After giving Arkansas fans three consecutive years of high hopes that the football team was about to turn the proverbial corner as an SEC up-and-comer, head coach Bret Bielema whiffed on the 2017 season, going just 4-8 overall and winning just one (1-7) conference game. It was the Hogs’ worst season since Bielema’s 3-9 debut in 2013, and also ended up being his last as he was fired shortly after the dismissal of the man who brought him to Fayetteville, athletic director Jeff Long.
But new life and optimism has been brought into the program with the hire of Chad Morris, who made his mark as an offensive coordinator at Tulsa and Clemson before going 14-22 as SMU’s head coach the past three seasons. Does Morris’ arrival and some other changes mean there are enough solid reasons for Arkansas fans to start calling the Hogs ahead of the 2018 season?
One positive the Razorbacks have going for them is that they were a young team in 2017. Just two key pieces, center Frank Ragnow and quarterback Austin Allen, are gone on offense while the defense will have to replace three key pieces in the secondary — Josh Liddel, Kevin Richardson and Henre’ Toliver. But with roughly 17 starters returning, this should be one of the more experienced groups in the SEC and one that is fired up to get going started under the new coaching staff and learn new systems on offense and defense.
If that is not enough to rile up the fan base, here are three other good reasons to be excited about Arkansas football going forward.
1. Chad Morris’ offense
It is apples to pickles comparing the SEC to Morris’ former conference foes in the American Athletic Conference as head coach of SMU, but offense can travel with the right personnel. The Mustangs were a top-20 passing offense in 2017 at 294 yards per game through the air. Before Arkansas fans scoff, Morris’ Mustangs put up 36 points on TCU in a losing effort at Amon G. Carter Stadium last year while the Hogs could only muster seven against the Horned Frogs at home.
Morris has a history of lighting up Power Five conference teams. As offensive coordinator at Clemson (2011-14), he ran an offense that broke seemingly every school offensive record possible. In total, 38 Clemson team records were set while 89 new individual marks were made in his four years tearing up ACC competition.
2. John Chavis’ defense
Chavis has proven time and time again that he’s one of the best defensive coordinators in the game. “The Chief” has 23 years of experience as a coordinator in the SEC and was the architect of Tennessee’s run to five SEC Championship Game appearances from 1997-2007, including back-to-back wins in 1997-98. After leaving Knoxville, he helped make LSU “Defensive Back University” from 2009-14 with five defenses that ranked among the top 15 in the country.
Arkansas fans will have to gloss over Chavis’ past three seasons at Texas A&M, although to be fair his Aggies defenses were, by and large, better compared to how the Razorbacks fared against the same SEC West competition. Beyond Chavis’ track record, the reason for optimism on this side of the ball is the hope that Morris does not follow former Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin’s mistakes of taking the defense for granted on the recruiting trail. A heavy emphasis in signing offensive players over defenders left Chavis’ crew lacking depth across the board, which not surprisingly impacted the on-field results.
Morris and company could not have designed a better schedule for a soft first-year landing. The Razorbacks open with FCS opponent Eastern Illinois at home before traveling to Colorado State then meet North Texas back at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Morris has three games to get the offense clicking before the first big challenge of the year, a road trip to Auburn. The three-game stretch that includes Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama is the nastiest part of the schedule. From the Oct. 6 date with Alabama until facing LSU on Nov. 10, the Hogs have five consecutive home games. And the final two games of the season should be winnable road games against Mississippi State and Missouri, if all goes to plan.
The biggest challenge for the Hogs during the spring and summer practice periods will be learning the terminology of the playbook while making a transition from a pro-style attack to the spread. On the surface, blocking is blocking, throwing the ball is throwing the ball, and running up the middle is pretty basic. But gelling into an offensive unit is difficult, especially for a group of offensive linemen that are heavier than typically seen for a spread attack.
Expect some bumps along the way early, but if there is an offensive-minded head coach out there that has proven he can mold teams into shape, and quickly, Morris is the man.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo courtesy of www.arkansasrazorbacks.com)