No doubt there is excitement today the halls of the Fred W. Smith Center as the Arkansas Razorbacks embark on their first day of actual practice for the 2019 season.
It’s a day for a new beginning for a program that has wallowed in too much misery in its recent years. The final 14 games of the Bret Bielema era saw the program spiral downward, and what he left Chad Morris was ill-equipped to compete in the SEC last season.
Arkansas’ 2-10 season last year has been described as the worst in modern school history. If that is an exaggeration, it’s only a slight one. The Hogs were hapless a year ago. Morris knew and felt that more than any fan.
It’s why he and his staff attempted to put a new face on the program with a youth movement that’s left the program counting on freshmen, redshirt freshmen and true sophomores to play and provide depth across the board. But at least this younger group seems to be pulling together rather than apart going into fall camp.
Not only is this a new season but in many ways this is a new team. Inexperience will be an issue from Day 1, but it is a much better situation than carrying dead weight as it became apparent the Razorbacks were doing a year ago.
It’s a daunting circumstance for the Arkansas staff, but one they are embracing. With better numbers, more willing competitors and a year’s experience with the team, Morris and is staff plan to turn up the tempo not only in style of play but also in style of practice.
During portions of the workouts, the first and third teams will be working on one practice field while the second and fourth teams will be working on the other. A year ago, Arkansas didn’t have the numbers to even attempt such a method. The idea is to get more reps for younger players who are likely to be counted on this season.
John “Chief” Chavis is in his second year as the Hogs’ defensive coordinator, but this is 25th season as a defensive coordinator in the SEC with previous stops at Tennessee, LSU, and Texas A&M. He made no bones about who the pressure is on in preseason camp. Chavis said the onus is on the coaches to have a great preseason camp in order to prepare so many younger players for what they are going to face week in and week out in the SEC.
The Razorbacks have just 25 days of work on the field before the season opener Aug. 31 against Portland State, and then just another week before their SEC opener against Ole Miss on Sept 7 at Oxford, Miss.
After a season in which the Razorbacks struggled in nearly every aspect of the game, Morris took a back to basics approach in spring football to ensure the Razorbacks will be good at “something” this season.
Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock indicated Monday that that process was fruitful for the players, who have a better understanding of their basic assignments and now have a stronger foundation to build on.
What exactly the Razorbacks will be good at offensively this season depends a good deal on which graduate transfer nails down the starting quarterback role. Ben Hick (6-1, 217) played three seasons for Morris and Craddock at SMU, basically rewriting the schools passing records, but Nick Starkel (6-3, 214) has an electric arm and starting SEC experience at Texas A&M.
The competition should bring out the best in both, and in turn one hopes that will bring out the best in the other Razorbacks. Arkansas had the worst quarterbacking in the league last year. Whoever starts is expected to lead and lift their teammates this season rather than hold them back.
Morris has said he’d like to make the call on the starter 10 or so days into preseason camp, but many believe the issue might not be totally settled until later in the season. However, that’s nothing more than an educated guess. The last issue the Razorbacks need to face this season is a divided locker room over who should start at quarterback.
Offensive line was another team weakness a year ago that should improve this year with more numbers and more experience in Morris’ system even though three starters from a year ago have graduated and are attempting to make NFL rosters.
Offensive line coach Dustin Fry feels good about his six best players coming out of spring with junior Ty Clary (6-4, 285) returning at center, senior Austin Capps (6-4, 304) and sophomore Shane Clenin (6-6, 302) at the guards, senior Colton Jackson (6-5, 298) and sophomore Dalton Wagner (6-9, 308) at the tackles. Junior college transfer Myron Cunningham (6-6, 290) is working at both guard and tackle as the Hogs’ sixth man. He is expected to push for a starting job at one of the positions.
The group needs to round into a cohesive unit that not only can protect whomever wins the quarterback job but also open holes for Arkansas’ talented stable of running backs including Doak Walker Award watchlisters Rakeem Boyd (6-0, 213) and Devwah Whaley (5-11, 222). If the offensive line develops, Arkansas has the opportunity to have a solid if not explosive running game.
A strong running game will only help the Razorbacks’ receivers who are an inexperienced and unproven group that got an injection of talent this summer with four highly touted freshmen receivers, including Trey Knox. Knox (6-5, 205) has become a fan favorite after spending just one spring on campus. There is talent at this position, but time will only tell who will emerge. Sophomore Michael Woods (6-1, 203) was having a standout spring before missing several practices following an injury.
Senior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady (6-4, 256) has had the tools to be a difference-maker in the SEC his entire career, but only came into his own in the last half of last season. Coaches have said the Fayetteville native can be as good has he wants to be, but only O’Grady can decide how dedicated he wants to be.
On defense, the Razorbacks have experience at every position group returning, but not a ton of experienced depth. It’s no secret that quality depth is the dividing line between elite, strong, average, also-ran, and doormat programs in the SEC. If the Razorbacks could leap from doormat to average this season, it might be the difference in earning a bowl game or not.
The Hogs have a prime-time SEC linebacker in De’Jon “Scoota” Harris (6-0, 248), but no other Razorback came close to mastering his position as well as Harris last season. That needs to change if the Razorbacks are to have a fighting chance. Defensive tackles McTelvin “Sosa” Agim (6-3, 294) and T.J. Smith (6-3, 293) need to lead the way on the defensive line, while junior Kamren Curl (6-2, 198) has to continue to head hunt at safety.
A player to track during the preseason is D’Vone McClure (6-2, 219). He wound up playing a ton last year as the Hogs’ nickel back, but this year he will be playing outside linebacker as well. The move allows Arkansas to keep the same personnel on the field on run and passing downs, which should help the Razorbacks disguise their defenses better and get lined up more quickly.
The Razorbacks are going to be inexperienced at the corners, but sophomore Jarques McClellion (6-0, 175) showed promise last year.
Youth is going to abound in back-up roles along the defensive line and in the secondary, but Chavis has said he’s not afraid of playing youth as long as they are playing and learning as they go.
A few important dates for Hog fans to look out for is Wednesday when the Hogs will don full pads for the first time, Aug. 10 when a closed scrimmage will be held that likely will have a great bearing on the quarterback battle, Aug. 16 is the Kickoff luncheon at the John Q. Hammonds Center in Rogers, and Aug. 24 is Fan Day, which will also include an open practice.
2019 Arkansas Football Schedule
Aug. 31 Portland State 3 p.m.
Sept. 7 at Ole Miss 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 14 Colorado State 3 p.m.
Sept. 21 San Jose State TBA
Sept. 28 Texas A&M at Arlington, Texas
Oct. 5 Open Date
Oct. 12 at Kentucky TBA
Oct. 19 Auburn TBA
Oct. 26 at Alabama TBA
Nov. 2 Mississippi State TBA
Nov. 9 W. Kentucky TBA
Nov. 16 Open Date
Nov. 23 at LSU TBA
Nov. 29 Missouri 1:30 p.m. at Little Rock