It’s no secret that the Arkansas Razorbacks struggled defensively throughout the 2022 season.
Out of 131 FBS teams, the Arkansas defense ranked 123rd in total defense, 116th in third down defense, 103rd in rushing defense, 118th in passing yards allowed, and 86th in red zone defense.
So when former defensive coordinator Barry Odom departed to the UNLV head coach position on Dec. 6, Head Hog Sam Pittman had a chance to find someone who can improve those rotten numbers.
Pittman selected Central Florida defensive coordinator Travis Williams, who called the Knights’ defense for the past two seasons.
“Travis Williams comes from (Gene) Chizik, (Will) Muschamp, (Kevin) Steele, was a two-time Broyles Award (nominee),” Pittman said. “And then he was definitely a defensive coordinator at UCF. I went out and interviewed several guys and this was a home run hire in my opinion. I’m very excited to have him.”
In his first season at the helm of the UCF defense in 2021, Williams helped the group improve 97 spots in the NCAA team pass efficiency defense rankings compared to 2020, 86 passing yards allowed (89, 1 fewer per game in 2021) and 70 in total defense (122.5 fewer yards allowed per game in 2021).
This season, Williams’ group was nationally ranked No. 71 in total defense, No. 39 in scoring defense, No. 58 in third down defense, No. 73 in passing yards allowed, and No. 76 in rushing defense.
While he has shown success as an on-field coach, it was Williams’ recruiting prowess that caught Pittman’s attention.
“It became what kind of guy, what kind of recruiter,” Pittman said. “We need a recruiter in that position too. I think he’s a good guy, someone who understands that recruiting is work, and I’ve just heard so many good things about him from guys I knew who called me.”
The feeling of hearing great things about each other was mutual, as Williams said it was meeting Pittman that helped him know Arkansas was the right fit.
“We called, had some conversations, then we came face to face and it’s all Coach Pittman,” said Williams. “Once I got in front of him, I was like ‘Okay.’ Because I’ve heard all the stories about how great he is. To be in front of him, it was easy. It was easy. Very excited to be here. Excited.”
But just getting excited about having the job won’t improve defense. Arkansas already has 17 players on the defensive side of the ball who won’t be returning next season, whether through transfers, ineligibility or entering the NFL Draft.
Williams has a lot of work ahead of him, but with his recruiting power and his history of improving a defense in the first year, he seemed confident.
“We’re going to play an intimidating defense,” said Williams. “You’ll see the guys play hard. One of the best things you can get from an opposing coach is, ‘Man, your guys are playing hard.’ So if you look at us, we’re going to play hard, we’re going to play physically. We’re going to have that mental and physical strength that you need to play. We’re going to get our tails to the ball, and it’s going to be sound.”
Pittman said he watched every game UCF played last season and liked what he saw in Williams’ group.
“He kind of scared me, because they were ultra aggressive,” Pittman said. “A little more nil than I (expected), but when you’ve got the guys who can do it, you know. But four down, a lot of different fronts, a lot of different looks. Intimidating. You really have to prepare for a defense like Coach has run .”
The SEC is not a league Williams is unfamiliar with. He was on the staff at Auburn from 2014 to 2020, serving as a defensive analyst, linebackers coach, and co-defensive coordinator during that time. The Tigers have finished in the top 17 in the nation in scoring defense under Williams in four of his last five seasons (2016-20).
Williams said it was important to him to return to the SEC.
“It was very important, just understanding the SEC,” Williams said. “I love the league, recruiting, football, everything. So it was just important to come back and just understand the landscape, understand what it takes. Understand the type of players you need to be successful in the SEC. So that was a big selling point as well.”
It won’t be easy to get used to a new group of players, but Williams said he has already done some research and will get to know them by being around the boys during training.
Williams already knows some Arkansas players he recruited before.
“I know Cam Ball, I know Chris Paul,” Williams said. “I know Chris’ father. So those are two guys I know very well.”
Pittman said Williams will not be involved in coaching leading up to the Liberty Bowl unless one of the defensive guys asks him. He said a decision on which position group Williams will coach and serve as defensive coordinator will not be made until after the bowl game.
The Hogs will face the Kansas Jayhawks at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis on December 28 at 4:30 PM CT in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.