Spring time assures changes are coming, and there may not be a college football program more assured of change than the Arkansas Razorbacks this offseason. After a 4-8 campaign in 2017 under former head coach Bret Bielema, the Hogs are now under the guidance of former SMU Mustangs head coach Chad Morris. Morris brings a change in offensive philosophy along with a new defensive coordinator in John Chavis, who will redesign an underperforming group as soon as spring practice opens up on March 1.
Morris had one of the more prolific passing offenses in the nation last season with the Mustangs (294 ypg) in his modified spread offense. The Razorbacks will make the switch from a pro-style ground-and-pound approach to an up-tempo attack that will force change across the board. On the defensive side of the ball, the Hogs are once again changing their look for the third consecutive season going from a 4-3 set in 2016 to a 3-4 and now back to a 4-3 with elements of a 4-2-5. The differences may not be as drastic across the board in execution but the expected outcome brings high hopes.
From March 1 to April 9, the Razorbacks have 14 practices set to start the rebuilding process under Morris and Chavis culminating in the spring game, which will be played at War Memorial Stadium on April 7.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arkansas’ Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition
With two-year starter Austin Allen graduated, the Hogs start anew under center. Sophomore quarterback Cole Kelley has the most game experience on the roster, appearing in nine last season with four starts. Kelley performed well in former coordinator Dan Enos’ offense completing 58 percent of his passes for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns, but did throw four interceptions.
Kelley may have the upper hand with game snaps, but does he fit new head coach Chad Morris’ offense? Junior quarterback Ty Storey and redshirt freshman Daulton Hyatt will get a clean slate with the new coaching staff this spring to present their case to be the starter.
2. Offensive line
The Razorbacks lost one of the most talented players on the 2017 roster when center Frank Ragnow’s eligibility was used up. In theory, with four starters back, the offensive line should be a strength in 2018, but this group struggled last season. The unit was one of the worst in the nation at protecting the quarterback allowing 35 sacks. The run game averaged four more yards per contest on average compared to 2016, but the passing yardage dropped dramatically from 264 per game to 205 in ’17.
The entire offensive line is up for grabs in the new offense. Understanding the concepts this spring and picking up the playbook early will dictate who gets early first-team snaps in fall camp.
3. Defensive line
Revamping the first line of defense may be new coordinator John Chavis’ biggest challenge this spring. If games are won and lost up front, Arkansas’ defensive line failed, as evidenced by the 196 rushing and 242 passing yards per game allowed. Getting to the quarterback was a rarity as well, producing just 19 sacks in 12 games. Other than Bijhon Jackson and Dwayne Eugene, the bulk of the defensive line returns for the Razorbacks. Working under a technician like Chavis should help improve the overall execution of the line, which should help a secondary that was left out to dry too many times in 2017.
McTelvin Agim, Briston Guidry and Austin Capps are the leading returning defensive tackles. The group is thin with depth all the way around, especially at end but that could change with the addition of four signees at the position in the 2018 recruiting class.
4. Wide receivers
One of the downfalls of the 2017 season was the receiving corps. Six of the top seven targets from the 2016 team had matriculated and when senior leader Jared Cornelius went down in the third game with an injury, there was no clear-cut go-to guy. Junior college transfer Jonathan Nance (right) eventually emerged as the top target with Deon Stewart coming along by season’s end. The good news for whoever wins the starting quarterback job, all of the top receivers from a year ago are back, as is Cornelius. This group will be pushed to be ready by the opener against FCS opponent Eastern Illinois or it could result in more struggles for the passing game. This spring also gives the 2017 recruiting class a chance to shine. Get ready to hear the names of Koilan Jackson, Jarrod Barnes and Brandon Martin.
One other thing to watch for is that the new offense brings a bigger emphasis on receivers but requires less work for tight ends. One area where Arkansas is deep with talent is at tight end. Guys like Austin Cantrell, Cheyenne O’Grady, Jeremy Patton, Will Gragg and Grayson Gunter may have to modify their game for playing time, or truly take it to the next level since the Razorbacks’ recognizable two-tight end sets aren’t utilized in a spread offense.
5. Running backs
Another area of great depth for the Hogs is at running back. Devwah Whaley (above, right) started 11 games last year, but was not the team’s leading rusher as South Carolina senior transfer David Williams took over in the middle of the season. Whaley returns, but so does lightning fast Chase Hayden and dynamic athlete T.J. Hammonds. Add incoming junior college transfer Rakeem Boyd to the mix and a potential logjam is brewing. The spread may be better suited for Hayden and Hammonds but Whaley has experience edge. Boyd also would not have been brought on by Morris if the need was not there.
— 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.