Arkansas – 2018 SEC Preview
If catchphrases won football games, Arkansas might be the most improved team in college football this season. If you play college football, make sure you’re in touch with a great dentist just in case damage ever results in you needing veneers.
At worst, Razorbacks faithful hope coach Chad Morris’ trademark “Hammer Down” phrase isn’t a descriptor of what opponents will do to Arkansas in 2018. Unfortunately for Morris, the first-year Hogs coach inherits a team that had precisely that happen the year before. More than a catchphrase is going to be needed to get all the way Full-Tilt Boogie mode.
Yes, those charmingly folksy slogans have made Arkansas fans swoon. Morris is practically the antithesis of former coach Bret Bielema. Bielema was more or less run out of town after a 4-8 season in 2017. It was a strange season with an even stranger end for a guy who, less than 13 months before, was mostly seen as a harbinger of better times. He had improved Arkansas’ win totals each of his first four years. But an absolute collapse against Missouri in 2016 was followed by the squandering of a 24-0 halftime lead in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech. When Arkansas skidded to the four-win season and Bielema’s once-funny quips became annoyances that heard some grumble “he doesn’t take his job seriously enough,” the jig was up. Bielema was fired moments after the Missouri game in 2017. A few weeks later, Morris, with his Burt Reynolds-circa-1977 persona, Bible Belt upbringing and talk of discipline in his locker room, had almost immediately won over any local naysayers who were worried about three fair (or less-than-stellar, depending on perspective) years at Southern Methodist.
Chalking up Arkansas’ disastrous 2017 season simply to Bielema and his staff, though, is disingenuous. Arkansas was lacking in talent. No unit on the roster ranked in the top 10 in the SEC, personnel-wise. Morris is taking over that roster with the hope from the Natural State being his brand of coaching and teaching will elevate their skills at least enough to return to a bowl game.
Such an outcome is possible. Arkansas isn’t devoid of individual talent. Lacking depth compared to most of the rest of the SEC, yes, but the best Razorbacks players are comparable to the best in the league.
De’Jon Harris may be the best linebacker in the SEC. He probably isn’t, but anyone who doesn’t at least put him in the conversation clearly hasn’t seen him play. McTelvin Agim has first-round NFL skills and athleticism. It’s easy to see. The problem is because the rest of his defensive line teammates were underwhelming, opposing offensive lines can throw constant double-teams his way, effectively neutralizing his ability.
Then there are the almost-there guys like safety Santos Ramirez, tight ends Cheyenne O’Grady and Jeremy Patton and the mercurial Devwah Whaley, the running back whose freshman season hinted at big things, but whose sophomore season was perhaps the most disappointing individual performance of 2017.
Whaley and the Arkansas offense all together have a lot to prove. It’s possible Whaley’s poor year was due to a porous offensive line. And it was porous. No team in the country gave up more sacks over the two-year period of 2016-17 than Arkansas. The quarterback most of those two seasons, Austin Allen, could take no more punishment about halfway through 2017. Hit too many times, he finally succumbed to injury, giving way to redshirt freshman Cole Kelley. The ground game – once a model of consistency with Bielema-coached teams – finished ninth in the SEC in yards rushing. That same offensive line had a first-round draft pick in Frank Ragnow, too. It’s hard to imagine it getting better without Ragnow, but it’s as equally difficult to envision a scenario in which it’s worse, considering it’s near all-time-low status the last two seasons.
While Kelley was the quarterback for Arkansas’ one and only SEC win against Ole Miss last year, he isn’t the guaranteed starter in 2018. Ty Storey, an Arkansas native who was once thought of as The Next spent most of the last three years carrying a tote board. Slow to release. Slow feet. Slow decision-making. He looked mostly, in practice and limited garbage snaps in games, like an SEC back-up. The thinking by his defenders was that it simply took him a while to adjust to the speed of the college game after playing for a high school with only about 250 students. Storey, however, spent most of the spring and started fall practice getting a majority of the first-team reps.
