by Mark Carter | Photos Courtesy of the University of Arkansas
For Hogs, Cautious Optimism With a Little Extra Caution
Begrudge not those Hog fans hungry for a second helping of caution for their plate of cautious optimism as the Razorbacks prepare for another run through the SEC gauntlet.
Caution, because, well, 2-10 on the heels of 4-8. Optimism, because what are Hogs fans if not patient, Linus-in-the-pumpkin-patch patient, waiting dutifully for the stars to align just right? (Not long ago, they almost did.)
Cautious optimism, for a few reasons. Because the Hogs head into the fall with one of the program’s best on-paper recruiting classes bolstered by a couple of seasoned, immediate-impact delivering transfer quarterbacks; because Head Hog Chad Morris has had a year to cull the roster and slowly implement his high-octane system more conducive to contemporary program-building; and because this new band of merry recruiters has revived a tried, true and seemingly forgotten Razorback formula: Make Texas your Sherwood Forest; steal recruits from the rich and give to the Hill. And not the poor Hill, mind you. Despite a historically bad recent run, the Hogs remain a top 30-ish program all-time. But the SEC, Arkansas’ own division in particular, has become an embarrassment of riches, a virtual Premier League of college football. Currently, the Hogs reside in the basement and the way out is booby-trapped; in any given year, the Hogs may play as many as four ranked division foes alone.
But despite the program’s built-in disadvantages – level of competition in the SEC; small, rural state; distance of campus to recruiting hotbeds — Arkansas can compete and win big in such an environment. The Hogs were back-to-back top 10 finishers as recently as 2010-11 and are three-time SEC West champs, after all. Morris is following the proper formula to return the program to that level and be consistent, but last year’s hiccup revealed how far it had fallen. It could be argued the program hasn’t truly recovered since Bobby Petrino’s house of cards came crashing down on April Fool’s Day, 2012. (Arkansas football’s personal Mayan apocalypse came a few months early, it seems.)
But recent history notwithstanding, it feels different under Morris. Indeed, to most seasoned observers, the future looks promising on the Hill. Not quick-fix promising, but the foundation seems sturdier than it’s been in years despite last fall’s avert-your-eyes finish.
The offense should look more like “Chad Morris” in 2019 and his Clemson pedigree more apparent. Especially at quarterback and receiver, the Hogs resembled square pegs being forced into round holes much of last season. Former QB co-starters and transfers-out Ty Storey and Cole Kelley simply didn’t fit the roles they were asked to play, and the record reflected it.
With Connor Noland off to pitch full time at Baum-Walker Stadium, impact graduate-transfers Ben Hicks (SMU) and Nick Starkel (Texas A&M) will compete for the starting job behind center. Hicks has one year of eligibility remaining and Starkel two. Hicks is the former record-setting starter under Morris at SMU who knows the offense inside-out, the significance of which can’t be understated. A December graduate, he enrolled at Arkansas in January and participated in spring drills, giving him an immediate leg up on Starkel, the former A&M starter who made it to campus this summer. A highly touted prep 4-star, Starkel set freshman records for the Aggies before a foot injury and coaching change conspired against him in College Station. But as a former SEC starter, and a good one, he brings big-stage presence, raw talent and perhaps more upside.
Then there’s K.J. Jefferson, the incoming athletic 4-star and probably the Hogs’ most heralded QB recruit in years. The upgrade in the quarterback room affords him time to learn and absorb without the pressure of needing to start before he’s truly ready.
Morris and staff are reeling in big-time receivers, and the Hogs should finally be able to exert some pressure on opposing defenses, something they just couldn’t manage a year ago. Don’t be surprised if the Hogs’ young but talented corps draws comparisons to the Wright/Childs/Hamilton-led bunch that helped propel Arkansas to those consecutive top 10 finishes. Players to watch include incoming freshmen Trey Knox, Trey Burks, Shamar Nash, T.Q. Jackson and sophomore Mike Woods, one of Morris’ first recruits to Arkansas.
