State of the Hogs: Answers to early spring football questions

By: Clay Henry
Published: Monday, March 19, 2018
Arkansas coach Chad Morris watches his players Saturday, March 10, 2018, during practice at the university practice field in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas coach Chad Morris watches his players Saturday, March 10, 2018, during practice at the university practice field in Fayetteville.

— There was a lot of time to be around fans this week at baseball games. What do you do during the inevitable slow times during a baseball game? You talk spring football.

Fans have not seen one snap of a Chad Morris practice. I've seen one scrimmage and parts of four other practices, pretty much everything open to the media through three weeks of spring drills.

I'll answer the most frequent questions I got last week as Arkansas swamped Texas twice, then Kentucky three times.

One guy asked two: What is the overall talent of the football team? Are there difference makers?

Fortunately, I didn't have to answer the first one. I asked Morris that exact question two weeks into spring ball. He answered it, too. But you have to read between the lines to understand that he was admitting the Hogs have a long ways to go.

There were nice tidbits in his five-minute answer that switched from the question to what he'd rather be talking about, and that was where he thinks the program is headed.

“I was asked that today by about three high school coaches,” Morris said. “‘Are you surprised? Not surprised? Is it about what you expected? Not what you expected?’

“I think I would be doing the entire program an injustice to be able to make an assumption only being here the short period of time I’ve been in.”

Then he covered a general assessment. The Hogs need more speed, more size.

“I think we have to get faster,”he said. “I think we have to get bigger in some areas, position-wise. And we have to become more consistent in how we approach things.

“From an overall talent standpoint, that’s really hard to say. I think we can always look to get better.”

And, he knows the way to improve in both those areas.

“There’s always two teams you’re trying to coach in this league,” Morris said. “It’s always the one you’re trying to recruit and bring in those recruits. We had a huge number of them out there today.

“And then the current team that you have. Being able to create that balance there. I think talent-wise, we’re going to continue to get better. We’re going to get better by developing them. A lot of this is on coaching now. We have to coach hard, we have to develop these guys. You get them here, it’s not just throw your hands up. You have to develop guys.

“And then obviously continue to bring in the elite players across the country. You’re the University of Arkansas. I mean, why not? I can’t figure it out. Why not?”

Without question, the foundation is being put down in recruiting. I've never seen so many high school coaches and top recruits at spring practices. There were around 500 (counting family members) at the two Saturday practices so far this spring. That beats the previous records by about 450.

Morris thinks he's just scratching the surface. The organization behind recruiting has increased 10 fold. Morris said it's just taking advantage of a wonderful situation. He sees huge potential and thinks he's just matching that with the fan base and the school.

“This program, this university, this state, they’re so ready for this,” he said. “Once we get it going – and we’re going to get it going – that’s all we’ve ever done, is win. We’re going to get it going. Once you do, it’s going to take off.”

It's about taking the brand to another level. His vision is big.

“We want this to be popular,” he said. “To wear the Hog around, that’s popular. While it may not be as popular right now, I’m okay with that. Great. That’s okay. Because it will be. You better get on the bandwagon now.”

Morris was just getting started. He didn't need reporters to ask the questions. At that point, he asked them and then answered them. It was pretty cool to watch his motor switch to a gear that didn't seem possible – and that was after a three-hour practice (counting time with recruits).

“Is it going to take time?” Morris said. “Absolutely. Everything’s going to take some time.

“So how are we going to do it? By being the absolute best freakin’ press conference we can have right here today. And that’s it.

“Some of you think that’s coach talk, but guys that have been with me forever, that’s just the way I am. It’s just about right now being where our feet are and maximizing this moment right now. Being able to capture everything I do. … There’s some recruit out there watching right now and he either wants to be a part of something popular or he wants to go somewhere and make something popular.

“One of the two, that’s what we deal with in recruiting. You’re either, ‘Man, I want to go where it’s already popular,’ or ‘I want to be the reason why it becomes popular.’ That’s our philosophy. We want you to want to be here. If I have to beg you to be here, then we have issues. I’m excited.”

Then there was the conclusion for the first question I asked.

“I’m extremely excited,” Morris said. “We’re a long, long ways away from where we want to be and need to be, but that’s okay because we have several days before we have to get there.”

All of that was just to get the first question answered. What about difference makers?

I could answer that one, too. It might surprise some, but it might be at the tight end position. That goes back to recruiting. If there was anything Bret Bielema did well, it was recruit tight ends.

There are some good ones on campus and that dove tails nicely with what Morris likes to do, use multiple formations with multiple variations with tight ends. When you see substitution with his no-huddle spread, it's likely to include shifts in tight end personnel.

