Jim Harris: Much Can, Will Change for Hogs as 2018 Season Progresses


No college football team will be at the same place in November than it finds itself this weekend, especially the teams with new head coaches and with younger players throughout its roster. Of course, that includes the Arkansas Razorbacks and its first-year head coach Chad Morris.

By November, Arkansas may have played through three quarterbacks for all we know, but the one playing at that point will have established himself (either through injury to others or simply via better performance) as THE starting quarterback.

An offensive line whose blocking has looked like an accordion – according to some folks we’ve spoken with who have had the rare opportunity to see extended practice/scrimmages – will have gelled into a more cohesive unit, albeit one that won’t be up to SEC talent standards (that is, not able to do much with big-time SEC defensive line talent on the other side of the scrimmage line).

The defense in November will have had nine playing weeks to have fully embraced a totally different philosophy than what Arkansas employed the previous five seasons. The team in general will have gone through the ups and downs of two months under a coaching staff with a fresher, first-year attitude where setbacks don’t crush all hopes the way they would with a tired and beleaguered bunch in their third, fourth and fifth years of struggling.

And yet, everyone asks for some guess now at what a team like Arkansas’s win-loss record will be in 2018. If every day were like today, nothing changing from now to Thanksgiving with the Hogs and all 12 opponents, can you accept 5-7? I think so. Will somebody among those 12 foes, and counted among those five likely wins, be better than anyone expects now? Surely. Conversely, will one of those seven teams that should beat Arkansas if they played Saturday end up fairing far worse in coming weeks to where, by the time Arkansas plays them, the Hogs somehow have the upper hand? Absolutely. We’ve seen it happen every season. We saw Auburn, just two years removed from a national championship, put up an 0-for-SEC slate in 2012.

For that matter, we saw Bret Bielema put up one in 2013 and barely avoid another in 2017, when expert forecasts didn’t see such a debacle. Yet, he managed it. In fact, look at every season under the former coach and Arkansas seemed to play at least two games worse than expectations. Never did Bielema’s teams here exceed promises. Let’s add that it really takes a complete nosedive for a program, of finding ways to lose, to go 0-8 in the SEC these days.

And, yet, quite a few national experts have this Hog team pegged for a winless conference schedule. Also, nobody but the most optimistic of home-state prognosticators seems to think Morris’ squad can manage up to four league wins this fall. One or two seems to be the target.

However, most experts seem to think the Razorbacks, even with the problems of questionable quarterbacking, a perceived talentless O-line, a defensive bunch that has dropped to the the SEC bottom of late, and an expected lack of overall team speed, should go 3-1 in nonconference games, maybe even 4-0 if they can manage a road win vs. Colorado State. But is everyone also overlooking a capable North Texas team that went 9-5 last year and competes in Morris’ old league, Conference-USA?
Is a 1-5 start, with Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama following the Colorado State-North Texas swing, that out of the question? What happens with the fan base and the program morale if the Hogs actually do start 1-5?

None of that is off the table, we fear. The only thing certain is that if Chad Morris somehow flips that scenario and starts 5-1, we might experience a wave of Hog hysteria the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1998, when a well-recruited squad with senior leadership and a favorable schedule allowed first-year UA head coach Houston Nutt to start 8-0.

So it is that with all this hesitation about what lies in wait for Arkansas over the next six weeks, most Arkansas fans (and this writer) can hardly contain the giddiness with getting the 2018 season started at 3 p.m. Saturday in Fayetteville vs. Eastern Illinois, a Football Championship Subdivision school. (Remember, this could have been Michigan, in the Big House in Ann Arbor, had the Wolverines not backed out of the series.)

Morris has done everything he’s had to do, or needed to do, since taking the job in December to get this squad and its fan base ready for the challenge. Morris, some say, has shown a little of Houston Nutt’s rah-rah style in media and booster club appearances. In light doses, that will prove much needed for a group of returnees who needed re-inspiring, just as Nutt’s inherited lineup from Danny Ford required that breath of fresh air.

Morris’ offensive acumen should breathe life into the offense eventually – though no one is ready to put him Bobby Petrino’s class just yet – though he may need his freshmen quarterbacks to grow up fast. Either that, it he’ll require more fan patience for recruited hopefuls to arrive to make his offense run right. In the meantime, Morris has a decent stable of running backs who should benefit from a scheme that will spread the field and perhaps offer more and varied lanes to sprint upfield. Game-breaking receivers would also help that, but that may be another team shortcoming now.

Morris’ best staff hire was bringing aboard veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis, who in turn brought back his buddy Steve Caldwell, an assistant under Petrino and also with Chavis at Tennessee, to help coach the D-line. The hiring of Chavis not only reverberated positively through the SEC, it boosted the morale of the current Hogs while exciting a number of recruits this summer to say they would be Razorbacks. That’s still not to say Chavis will magically turn this hand he was dealt into a winner overnight. He’s well-aware of the challenge, particularly with a serious lack of depth in the interior line and at linebacker.

From what we’ve been told, it hasn’t been a rosy-looking product on the field at Fayetteville in August, particularly offensively and especially with a line that, at this point, looks well-below average. We’ll probably never figure out fully what Bielema was doing as far as recruiting the areas that supposedly were his coaching strong-suits: offensive line and defense. And apparently, finding a difference-maker at quarterback went unaccomplished in his tenure here, too.

It was fortunate for Morris’ crew that Bielema didn’t completely bomb in recruiting running backs, and at least someone on the previous staff found a competent kicker, Connor Limpert, now possessing a scholarship, who has been a standout in fall practice.

Morris and his staff’s biggest challenge this fall won’t be winning more games as expected, but rather keeping the commitments for the 2019 recruiting class energized about remaining part of a major rebuild. He’s laid a great recruiting foundation – it’s not dotted with 5-stars to challenge Alabama’s supremacy but, based on other offers they’ve received, it looks like the best collection of talent in one class in maybe a generation (if only the Hogs could reel in some offensive tackles, something Bielema also proved was a difficult chore here). Recall that any goodwill Bielema had built leading up to his first season went out the window when his initial product hit the field and absorbed huge losses to the likes of Alabama and South Carolina at midseason. Though Bielema pulled in a handful of highly regarded players like Alex Collins, Hunter Henry, Dan Skipper and Denver Kirkland upon arrival and parlayed that group to an 8-5 record in his third season, it ended up being his high-water mark. There was little indication by year five that Bielema could have turned it, and fan apathy was at levels not seen since 1997. He had to go, following his athletic director, Jeff Long. In came Morris.

Well, we know what transpired at the beginning of Houston Nutt’s tenure, when all the fan base knew Danny Ford had to mosey on, but half of that base wasn’t sold on Nutt’s hiring. His Hogs came out on fire and soared to No. 8 in the country by November, finishing the regular season 9-2. Chad Morris’ first squad doesn’t have the kind of O-line and D-line talent, much less a quarterback like Clint Stoerner and a super receiving core led by Anthony Lucas and tight end Joe Dean Davenport, to come close to that fantastic season. Danny Ford at least knew how to build something in the SEC before it didn’t work out for him; Bret Bielema did not.

But with a schedule that will be as easy as Arkansas has seen in a while, maybe Morris can work a few first-year miracles and surprise with seven wins.
The ONLY surprise that might happen on opening day at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, with its $160 million expansion (north end zone enclosure, other gussied-up club seating areas, fancy Hog locker room), is if they stumble around with Eastern Illinois and have to pull out a win in the final moments. Bobby Petrino had to do that with Western Illinois in 2008, but Eastern is no Western.

Catch Jim Harris on KTHV Hogzone at 6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. after the game.

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