watch what we can all do and execute our game plan.”
Smart was complimentary of what he sees from Arkansas on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference.
“Rakeem Boyd is as good as there is in the SEC,” Smart said. “This guy has proven that he’s a really good runner, a physical runner. Talented, smart, sees the field, and any offensive line coached by a head coach like Sam Pittman is gonna be a great offensive line unit.
“As far as Coach Briles, I’ve always had respect and watched everywhere he’s been. As an offensive-minded coach he creates a lot of issues. It’s like constant pressure because there’s never a breather.
“They talk about it being warp speed. But it’s that constant pressure of, number one, balls being vertical down the field, the spacing of the field, making you play the full 53 yards and the tempo with which they do it. It’s tough to defend, especially when you talk to other people who have had to defend it.”
Georgia outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson said he expects the Razorbacks to try to operate fast.
“He likes to move fast, fast tempo with the offense,” Johnson said. “I believe Coach Smart has had us out there running fast to be ready for that.”
One thing Georgia has gotten adept at doing is matching substitutions, so if the Razorbacks swap offensive personnel from one play to the next, the Bulldogs will slow the game by countering with defensive subs while the officials hold up the snap.
Pittman said the offense has harped on receivers separating from man coverage and getting on the same wavelength with Franks during preseason practice.
“I think it’s growing,” Pittman said Wednesday. “I think he has more confidence in his wideouts that they’re going to run the proper depth, make the break at the proper time. He’s throwing the ball very well right now.”
The Razorbacks had multiple turnovers in their second scrimmage, so ball security has been a focus in the weeks since then.
Franks said he and the receivers have tried to do a rush job on establishing the communication needed to execute against a first-rate defense like Georgia’s.
“You know it’s been a transition from when we started, because we didn’t have spring ball,” he said. “But when we started up until now, it’s night and day. These guys, it’s a testament to them, because they’ve been able to get a whole new offense in the short time period that they have and to just continuously work on it and work on their craft day in and day out.”
The Razorbacks were the No. 85 rushing offense with 147.2 yards per game last season, and the No. 111 total offense with 340 yards per game.