When Chad Morris was hired as Arkansas’ head football coach, the expectation by most is that it would be an uphill climb.
Time would be needed for him to turn the program that Bret Bielema and his staff drove in the ground in their final two seasons back on the winning track. What no one knew for sure is how long it would take. We still don’t know.
Hog fans have hopes. We see the progress Mark Stoops has made at Kentucky after going 2-10 in his first season.The Wildcats finished 10-3 last season. Arkansas also witnessed the improvement Derrick Mason has made at Vanderbilt last October when the Commodores whipped the Hogs, 45-31, in Fayetteville before finishing the season season at 6-6 and earning a Texas Bowl bid.
Given time Morris should be able to get Arkansas back in the middle of the SEC pack, or at least that is the hope of Razorback fans everywhere.
Few were truly expecting an outstanding season last year. Many hoped the Razorbacks would win six games and make a bowl game. That should be the minimum expectation for a program like Arkansas’ every year no matter how strong the SEC West is.
However, going into the fourth week of the season when Arkansas stood 1-2 before even playing an SEC game, hope was pretty much lost. As bad as it was, though, nobody expected a 2-10 season. But that’s where the Hogs landed with a mighty thud.
Certainly the buck stops with the head coach. Morris knows and understands that.
However, to be fair, he was not set up for success when he took the Arkansas job.
Somehow Bielema — the man who enjoyed saying “you recruit your own problems” — lost the handle on the program from a disciplinary standpoint to such a degree that changing the culture within the program was a chore that couldn’t be fixed in a nine-month period.
That’s why we saw the disarray that we did early last fall, and that’s why we’ve seen a great churn in Arkansas’ 115-man roster over the last year. The turnover stands at more than a third of the 85 scholarship players.
There were players who did not appreciate the privilege and opportunity they had in playing for the Arkansas Razorbacks, and they needed to go. Not every player that exited since Morris took over 18 months ago falls into that category, but enough did to create an unnecessary drag on the program.
Players who are late for meetings and practice and even miss meetings or practices have no place in a college football program, much less an SEC program. It should mean more, to borrow a phrase.
Evidently Bielema and Morris’ staffs dealt with such issues and others the past three seasons. Word is Morris has cleaned that mess out of the Razorback’s stable to a great degree, and as a fan, I say good riddance.
If that is the case, Morris, his staff, and players will have a more stable ground to build upon this season.
Through recruiting and player development the Razorbacks are more suited offensively to play the type of football Morris wants.
There are experienced playmakers at running back in Rakeem Boyd, Devwah Whaley, and Chase Hayden. Boyd’s running style reminds older Razorback fans of Ike Forte. That’s high praise for those whose memory doesn’t reach back to the mid-1970s.
Arkansas boasts two tight ends with experience and talent in senior Cheyenne O’Grady (6-4, 251), and junior Grayson Gunter (6-6, 238). O’Grady has the talent to be as good as he wants to be. Unfortunately the want-to hasn’t always aligned with his talent. If it’s going to happen, this will be the year. Freshman Hudson Henry (6-5, 235) has the talent and bloodline to help right away just as his dad Mark and older brothers Hunter and Hayden did for the Hogs early in their careers.
At wide receiver, there is promising you talent like Trey Knox, the 6-5 freshman wide receiver from Murfreesboro, Tenn., who turned heads all spring. It’s too early to truly tell, but he might be the most SEC-ready freshman at Arkansas since Alex Collins. He has the prototype measurables for a receiver to fit into any SEC program.
The good thing is that Arkansas’ receivers, tight ends, and backs should have a stronger presence and arm at starting quarterback this season. Ty Storey played his guts out last season as the Razorbacks’ primary starter, but he just did not have the arm strength and accuracy to excel in Morris’ offense.
The influx of two transfers changes that for Arkansas. Senior Ben Hicks (6-1, 214), who started Morris’ final two seasons at SMU, closed the spring taking the starting snaps. From just watching the spring game, fans could see that he plays with a swagger and confidence that Arkansas hasn’t had at the position for some time. He may not possess a cannon for an arm, but he passed with accuracy and touch. His arm looked strong enough throw the go, out and up, and post patterns that keep safeties from creeping into the box.
The other transfer is former Aggie Nick Starkel (6-3, 218), who has two years of eligibility remaining. Starkel started four games for the Aggies as a redshirt freshman, including the Belk Bowl, where he set an Aggie record passing for 499 yards in a 55-52 loss to Wake Forest, but he was beat out last season by Kellon Mond.
So, for the second year in a row, Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock will oversee a quarterback battle in fall practice. However, from the outside looking in, Arkansas should be better off this season no matter whether Hicks, Starkel, or a combination of the two are under center.
A popular thought among commentators and pundits, is that Starkel, who was the more highly coveted recruit out of high school, will eventually overtake Hicks as Arkansas’ starter because of pure talent. That might be the case, but Hicks has a world of experience starting for Morris and Craddock at SMU and now a spring under his belt at Arkansas. That’s a lot of ground for Starkel to make up.
As a fan, I’m just pleased that the Razorbacks should enjoy more competent quarterbacking than last year no matter which one starts.
So, the outlook is that Razorbacks should be improved at all the skilled positions on offense this season, maybe by a lot. However, the biggest question mark on the team is offensive line. Arkansas lost three starters in Hjalte Froholdt, Johnny Gibson, and Brian Wallace who are all going to get shots at playing in the NFL this summer. As poorly as they played together as a unit the last two seasons, it’s still hard for me to have a ton of faith the Razorbacks will improve a great deal up front this year.
That said, the goal for offensive linemen is to execute as a single unit. Maybe the five that shake out as starters this year will be able to provide better overall protection than what a mixture of three veterans did with a revolving door underclassmen last year. It’s not inconceivable that Arkansas line will play better this year than last because the Hogs were so ineffective up front last year.
There is nearly every reason to believe the Razorbacks should be improved offensively this season over last, particularly at quarterback. How much and how quickly are the questions that can’t be answered until we get into the season.
My thought is the offense alone will be improved enough for the Hogs to win more than the lowly two they did last year. The Razorbacks should win their four nonconference games. Beyond that, we’ll have to see.