After a rough debut, Chad Morris and the Hogs are looking to get things started on the right foot this spring
Year 1 of the Chad Morris era at Arkansas was a letdown for Razorback Nation in more ways than one. The former SMU head coach brought a wave of optimism with him from Dallas to Fayetteville promising to open up the offense with an up-tempo attack but fell short on the scoreboard and subsequently in the win-loss column posting a 2-10 (0-8 SEC) record, the worst for the program since 1952. Fans are hoping for a bounce-back season with eyes set on a bowl berth. If a six-win season can be had, it all begins with spring practices.
The Hogs have already hit the practice fields, building towards the annual Red-White spring game on April 6, which will be broadcast on ESPNU. The 2019 recruiting haul secured 26 players for a No. 23 national ranking (247Sports), 10th in the SEC ahead of Mississippi State, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. The class was a big improvement for Morris and his staff compared to last year's group, which barely made the top 50 (No. 48). The fresh faces include 11 four-star recruits and 14 three-star talents. Eleven signees opted to enroll early, adding immediate depth to the roster for spring practice.
If the Hogs can win six games during the 2019 season, it all starts with hard work in the spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arkansas’ Spring Practices
1. Better coaching on offense
If recruiting stars mean anything, then there was some talent on Arkansas’ roster during the 2018 season, believe it or not. It was certainly good enough to beat Colorado State, North Texas, and Ole Miss. But on the whole, the offense, despite Chad Morris' background, looked out of sync and lost through much of the 2018 campaign. The run game gained 24.6 fewer yards per contest on average than the previous season and the passing attack yielded 13 fewer yards. On paper, it may not seem like much but that could mean the difference in at least four more first downs per game, maybe more, giving way to more scoring opportunities. Speaking of scoring, the Razorbacks finished last in the SEC, No. 113 in the nation out of 129 teams, in that category at 21.7 points per game.
The excuse was a switch in schemes, from a pro-style set to the spread, and not having "his (Morris') guys" on the roster. All coaches at every level are tasked to win with the guys on the roster, Arkansas is no different. Something was lost in translation between staff and players, especially with route running, requiring an overhaul on the white board or a simplification of the offense for a new base to be set, which was not installed last spring.
2. Find a starting quarterback
As the Arkansas staff attempts to overhaul the roster, gone are starters Ty Storey (transferred to WKU) and Cole Kelley (Louisiana) leaving true sophomore Connor Noland as the only player on the roster with meaningful SEC snaps. Noland, a former four-star recruit, played in four games last season with one start, completing 21-of-42 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown. A familiar face for Morris has been added to the roster in SMU graduate transfer Ben Hicks. Under Morris in 2017, Hicks was third in the American Athletic Conference in passing yards (3,569) and touchdown passes (33), but also led the way in interceptions and (12) and was among the leaders in sacks taken (21).
Morris also has added four-star KJ Jefferson out of North Panola (Miss.) High School, a dual-threat who fits the scheme well. But the incoming freshman won't be on campus until this summer leaving Noland, Hicks, John Stephen Jones, and Daulton Hyatt in the mix for reps. Arkansas is hosting former Texas A&M starting quarterback Nick Starkel over the weekend. Starkel could be a big addition to the roster if the Hogs prove to be the right fit.
3. Improved special teams play
Deep into last season, the Razorbacks still looked confused on special teams. Defending against the punt was dicey at best, as Arkansas allowed 12 yards per return (No. 116 nationally). Kickoff returns were not much better as opponents averaged 21 yards on those (71st). There also was a blocked punt and a blocked field goal and in general, punting was an exercise in futility as the Hogs wound up among the worst in the country (No. 120) in net punting at 34 yards per punt. Field goals were not automatic either as Connor Limpert went 19-for-24, including a missed 38-yarder against North Texas, 40-yarder against Auburn, and a 43-yard attempt against Mississippi State.
Tight ends coach Barry Lunney is the new special teams coordinator for Arkansas. He has a lot of work to do this spring.
4. Rebuilding the offensive line
The Hogs' offensive line in 2018 was anchored by three seniors — Brian Wallace, Hjalte Froholdt, and Johnny Gibson. The shaky blocking up front now has three big shoes to fill with underclassmen. Senior tackle Colton Jackson will anchor the line with returning true sophomore starter Ty Clary in the interior. Offensive line coach Dustin Fry will be without Kirby Adcock (hip) and Audrey Horn (toe) for an undisclosed amount of time. Austin Capps, a converted defensive lineman, was making big improvements in the trenches last season. Coaches have been high on Noah Gatlin after he appeared in four games with two starts, which still allowed him to maintain his redshirt status.
Perhaps the two biggest signees in the 2019 class for Arkansas were tackles Chibueze Nwanna and Myron Cunningham. Both three-star junior college products, Nwanna and Cunningham were both top-10 JUCO recruits at their position. Nwanna (6-7, 315) has the look of a left tackle while Cunningham has the versatility to play on the outside or inside. More depth from the 2019 class will come from three-star centers Ricky Stromberg and Beaux Limmer and three-star linemen Dylan Rathcke and Brady Latham.
5. Running back depth
Once the season begins, all should be good at tailback for the Hogs but until then the depth is shallow. Rakeem Boyd (shoulder) and T.J. Hammonds (knee) are expected to miss all of the spring practices. Hammonds status with the team going forward is uncertain, and is currently not considered a member of the team. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Jordon Curtis has made the move to running back where he will join Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden. A'Montae Spivey, a three-star recruit from Phenix City, Alabama, will join the team later this summer. Until then, it's critical that the running backs and offensive linemen stay healthy or that could set Arkansas back significantly.
— 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.