State of the Hogs: Top 10 Keys to Victory for Texas A&M game

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, September 21, 2017
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, right, and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads talk to players during a game against TCU on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, right, and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads talk to players during a game against TCU on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Fayetteville.

— How do you get the juice? How do you attack an orange? Do you squeeze it for the juice? Or, do you peel, section and eat the whole thing?

Best I can tell, that’s the sort of dilemma facing Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads this week. How does he attack this strange Texas A&M offense?

There are lots of moving parts. There is talent, but it’s a mystery on how the Aggies will try to fit together their jigsaw puzzle.

Consider:

• Three centers have played. Sophomore Erik McCoy is the listed starter, but freshman Ryan McCollum is likely to play, too.

• A&M played six different combinations in the offensive line last week against Louisiana. Tackles have played guard, guards have played center. McCollum is listed as the backup at left guard and center.

• The Aggies have played three quarterbacks in three games, although Nick Starkel is out with a broken foot. He started the opener and had the Aggies on a roll before the injury. They led UCLA 44-10 and lost 45-44. Jake Hubenak and Kellen Mond have rotated since then.

• There are four in the running back rotation. Trayveon Williams is the best and is coming off an injury that kept him out of the Louisiana-Lafayette game. He will take turns with Kendall Bussey, Keith Ford and Jacob Kibodi. Mond also is a runner with 25 carries from the QB position.

The quarterback situation is central to the way the Hogs might go after the Aggies on defense. I’ve always been told by defensive coordinators that you blitz youthful quarterbacks, defend against the experienced and sophisticated passers.

Hubenak finished last week’s game when Mond didn’t get the Aggies out of trouble. Hubenak is the most experienced of the A&M quarterbacks, but he was third coming out of preseason camp. Starkel and Mond have more ability, but Hubenak has two years in the A&M system.

I’d guess that the Hogs will defend against Hubenak, the likely starter. If the Aggies turn to Mond, the idea might be to blitz and pressure the true freshman from IMG Academy.

The Hogs have to worry about stunting too much against this offensive line because all of the A&M backs are cutback specialists. They wait patiently for their chance when a defense over pursues or stunts out of gaps.

“We have to maintain gap presence,” said John Scott, the UA defensive line coach. “Several of their backs – and they have good ones – are going to see the chance to make the cutback. That’s where they get their big plays.”

As far as going after the quarterback, that might be a different deal. Mond can run, but he may not be as speedy as the last few A&M scramblers. Maybe the Hogs will go after him.

There was a hint from Arkansas middle linebacker De’Jon Harris after practice Wednesday. When Mond’s name was brought up, Harris said, “You want to get him off his spot, try to disrupt him. The idea is to go after him as much as we can.”

That’s even more of a thought with what A&M has done with their offensive line. A patchwork offensive line often isn’t great with protections. A&M’s line does qualify as patchwork.

That’s what SEC Network Matt Stinchcomb described at Wednesday’s Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club.

“They are still trying to figure it out,” Stinchcomb said. “They’ve got good running backs, but they are having trouble getting them back to the line of scrimmage at times.”

Stinchcomb suggested that the Hogs would be able to run the ball to some degree against the Aggies. He was at last week’s A&M game. He said the Aggies gave up running yards against a less than superior ground team.

I’m not so sure. A&M’s defense – with big, quick tackles – has given up 63, 74 and 93 yards in three games. The Aggies have given up 491, 264 and 216 in the air.

The real problem for the A&M defense might be pass rush. The Aggies lost two great defensive ends, including top overall draft pick Myles Garrett. The Aggies have only seven sacks while giving up 11. That’s a big flip from last year.

A&M tried all sorts of pressures against Arkansas last year. Austin Allen completed 28 of 41 passes for 371 yards against the Aggies, but was on his back after many of those throws. He was one big bruise afterwards.

Stinchcomb knows that A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis will have a big bag of tricks for Allen this year, but there has been enough inexperience in the front to cause some trouble. Chavis has come out of the press box to coach from the sideline, something he’s not done in years.

Will Chavis elect to go after Allen? That’s the same sort of decision Rhoads is trying to make.

Some of it might depend on who is in the backfield with Allen. Can Chase Hayden pass protect? Arkansas would like to get more plays for the true freshman tailback, but how well can he handle some of the more complex blitz protections from a Chavis defense?

Hayden got only two carries against TCU after a 137-yard performance in the opening game against Florida A&M. His lack of experience in pass protection kept him off the field. Bielema said after the TCU game that Hayden wasn’t up on the third-down blitz pickups, but that he’d play more against A&M.

