State of the Hogs: Spread pixie dust and a Tarkenton-like QB on the way

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, February 22, 2018
Greenwood quarterback Connor Noland looks to throw during a game against Benton on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, in Benton.
Photo by Jimmy Jones
Greenwood quarterback Connor Noland looks to throw during a game against Benton on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, in Benton.

— One of the best issues we do at Hawgs Illustrated comes in the middle of February. It's our March Recruiting Edition.

The highlight is the time spent with high school coaches to get the full scoop on the players Arkansas has just added. We wait until after signing day to make the calls. It allows the dust to settle a bit and give the coaches time to take a deep breath. Their observations are always top shelf and provide a glimpse into what were probably the best players they've coached in decades.

Our staff divides the group into fourths. I get help from Richard Davenport, Dudley Dawson, Matt Jones and Scottie Bordelon on these calls. It's amazing stuff.

One of my favorites calls is always to Rick Jones at Greenwood. I've known Jones for over 40 years dating back to my days as a cub reporter at the Tulsa World.

Jones reminds me of games I covered when he was head coach at Broken Arrow. Our phone calls sometimes last an hour. He's telling stories. I'm retelling stories. It would bore some, but we revel in it.

It happened again last week when I got Jones for the rundown on Greenwood quarterback Connor Noland. I got all the scoop on Noland, a special talent in the estimation of Jones. I'll get to that, but the best stuff came from Jones after hearing Chad Morris at the Arkansas High School Coaches Association clinic in Hot Springs.

“I think we had 850 registered,” Jones said. “The rooms were packed. I was at the front of every session, although I don't sit in the absolute front row. You end up getting picked for demonstrations and can't keep notes.”

Jones beams when he talks about the ability to pick the mind of Morris as he embraces all of Arkansas as the new Razorbacks head coach. Both are spread guys. Jones still talks about a 2001 trip from Broken Arrow to Springdale to meet with Gus Malzahn and Morris, then head coach at Lake Travis High near Austin, Texas.

“That's when I got out of the wishbone,” Jones said. “I'd grown up in Oklahoma when the Sooners were running the wishbone, so that's what I knew. I was looking for something new and Gus was talking to me about the field turf we'd added at Broken Arrow. I jumped at the chance to meet with Gus and Chad.”

There are spread coaches all over Arkansas, but Jones thinks there will be more as they continue to see what Morris does and have a chance to watch him in action at practices in Fayetteville. Morris says all high school coaches are welcome at his practices all the time. They will be like clinics for 15 days this spring. I expect state high school coaches to flock to the UA practice fields.

“It's going to be neat for all of us,” Jones said. “It's going to be like a little bit of pixie dust is spread over all of us. And, that spread pixie dust is pretty neat. Chad has got it and he doesn't mind giving it out. I'm sure going to take advantage of it.

“It seems like he's different in that he wants everyone in his practices to watch. But that's the way it was everywhere. That was the old normal.

“I remember that's the way it was with Coach (Frank) Broyles and with Coach (Lou) Holtz. I came over to watch practices and we'd listen to Coach Broyles, Monte Kiffin, Larry Beightol, Don Breaux, and Bobby Cope. Those were legends.

“I know that's the way Chad wants it to be, where high school coaches look forward to coming to a practice or hear him at a clinic like last week in Hot Springs. We want that pixie dust.”

Jones roots hard for Morris to do well.

“That's because I know he was doing what we do on a daily basis as a high school coach and he's just a quality person, a genuine good guy,” Jones said. “He's washed the jock straps. He's lined the field. He hasn't forgotten what it's like to do that and knows that's what we are doing now. He's our brethren.

“So it's so awesome that he's here. Of course, I'm a spread guy, so I love it. But we are both spread in name only. I can tell you I'm just a boring run of the mill painter, a guy who white washes the fences. He's Picasso. I want to sit and watch Picasso paint on the field in Fayetteville.”

It may be that Morris is painting with Noland, the quarterback/pitcher who led the Bulldogs to the state title this season. Jones thinks Noland is more than a guy with a big arm. He's got that, but it's the foot speed, quickness and vision that make him special.

For the old-timers, Jones trots out comparisons to Fran Tarkenton, the scrambling Minnesota Vikings quarterback, and a former Georgia Bulldog. He's in the NFL and college hall of fames.

“What Connor can do is really run,” Jones said. “I can't tell you his 40 speed because we never timed him. He was always in a season, baseball or football and we didn't want to risk hurting him.

“Connor was just so elusive. He has athletic ability, the knack of escaping and was always on balance. He could do that with his eyes down the field.”

That's to go with an incredibly live arm. Jones said the frame is legit. The UA release put Noland at 6-3, 205. Jones said, “I just measured him and he's 6-2 ½ and 210. Solid.”

Jones loves to talk about his arm.

“He can flat out hose it,” Jones said. “The spring of his junior year we had college guy after guy come through here and Connor would give them a workout. He'd make every throw. Those coaches would marvel because he'd give them those deep outs that most high school quarterbacks are afraid of. Not Connor. He trusts his arms for those deep outs.

“They were incredible workouts. He'd finish up with some 70-yard throws. He got offer after offer. I think 20 coaches came through here and he got 14 offers. That's pretty good.”

Of course, Noland signed early, then applauded when Morris also signed John Stephen Jones from Dallas Highland Park in the late period.

“Coach Morris talked to Connor and he said bring him on,” Jones said. “He was like that with the one at Earle, too. He is not afraid to compete. I think Connor has the perfect combination of confidence and humble nature.”

The conversation about Noland reminds of a similar visit with Jones when Greenwood's Grant Morgan signed with the Hogs. Jones raves about the work ethic of Noland, just like he did Morgan.

“Connor works like a dog,” Jones said. “I got a text the other night about 9:30 at night. He wanted to know if I'd open the gym for him the next morning. I said I'd be there at 6:30. Connor was there at 6:20 waiting for me.

“When we lost in the state finals, he wanted to know if I could open the gym for him on Sunday. He wanted to get back to work.

“The other thing, we have really difficult workouts every afternoon. We call them our Fast Dogs. Guys just collapse afterwards. He heads straight to a gym in Ft. Smith for a speed and agility workout. He's always working. I doubt he takes many days off.”

All of that's in the March issue of Hawgs Illustrated. There's also a fascinating read by Bordelon on Springdale's Isaiah Nichols. There's comments from Morris on every signee, plus all of the special stuff from their high school or junior college coaches. I'm not sure pixie dust falls out of the magazine, but there might be a little bit from that Jones interview.

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