Here's what Morris starts out with at the tight end positions: Austin Cantrell, C.J. O'Grady, Jeremy Patton, Will Gragg and Grayson Gunter.

I think you'll see them showcased in the offense. He wants to continue to recruit great tight ends and there is a massive talent watching intently at Pulaski Academy. Senior-to-be Hudson Henry might be the nation's top player at that position.

Morris utilized tight ends at both Tulsa and Clemson, but found the roster void at that position when he arrived at SMU. He was delighted to find great tight end talent at Arkansas.

The tight ends are playmakers in the Morris offense. He loves vertical routes from that position.

“You'll see them running deep a whole bunch,” he said. “Hopefully we can get them the ball. That's the plan.

“We had to make some roster moves when we got to SMU to get us like we wanted and then we had to start to recruiting to that position. Here, we do have depth at tight end, which is exciting. I spent one of my days in the tight end room the other day talking to them about just the importance of that position. And not just the importance, but kind of some of the technicality of playing that position.”

There are complexities of the tight end position that don't exist at other spots.

“Outside of the quarterback, that's the hardest position on this football team to play offensively because there's so many moving parts,” Morris said. “You've got to be on your game. You've got to be able to attach, un-attach.

“Not only just pass protect in the backfield but you've got to be able to get out and mismatch on a linebacker running wheel routes. There's a lot of memory work that these guys have to have.”

At that point, Morris began to ask and answer the questions.

“The great thing about it is, for us to play fast, you've got to have that guy that's how do you play him?” he said. “As a defensive coach, how do I play that guy? Do I play him as a true on-the-line tight end and if I do then I bring in a linebacker. And when we see that then now is our chance to create that mismatch on a linebacker. Can a linebacker carry him vertical? Can he carry him a wheel route? Can he play him on option routes?

“Then all the sudden you start looking at playing him as a nickel. You bring a nickel in here, but when that happens then we motion them back in the backfield. Do you attach him? Do you start getting into your run game? So, those guys are very valuable to us.”

Are you listening Hudson Henry? Well, the proof will be in the pudding. He's surely going to be watching next fall.

For the record, Patton is a senior. Cantrell, O'Grady and Gragg are all juniors. Gunter is a sophomore. No tight ends were signed last year.

The last question I heard at the baseball game Saturday had to do with the Morris culture. Is there really something to this “hammer down" stuff? Oh, yes.

“The hammer down is our culture,” he said. “It's our lifestyle. It's not just an event. It's not some fancy slogan for a shirt. It's the backbone for our program and how we do everything. In sharing with our players, we had a team meeting this morning -- nothing is promised this spring. Nothing's going to be given to you. It's all gonna be earned. A big focus point for us is we've got to focus on these young men becoming a champion before you win a championship.

“How you do that is being the absolute best version of yourself every day. We've strained a lot of our players over the last six to seven weeks in this quarter one and it's been good. it's been great to watch them.”

Morris thinks the culture is developing nicely. He's had his new team about three months. There have been no setbacks.

“There's been zero resistance in our players,” he said. “Zero. They have welcomed this change with open arms. They've been apprehensive in some areas in our change and just kind of skeptical because we've pushed them. We talk to them all the time, 'If it doesn't challenge you, it's not going to change you.' We're going to challenge you every day. So they've done a great job with that.”

How many games will the Hogs win next year?

OK, I balked at that one. It's too early. It's not the halfway point of spring drills just yet.

Why did they take a break halfway through spring drills? That's a good question and one I asked Morris almost immediately. There are pros and cons to that decision. Among the cons is that players may forget some things installed with that kind of a break.

Morris wants an early finish to make sure coaches and players have plenty of time to meet, then get the players into another conditioning and lifting period before finals.

“I want to have quality exit meetings with these guys and with their position coaches, with their coordinator and then with me,” he said. “So they know exactly where they stand coming out of spring and it gives us about three and a half weeks of good solid, getting a jump on training in our weight room.

“And obviously, if you get a kid that may have an injury, it gives them a little longer to get healthy. I've enjoyed starting spring early like this. I think it's quick, it changes the tempo of how we're running our system. They've been in this now for six weeks (before spring) and bang, we're going to something else instead of carrying this thing out four more weeks."

I was spared more questions. The baseball games got interesting as home runs started to fly out of Baum Stadium. It was time to start figuring the numbers. The Hogs hit .418 in the three games against Kentucky. It was time to get my questions ready for Dave Van Horn. They were fun questions.

So far it's been fun with Chad Morris, too. He's been ready for everything. He's excited. The hammer is down.

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