Jim Harris: Initial Shock Subsides; Razorback Review Reveals Bright Spots

 

Did we all rush to judgment a little too quickly last Saturday in the Twitter and message-board firestorm that followed Brandon Allen’s first pass attempt — intercepted, of course — in Arkansas’ Red-White game? Allen’s being intercepted rivaled the release of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling taped racist utterings on our timeline. Massive news, in both instances apparently.

Surely many folks who ventured to the game in person at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium saw only the struggles of Allen (two first-half interceptions) and the two other Hog quarterbacks, including Brandon’s little brother Austin, because more than half the crowd had departed before the second half.

However, after letting all the original pronouncements from last weekend settle, a re-watching of the game later this week and further Razorback review seems to hint that maybe we don’t need to throw the dirt on the 2014 Razorbacks and their offense, and particularly Brandon Allen and the other quarterbacks, just yet.

Granted, Brandon Allen didn’t have the kind of spring that, say, Tyler Wilson had two Aprils back when he passed the football like an NFL prospect. Regular reports surfaced throughout the past month of Allen’s accuracy struggles, as well as the numerous interceptions against defensive players who had shown no propensity for pass defense in real action last season.

Then came that inauspicious begging to Saturday’s final scrimmage, in front of 30,000-plus fans, and a forced pass to a covered Keon Hatcher, deflected and then intercepted. Later, again, the same problems Allen can’t seem to shake: yes, he may have looked off his initial target (Hatcher) for a change, but when he went to him, he stared him down before delivering a pass that again was well defended, then picked.

Maybe the question then should have been, why did offensive coordinator Jim Chaney call the same identical pass play two snaps in a row? The previous call had been a slant route successfully executed by Allen and Hatcher, so Chaney went right back to it as the first half wound down.

Razorback Review Reveals Bright spotsThose who stayed around for the second half, or who have watched the replay on ESPN3 since then, will see a more settled Allen in the second half who was able to find a rhythm and eventually complete 7 of his last 8 passes. It was interesting, almost ironic, to see Allen and the first offense play with a little quicker tempo in the third quarter — rather than the usual plodding style Bret Bielema tends to favor, it seems, and we know how Bielema hates fast-paced offenses that snap it a lot. The faster movement allowed Brandon Allen to perform without having to do a lot of thinking, and the entire offense was crisp in that quarter, displaying something Arkansas can build on going into the summer.

Maybe the team just felt all-around better about itself, too, when Bielema’s surprise of the day was letting “Super Fan” Canaan Sandy make a long scoring run untouched behind the Red team’s behemoth blockers.

Notice, too, that the plan to play the second half with a running clock did not happen after all. Obviously, another coaching decision — Bielema was making sure the offense got something out of that game after all and not just to go through the motions.

One could also say the first half was geared to making the defense — both the starters on the Red and the second-teamers on the White — feel good about themselves.

Fans had to feel good, as well, about a defense that appeared to be more active in every way compared with last year’s unit, which was nearly stationary in playing it safe on first and second downs and predictable with third-down-and-long blitzes. There’s a reason Brandon Allen completed 15 of 16 passes in an August scrimmage last year, and it wasn’t because of pinpoint accuracy; it was due to last year’s secondary being basically nowhere near receivers — a standard refrain right up to last year’s final dagger, that 49-yard bomb by LSU over  Arkansas confused coverage.

The first-team defense almost pulled off what every first-team defense should in a ones-vs.-the world scrimmage. Allen’s first-pass interception set up a White field goal, but the Red pitched a shutout from that point until the final play of the first half, when some of 2013 reared its ugly head again: cornerback Jared Collins let a receiver gain a step around him, but he still did pretty much what he was supposed to do and surrender coverage to the safety. However, Rohan Gaines (“our safety fell asleep” was Bielema’s own assessment) was late getting over and took a horrific angle, allowing Eric Hawkins to step the final 20 yards of the play. Credit Austin Allen with maybe his best pass of the day, threading that tiny vulnerable spot in the zone.

Other than that, the first-team defense surrendered nothing. Rushing plays were generally snuffed quickly, and quarterbacks took constant touch sacks. The departing Chris Smith looks to be ably replaced by end Deatrich Wise, who was nearly impossible for Grady Ollison and other White tackles to contain. Senior Trey Flowers, the other starting end, sat the game out — he didn’t need the scrimmage work this spring.

Defensive tackle Darius Philon continues to be a blessing to the Hogs from Nick Saban, who oversigned his class three years ago and was forced to let Philon go. Huge Demarcus Hodge was a mountain over the backup center. Linebacker Brooks Ellis looks more comfortable after being forced into action as a true freshman late last fall.

DeAndre Coley lived up to the expectations we’d heard whispered since his redshirt fall with a solid game at safety. Cornerback Carroll Washington looks to be yet another juco transfer who will blossom as a senior after an up-and-down arrival year.

There were no bobbled snaps between Mitch Smothers and Brandon Allen, the first goal to achieve in breaking in a new center to replace All-SEC Travis Swanson. Luke Charpentier’s quick pull and block was the key in opening up a huge hole for Korliss Marshall to sprint 59 yards with the game’s longest play. The other first-team linemen looked as they should: dominant against the backups. Building depth is line coach Sam Pittman’s charge now.

The real pressure should be on offensive coordinator Chaney, who needs to give Brandon Allen a package that can allow him to get into a rhythm from the start. Chaney’s plans ran hot and cold last year, especially with Allen’s struggling with a separated shoulder, but his LSU battleplan was magnificent. It was nearly enough to pull a colossal upset.

Chaney’s other problem is finding enough carries for three talented running backs. Only Marshall brings the quick-hitting, big-play ability one sees throughout the top SEC teams, but Jonathan Williams has proven to be durable and tough to tackle. The much-ballyhooed Alex Collins, fresh off a 1,026-yard first year rushing, is the big question. He did show one flash of tackle-breaking ability Saturday in four carries, but he looks heavier. He seems the least likely of the backs to run on a draw play, yet Chaney calls his number on that more than the others.

Chaney appears to have more speed at receiver, with more on the way. It was interesting to see Cody Hollister perform Saturday, though. Lightly recruited out of an Arizona junior college, he showed the kind of hands that harken to mid 1980s star end James Shibest, only taller. Hollister caught the last touchdown of the day, on a throw from Austin Allen.

Arkansas never showed much of a deep vertical game. We’re not sure if the Hogs have one yet, or if Brandon Allen is fully recovered enough to wing it deep.

But if anyone is ready to completely right off Arkansas because of Allen’s first-half showing, they may be jumping the gun.

 

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  • http://stevenrdavislaw.com Steven Davis

    Brandon Allen’ sluggish perforance in the first half of the Red White game is inconsequential compared to David Sterling’s racist rant.

  • 40 Minute Hell Razor

    I hope readers didn’t “right off” this article before they read that last sentence, or they would have jumped the gun. I know it must be very hard to write interesting and informative pieces about college football at this time of the season. Just teasing, Jim; I love your stuff and I always read you. It’s only three months till fall camp. In the meantime baseball. (Wake me when it’s football.)

  • David

    If BA starts the first half against Auburn as miserably as he did wearing a protective green jersey and throwing against a bunch of second and third teamers, it will be 0-35 going into the third quarter. Then what? Half the stadium will not leave, but half a stadium will be about right for the following week in Fayetteville.

    I’m sure that Brandon’s a great kid, but how do you even begin to justify the spring game performance, especially coming off last season with many of the same chacteristics?

    I have no idea what the answer is, but Bielema and Chaney are paid very well and need to figure this thing out.