“He’s phenomenal,” Stinchcomb said of Hayden. “One of the questions will be if A&M’s pressures are exotic enough to keep him off the field. But the bye week might have helped Hayden.”

Stinchcomb is up on the real pressure of this game, what’s going on big picture with the two programs. A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema are both desperate for a victory.

“I think it’s a turning point game for the two teams,” he said. “It could be a turning point for the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas, his most pivotal game. Arkansas having more time to prepare might really help. Having more time to prepare might be a very important to this game.

“If Arkansas can throw the ball a little better, that could really help the running game. Getting Jared Cornelius healthy at wide receiver could really help Austin Allen. He’s a known commodity.”

Cornelius has apologized for his sub-par performance against TCU that included two drops. He’d missed most of spring practice and most of fall camp with injuries, first a hamstring then in the lower back. He lost 10 pounds in the bye week in an effort to regain some speed and quickness.


Cornerbacks

That’s a huge position in today’s defensive schemes. Both teams are breaking in new players. A&M starts true freshman Myles Jones. True freshman Kamren Curl starts for Arkansas. Another true freshman, Chevin Calloway, is the top UA backup corner. For A&M, opposite Jones is a rotation of true sophomore Charles Oliver and true freshman Debione Renfro. Which team can exploit those young corners? A&M has a brilliant wide receiver in Christian Kirk, but unknowns all around him. Kirk has elite speed. Since Arkansas plays its corners right and left, A&M can put Kirk against Curl anytime it wants.

The Texas A&M Big Play

Arkansas avoided issues with the big play in the first two games. Safety play has improved with junior Santos Ramirez and senior Josh Liddell taking better angles and tackling better. Those two have been out of position for big plays against A&M last year. Rhoads recalls the big plays against A&M last year, but in other games, too.

“It was in that game and all season long,” Rhoads said. “The first thing, it starts in the back four. You have to control the lead shoulder of the wide receiver. You better maintain position on that up-field shoulder.”

Big plays can happen at other areas of the field, too.

“You better compete on 50-50 balls in man-to-man,” Rhoads said. “You better when more than you lose.

“Up front, you better control the gaps and fit right. You can give up a big play in the ‘A’ gap or on a bubble (screen).”

The Arkansas Big Play

Can the Hogs produce some big plays? Allen completed only 9 of 23 passes for 138 yards against TCU. He did use a bootleg to hit Jonathan Nance for a 49-yard touchdown, but came up empty (aside from a defensive pass interference penalty) on five drop-back deep shots against the Horned Frogs. The woeful passing game created a lot of long-yardage situations against the first down chains. But the Hogs have been good on the deep ball throughout fall camp. There is speed on the outside with Jordan Jones.

“We’ve tried to loosen up a little and quit playing tight,” Allen said of his focus since the TCU game. “Our passing game has been really good the last two weeks. I’m just letting it fly, not holding it.”

Low Red Zone

This has been the real problem area for the Hogs over the last two years. It started with the A&M game last year when the Hogs had the ball at the 2-yard line over and over, but couldn’t punch in touchdowns. They failed near the goal line against Missouri in the regular-season finale last season, then had that same trouble on two low red zone tries against TCU. Both resulted in missed field goals.

“We’ve worked on that a lot,” said Kurt Anderson, Arkansas’ offensive line coach. “It’s a lot of things. The safeties are up tight because they don’t have much territory to defend. Sometimes the back has to be his own blocker down there. It’s a big part of every game and we’ve had extensive preparation for this game there.”

Allen said, “I’ve watched a lot of tape of last year’s game and know that if we’d scored when we got to the low red zone, the game would have probably turned out differently. We didn’t. We’ve got to score touchdowns when we get there.”

Placekicker

Yes, it’s a key. It always is a big key. Cole Hedlund is out as the Arkansas kicker after the two misses against TCU. Bret Bielema said he won’t announce a decision on the battle between sophomore Connor Limpert and freshman Blake Mazza until watching them in pre-game warmups. On the other side, A&M has a veteran in Daniel LaCamera. The junior has made all five of his attempts inside 50 yards this year with a long of 48.

Return Game

A&M has made plays in both kickoff returns and punt returns and Arkansas has not. Kirk is a threat in both areas. The Hogs may make some changes in kickoff returns. Freshmen De’Vion Warren and Jarrod Barnes may get some touches after Deon Stewart fumbled late in the TCU game on a kickoff return. The Hogs have looked vulnerable trying to cover kickoffs, giving up a 37-yard return against TCU.

