FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas safety and captain Jalen Catalon thinks the Razorbacks defense is in great shape after just one preseason practice.
The reasoning, in his mind, is simple: Arkansas has leaders in every position. In the SEC, any success on this side of the ball is often the result of quality defensive play.
Catalon is confident in the Razorbacks’ centerpiece up front — Isaiah Nichols, a redshirted senior tackle from Springdale.
“In the middle, it starts with (Nichols). He leads well,” Catalon said on Friday.
Nichols, who changed his jersey number from 93 to 33 for this season, was at the center of defense for Arkansas’ first team in the first practice of the preseason. To his left was Jonesboro native Jashaud Stewart, and defensive tackle Eric Gregory and wing Zach Williams were to his right.
More from WholeHogSports: Coverage of Arkansas’ first practice of the preseason
With expected starter and playmaker Taurean Carter out of line-up as he recovers from a knee injury in the spring, Nichols is counted on to play a key role in 2022.
Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman, entering his third year at the helm of the program, said the lineman is up for the challenge. Nichols finished with 21 tackles last season.
“Nichols is valuable. Nichols is as valuable as anyone we have on our team,” Pittman said. “He’s a guy who’s a leader in our team. When it comes to recruiting, he’s senior and helped us recruit a lot of value, but more than anything he’s valuable because he’s a good football player.
“Right now there is a significant difference between him and the next ones.”
Starting center Ricky Stromberg, who will see a lot of Nichols throughout the preseason, and linebacker Bumper Pool echoed Catalon and Pittman’s thoughts. Pool said he saw Nichols in a vocal lead role at the start of spring and summer practices.
Stromberg added that Nichols is a “great teammate” and will continue to develop his game to become consistently productive.
“I came with Isaiah, so we just grew together,” said Pool, the team’s top returning tackle (125). “To see his leadership is amazing. On the pitch we know we need guys to strengthen our D-line and I think he is very capable of that.
Nichols, listed at 6-foot-3, 302 pounds, set career highs last season in tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5). He also forced a fumble in the season opener against Rice.
Figures from Pro Football Focus also show an increase in his level of play. According to the site, he posted an overall defense rating of 69.7 from 362 snaps.
In the previous three seasons, he hasn’t topped a 57 rating. In fact, his rating last year led all of Arkansas’ interior linemen, including John Ridgeway, who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys this spring.
“He had a great spring camp, great summer practices,” Pool said of Nichols. “Starting fall camp, I think he’s doing a great job.”