State of the Hogs: Morris knows what Hogs need for the 'left lane'

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, November 30, 2018
Arkansas coach Chad Morris speaks to reporters during a news conference Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas coach Chad Morris speaks to reporters during a news conference Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, in Fayetteville.

Everyone grabbed the Chad Morris catch phrases 12 months ago. They won't be easily forgotten.

Arkansas football fans thought they would finally see an up-tempo, no-huddle or spread offensive system.

For months, Morris said – and it was hyped at great lengths - that the Hogs were going to “pop the clutch” and get in the “left lane.”

It didn't happen.

Well, there were glimpses of it in the snowy spring game in April. Morris covered that and more in his season review Thursday to end his first year as Arkansas coach.

“We came out in the spring trying to run at a very fast pace,” Morris said.

“I thought we did that. (We) tried to establish the foundation for doing that. As you got into the season and realized where your strengths were, where your deficiencies were you had to at that point adjust and adapt.

“We didn't go nearly as fast as we want to go or play near the tempo we wanted to play at. But we're not gonna change who we are. We're gonna continue to work that. We do that as we practice. We'll continue as we get into spring ball.

“Again knowing our roster, knowing them, they know us, they know what to expect. The learning curve there just getting to know what we have and what we have coming back and what's coming in will help dictate going forward how we're gonna dictate that.”

But during spring drills when it was an up-tempo look, we should have known then that it was a pipe dream. Even in the spring game it was a sputtering mess, kind of like the weather. Neither of the top two quarterbacks could operate the system at break-neck speed.

I figured that was the problem this season as Morris eliminated the up-tempo almost altogether in a 2-10 season. That's the worst since college football began playing 12 games each year in 2006. The 1990 Hogs were 2-9.

Quarterback play was never good this season, but it might have been other areas that kept the Hogs from playing fast.

Lack of talent and depth in both the offensive line and wide receiver were just as much issues as finding a someone to call the signals at quarterback.

Oh, there were plenty of wide receivers, but not the kind that Morris had at both SMU and Clemson. The wideouts featured in both those offenses are scattered around the NFL now.

Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn were the stars of the SMU offense last year. Both made NFL rosters. Clemson has 10 wide receivers in the NFL, including Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins, stars when Morris was with the Tigers.

It's tough to predict any on the current UA roster making it to the NFL. The one with the most upside might be Mike Woods, the only one recruited by Morris. Woods was an SMU commit, but flipped to the Hogs soon after Morris arrived.

But things may be changing fast. The current UA commitment list includes four highly regarded wide receivers: Treylon Burks (6-3, 210 pounds), TQ Jackson (6-3, 180), Trey Knox (6-4, 210) and Shamar Nash (6-1, 196). Burks and Knox are rated as four-star prospects.

Fast may be the key word, too. Morris aches for size at wide receiver, but it is speed that he misses from his wide receivers of the past. He did not see separation this season. It may have been the single thing that altered the way he wanted to play, along with the realization that there were more tight ends available.

Simply put, Morris opted for a scheme that featured two and three tight ends, not three and four wide outs. It came down to which position offered more talent. Even that decision was compounded by the fact that Jeremy Patton, one of the top three tight ends, played only two games before foot surgery ended his season.

The Hogs did try some sets with multiple wide receivers, but did not win one-on-one battles. Ultimately, they just went with multiple tight ends, usually C.J. O'Grady and Austin Cantrell. O'Grady often was put in space, not a wide receiver.

“When you create one-on-ones, you put guys in space,” he said. “When you put guys in space, then that’s where we’ve got to become faster and be able to separate ourselves coming in and out of breaks. And so we’re recruiting and we’ll continue to develop the guys we’ve got.

“The bigger-body-style receivers, that’s an area that we’ve addressed. We’ve got to continue to recruit that style of wide receiver. And not only just wide receiver but all positions.”

And, to win in space, there must be speed.

“Overall, did not think we were near fast enough (at wide receiver) to separate like I wanted to separate," Morris said.

The separation just wasn't there at any point this season. The open plays came because of scheme situations or busts in coverages. There were not enough to make for a healthy offense. There was no execution of the bread-and-butter plays in the offense.

Morris said only about “30 to 35 percent” of the offense was installed. Not much of that worked consistently.

“When you get into a situation like this — like our first year at SMU — you find that you have got to get good a something,” Morris said.

That would be hard to pinpoint.

“Yeah, we did some good things at times, but what we did is, we tried to adjust, and we tried to adapt to some of the things that we felt like our players could grasp and hold onto," Morris said.

“We’ve got to get better. We’re a power-counter team and an inside-zone team. That’s what we’ve been, and we’ve got to get good at a it. That comes with Year One and moving into Year Two.

“We’ve got to be able to grow our offense. I thought we did some things that took advantage of some of the speed on the edge at times. But we’ve got to be able to establish an identity.”

Now, we'll get to what I have believed was the crux of the matter: not enough talent or depth in the offensive line.

It was a battle just to find enough healthy bodies to put on the field each week. Morris bemoaned the fact that only one week out of 13 did the Hogs have a full two-deep in the offensive line. They were down to only eight in the O-line at some points.

“We’ve got to create depth,” he said. “We don’t have the depth in our offensive line. I said that this year, I think we had one week this year when we had 10 scholarship offensive linemen. Outside of that we haven’t had that. When you don’t have that you’ve got to do a lot of cross training. I thought we did that just about as well as we could.”

That issue isn't going to be easy to solve. Seniors Hjalte Froholdt, Johnny Gibson and Brian Wallace are done.

Morris may add as many as six linemen in the 2019 class and knows junior college transfers are one of the keys. He needs an immediate influx of older bodies.

“I would love to get a couple of junior college older guys in,” Morris said. ”I think that’d give us an opportunity to have some experience to be able to come in here and create some competition.

“The guys that have played and have played some high snap totals, they’ve got to have a great offseason.”

One of the youngsters gives Morris lots of hope. True freshman offensive tackle Noah Gatlin played the first three games and the final game.

“I’m extremely excited about Noah Gatlin,” Morris said. “He played early and obviously we saved his fourth game for the last game and he played a lot.

“I’m excited about him. I think he has a chance to have an unbelievable career, but he’s got to get stronger. So you have to develop. It goes back to developing the guys that we have and we’ve got to go continue to recruit and recruit at a very high level.”

The offensive line shed body fat last year in the winter and summer. They are going to be asked to add strength and bulk now. They will begin testing next week.

“From a development standpoint, we’ll have guys that are getting their body fat composition, all our team will this next week,” Morris said. “So, we’ll know where we are there. We have to get stronger. We have to move better.

“But again, it’s not starting over. We were starting over a year ago. So now, this is building on what we’ve established and the foundation we’ve laid, and now we have to get stronger. These guys now have to get stronger. We’ve got some guys (in the O-line) that are coming back that played a lot of snaps.

“There are huge expectations for each player moving forward in this program. They’ve met with their coordinators one-on-one in the honest meetings that we have with them and things that we have to take more seriously.”

It may seem like the Hogs are starting over in some areas. But they may be better suited to go faster next season. Morris was emphatic that the goal of playing fast won't change.

Maybe some time soon Morris is going to pop the clutch and slide his offense over into the left lane. The Arkansas coach promises he knows how.

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