Tight Ends

A&M does play with four wideouts a lot, but has rotated three tight ends, two with catches. This is the position Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos has always utilized well in game plans. Last year, the tight ends were kept in for pass protection much of the game, to double team Garrett. Might the Hogs send them into the pass routes a little more this time? Cheyenne O’Grady might be on the verge of a breakout game. He seems to fit into the game plan a little more every week. Austin Cantrell was guilty of two big mistakes against TCU, catching a pass beyond the end line and wiping out a big run with a holding call. Cantrell is a talented player. It’s a good bet that he’ll come back with a big game. Jeremy Patton is the X factor. He was the nation’s top tight end in junior college football last season. He’s had two more weeks to develop his total game. He may be the one to watch this week.

Energy

Everyone knows this is a big game. A win might lead to some momentum for either side. A loss might send fans into frenzied disappointment, especially at A&M. There’s been some of that already. Arkansas players know fans are disappointed. Bielema has worked to point to positives within the locker room. It was interesting to hear Stinchcomb explain what the smart phone and social media have done to locker room morale.

“Players know what’s being said,” he said. “They carry that (phone) into the locker room in their pocket. They see it. So the coach has to guard against the negativity. He has to keep players focused, but it’s a real part of the game now.”

McTelvin Agim said, “We do know. We want to win as bad as anyone.”

This is a game that both teams will probably have energy for the start. Which side can sustain it? Will a mistake lead to a dip in energy? Anderson said it’s a matter of understanding momentum and fighting back.

“You make a mistake and you worry about it,” Anderson said. “I’ve played in college and in the NFL. I’ve had sacks and it didn’t cause the team to lose. So one mistake isn’t going to be the end of the world. So go play and cut it loose.

“That’s what we talked about in the bye week. You can’t play with scared money. Throw it all out there. Cut it loose.

“I think we can get our mojo back. You hit a play here or there, and you get momentum on your side. We were a play or two away from doing that in our last game.

“What I know, we are some little things away from getting our mojo back. We worked on those things in the bye week. You hit a deep shot, punch it in a couple of times, hit a few field goals and things are different. I think we are a good team. One game is not going to define us.”

Line Depth

Arkansas has slumped in the second half in several games of late. The Razorbacks haven’t scored in the second half of their last three games against FBS opponents - losses to Missouri, Virginia Tech and TCU. The thought on how to correct that is to play what is believed to be a deeper roster.

Rhoads wants to play everyone in the two deep on defense in hopes of having a fresher team in the second half. His line coach said he’s going to play “eight or nine” at defensive end and nose tackle.

“Some of the young ones are progressing, like Jonathan Marshall, Briston Guidry and Jake Hall,” Scott said. “Dylan Hays has progressed and will play along with Bijhon Jackson and Austin Capps. We want our legs fresh in the second half.”

There may be some rotation in the offensive line.

“We’ve talked about that,” Anderson said. “Brian Wallace has had his best two weeks of practice.

We’ve looked at playing some backups. We’ve talked about maybe Colton Jackson getting some rest (at left tackle).”

But there was a reminder that Wallace is still making mistakes in practice. He was the starter from the A&M game to season’s end last year, but went to the bench late in preseason camp.

“Brian continues to do good things in practice,” Anderson said. “But he needs to be consistent in his assignments. He’ll have a good period, then he’ll start out the next period with a critical mistake that would put the team in a bad position.

“Brian has made some great strides. But there are still some issues – and maybe it’s conditioning – where he isn’t doing things right. I’ve worked with him after practice to try to solve some of those issues.

“But we might get some of those backups out there. That might give us some fresh legs. We are comfortable with doing that. We have some backups we really think have stepped up.”

The New Jerseys

Everyone knows about them by now. Arkansas will wear uniforms based on the Dallas Cowboys jersey design. Scott said “it was like Christmas in September” when the team wore them for practice Sunday. Stinchcomb said they “are not worth one single point” in the game. I do know they’ve been a source of pride and energy for the Arkansas team this week in practice. I do think players spend more time thinking about how they look than folks like me do.

Still, Allen said there is excitement on several fronts as the team heads to Arlington.

“It’s the start of SEC play,” he said. “We’ve got the new uniforms. We all think they are cool. There are a lot of players on our team who are Cowboys fans. So they love them. I think we were all a bit taken back about how cool they really were. So we’ve got those, we are playing in Jerry’s World. There are a lot of things to be excited about.”

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