He provides something Kelley doesn’t: stability. No one would argue Kelley’s superior arm strength and running ability (and nevermind size – Kelley is 6-foot-7 and about 260 pounds). It’s his tendency to over-exert himself that leads to questions. Kelley is, by all modern football-related definitions, a gunslinger. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Oftentimes last year it was not. Morris’ decision, along with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Craddock – himself a former quarterback – will depend on which is preferable: big-play ability or game management.
The answer to that question depends largely on that offensive line, and moreso on the skill players around the quarterback. There are options.
Whaley is still that 4-star running back, even if he has fallen a bit out of favor. Chase Hayden is the son of a former NFLer in the backfield, too. Morris’ junior-college recruit Rakeem Boyd hasn’t been on campus long, but appears to already be staking a claim.
Wide receiver is loaded with solid, if unspectacular, players. Jared Cornelius is getting a fifth season and is the leader of the group. He was supposed to be the No. 1 last year in his first senior season but was lost for the year in the first game. Before that, he’d spent his career as a slot guy. Jonathan Nance and Deon Stewart, two smallish but dependable wideouts, returns with a team-high 37 catches and another 33. Jordan Jones, a speed merchant, had 21 to finish third on the team.
Then there are the tight ends. O’Grady had 21 grabs, Patton had 11 and Austin Cantrell 13. Those don’t sound like impressive numbers and, really, they aren’t. But they belittle the talent behind the players. Of course, if the other pieces don’t fall in place, if Storey or Kelley can’t stay off his back, then those numbers won’t go up and it won’t matter.
Defense might be less of a concern. At least, compared to 2017. With Harris, Ramirez and Agim, Arkansas has three legitimate all-SEC players (Ramirez is more likely a third-team All-SEC type, admittedly). Throw in Kevin Richardson, a dependable cornerback, Kamren Curl, another corner who shined in his freshman season, and the return of seemingly future NFLer Ryan Pulley, and the secondary isn’t just the strength of the team, it’s maybe one of the top five in the SEC.
They can, however, only chase around wide receivers for so long. Arkansas must find a complement to Agim. If new defensive coordinator John Chavis can’t locate one, the theory is no one can. Chavis may not have put up the numbers his last few years at Texas A&M that he did at Tennessee and LSU before that, but he is among the halcyon in the league’s history. His first best option is linebacker-turned-defensive-end-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive end Randy Ramsey. The ultimate tweener Ramsey is a nearly ideal edge rusher. He’s lithe enough to be some linemen with speed and has put on pounds of strength, too, to help him meet the physical demands playing the position full-time requires. Potentially JUCO defensive end Dorian Gerald will help, too, but he has yet to suit up this fall as of the time of this writing. Briston Guidry, Austin Capps and others shoring up the inside will alleviate some of the pressure on the exterior too.
They’ll also free up Harris and Dre Greenlaw to roam at linebacker. Harris is the bigger of the two, but Greenlaw, a starter since his freshman year, isn’t a slouch as a senior. He can cover tight ends, tackle bulky backs and even put on the occasional blitz (something Arkansas didn’t do much the last couple seasons).
As to who the third linebacker will be, it’s unclear. Most of the team it would behoove Chavis to roll with five defensive backs and just the two linebackers. That would allow him to get his best 11 on the field at the same time. Some instances, though, will require three. The best bets, as of now, are walk-ons Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan. Walk-ons. Tells you a lot about the shape of the unit.
All that shadows the point. Can Arkansas make it to 6-6? Can Morris put the Hammer Down? Maybe. Las Vegas has the over/under at six. Given the schedule, it’s precisely set. Going to be a lot of “pushes” with people who make that bet. So, yeah, the answer is ultimately probably.
If the question is whether Arkansas is more likely to get more than or less than six wins, though, well, might give the Full-Tilt Boogie a full year before going above on that one.
Eric W. Bolin covered sports full-time for 13 years, including most recently as a reporter and columnist on the Razorbacks beat the last five. He now freelances for a variety of publications across the South and in the plains and he also teaches Journalism and English in Arkansas.