State of the Hogs: Media Days not needed to know key to success

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, July 13, 2017
Arkansas offensive lineman Frank Ragnow speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Monday, July 10, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Arkansas offensive lineman Frank Ragnow speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Monday, July 10, 2017, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

— There was a time when there were no conference media summits.

There were tours of each campus, either by bus or by plane. I never did the Southwest Conference tour, but there are still stories of legendary proportions that pop up from local TV reporter Mike Irwin.

I did make four or five tours (via chartered plane) in the old Big Eight Conference, so I know the drill. You roll into each campus for a full day, including an incredible dinner each night with the coaching staffs at each school.

There was worthwhile information that came out of those trips. Relationships were made that have lasted a lifetime. I'm talking about with coaches and media types. For the record, they weren't called media in those days. They were sports writers or sportscasters.

The events included interviews with any players on the team. No one was off limits. You could talk to every coach on the staff. Sometimes I did.

That's how I got to know Mack Brown. He was an offensive assistant at Iowa State on Donnie Duncan's football staff. Interestingly, my older brother, Butch, was the sports information director for Duncan at Ames.

I write this to explain why I skip the SEC Media Days at Hoover, Ala., each year. It's nothing but orchestrated babble. I nodded my head when Peter Burns of the SEC Network explained as much on Bo Mattingly's radio show this week.

Burns flew to Fayetteville, jumped aboard the Arkansas charter with Bret Bielema and three players. He watched as the communications staff prepped the players on the trip to Alabama. They were peppered with questions so they'd be prepared for the mass interview sessions.

Sorry, but I can't do those. I understand why there were 1,000 media members in Hoover to attend. It's part of the summer routine, just not mine. There is no one who can make me go to these events because I've seen the real thing, the old campus visits.

They don't happen anymore because they'd be too expensive. It's probably smart to give way to a central location. It's what all of the conferences do and I get it.

It's not nearly as good a way as spending an entire day (and a night with social activities) like in the old days. Each school tried to outdo the other. I was blown away by Tom Osborne, Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Chuck Fairbanks, Warren Powers and others in the Big Eight.

It was at my first stop at Oklahoma State deep in my first Big Eight Conference Sky Writers event that I got to spend quality time with Butch Davis, Dave Wannstedt and Pat Jones. They were new staffers under Johnson with the Cowboys.

I pay attention when the SEC coaches speak at media days. You can sit in front of your TV and watch on the SEC Network. It's hours of interviews. I just get the idea that it's all rehearsed well in advance.

These guys roll out the cliches and talk about their team as if they have been worked by media coaches. I wouldn't doubt if that's happened. Burns gave us a tip of that probability.

I know that some of the stuff that comes out of it is important. I believe that the accountability factor has risen at Arkansas after the bad finish to a 7-6 season. I heard about that last winter and spring from every player at Arkansas. I'd expect that to be a focus all summer, too. Frank Ragnow, Austin Allen and Kevin Richardson gave us that this week in Hoover.

What I really want to know isn't going to be obvious until the Razorbacks play a few games: Can they run the ball?

Arkansas couldn't run the ball when it mattered last year. The 2016 Razorbacks averaged just 164.2 yards per game on the ground. That's the lowest number for a Bret Bielema-coached team since his first year at Wisconsin in 2006.

The Hogs averaged just more than two yards per rush inside the red zone.

Does anyone recall the failures on the goal line against TCU and Texas A&M? No team has looked worse at the 2-yard line than the Hogs did in those two games.

Yes, the Hogs ran it effectively in some games. They rolled to big numbers against Ole Miss, Florida and Mississippi State, but they couldn't run it against most of the other SEC foes. They were inept running the ball in the second half against Missouri and Virginia Tech when they were outscored by a combined 56-0.

The running game is the key to the 2017 season. I think the Hogs will be more than good enough through the air with Allen at quarterback. I think he's got enough talent at tight end and wide receiver, even with losing Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Jeremy Sprinkle and others.

I think the offensive line will be much improved. There is an air of confidence around the team concerning the ability to block and pass protect that wasn't there at this time last season. I've been around Ragnow several times this summer. He's excited about the talent and the depth around him up front.

Ragnow might be the nation's best center. That's a great place to begin each play. Hjalte Froholdt and Johnny Gibson might be on the verge of being something special beside him at guard. Brian Wallace and Colton Jackson should be more than adequate at tackles. There is even some O-line depth with Jake Raulerson, Jalen Merrick, Paul Ramirez and Zach Rogers. I couldn't say that last summer.

I know the defense has to improve. I think there will be a jump there with improved passion, starting with the buzz around new coordinator Paul Rhoads. Players seem to be on board with what he was selling in the spring. The most important thing that has to improve on that side of the ball is effort. You don't play hard unless you believe in the leader. The defense does now.

I didn't need to go to Hoover to find out any of this stuff. I was better served resting my legs after two weeks of heavy duty on trout streams of Pennsylvania and Arkansas. There are trophy pictures in the phone. There are several of a 26.5-inch rainbow (estimated at 14 pounds) from Spring Creek just outside of State College, Pa.

The day before that fishing trip I ran into James Franklin, the vibrant young head coach at Penn State. We exchanged pleasantries on a sidewalk just off campus. It's as close as anything I've done to an old Sky Writers Tour. It's that kind of a relaxed, unrehearsed visit that can't happen in Hoover.

You might get some vibes in that kind of a talk that would really give you a clue on how a team might be in the coming season. Franklin looked and sounded like a coach with a loaded team. Penn State, which lost a thrilling Rose Bowl last season, has rebounded.

I think that's the case for Arkansas, too, if that offensive line gets going.

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