Arkansas will field another all-star candidate at tight end in senior Cheyenne O’Grady, who led the team in receptions and receiving TDs last year. With incoming Razorback legacy Hudson Henry, the nation’s top prep tight end last year, adding more quality depth, the passing game has weapons and promises much more efficiency.
Junior back Rakeem Boyd, another former Aggie, is SEC legit and showed flashes while rushing for 734 yards and averaging six yards a carry in his injury-shortened first season on the Hill. His No. 5 jersey immediately recalls former Hog and should-be Heisman Trophy winner Darren McFadden, and if he stays healthy then 2019 could be a break-out season. And he’ll certainly look the part in the 2005-07 D-Mac era throwbacks the team plans to wear at times this season. Devwah Whaley, who picked the Hogs over Georgia three years ago and represented the offense at SEC Media Days in July, is back for his senior campaign and poised to deliver on his own as-yet-unmet promise as a solid 1-2 punch with Boyd.
Improvement is expected on the offensive line as well, a chronic team weakness of late. Morris is re-establishing SEC-caliber depth, previously lacking; the OL barely had enough bodies with which to practice at times in 2018. Prized juco transfers Myron Cunningham and Chibueze Nwanna will compete for starting spots and provide solid depth following a year during which starters shuffled hither and yon across the line. Several freshman blue-chippers could see significant playing time but expect more stability, if nothing else, and thus improvement up front. Still, the O-line remains a question mark.
As does the defense.
The 2014 “Bermuda Triangle” unit notwithstanding, the Arkansas defense has struggled this decade, spending more time chasing backs and receivers into the end zone than chasing them down. But the defensive line will be a strength in 2019, led by senior all-star candidate McTelvin Agim and a solid mixture of vets and promising newcomers including freshman legacy Mataio Soli and seniors T.J. Smith, Gabe Richardson and Dorian Gerald, the juco phenom on whom much has been expected.
Depth won’t be an issue up front, but it will be at linebacker and to a lesser degree in the secondary. All-American candidate De’Jon Harris returns for his senior year after leading the league in tackles a year ago from his middle linebacker spot, and promising sophomore Bumper Pool likely is headed for fan-fave status. But numbers remain thin at the position, and a year of experience in John Chavis’ system should help the youngsters there make strides.
The defensive backfield is full of talent but, again, green. The “learn-under-fire” experience of last season should help, and incoming freshmen such as highly coveted corners Devin Bush and Greg Brooks will see the field and complement “vets” like redshirt sophomore Jarques McClellion, who takes over as the “lockdown” corner, and junior safety Kamren Curl. In fact, Curl will be one of just three upperclassmen in the secondary to get any real playing time. Young, certainly, but promising: the theme continues.
These days, Hog fans try not to think about special teams. Senior Connor Limpert has grown into a solid kicker, but punting remains a hold-your-breath and hope-for-the-best venture even with the late addition of former Vanderbilt punter Sam Loy. The Hogs haven’t covered kickoffs or punts effectively recently, nor have they returned them particularly well. Morris aims to fix that – Barry Lunney, longtime assistant and former Hog great, is the new special-teams coordinator after the staff coached special teams by committee a year ago. Morris even hired a special-teams adviser. Special teams remain a work in progress, but legit young speed is parked on the Hill this year, and potential exists for some excitement in the return game, at least.
All this has fans and even some pundits thinking six wins and a bowl berth is on the table. A favorable-by-SEC-standards schedule provides four winnable non-conference games if not automatic wins and what should be as many as four winnable league games. Given the rebuild, perhaps it’s best that Michigan bought itself out of a home-and-home series scheduled for 2018-19 to accommodate Notre Dame. And given Arkansas’ recent history of killer slates, Hog fans aren’t complaining that Colorado State once again represents the non-con high-water mark.
Knock off a rebuilding Ole Miss in Oxford in week 2, and a 4-0 start isn’t unreasonable to expect headed into Dallas for the lately bewitched tussle with A&M to close out September. Morris has added talent and depth and perhaps most importantly, reshaped the roster in his own image. Expect progress. But in the murderer’s row of the SEC West, progress can be a fickle mistress. For Arkansas, some stars have to align. Good thing is, Morris and his staff are busy signing them.