Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Arkansas vs. North Texas

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, September 13, 2018
North Texas quarterback Mason Fine (6) prepares to begin a play during an NCAA college football game against SMU on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas. (Jake King/The Denton Record-Chronicle via AP)
North Texas quarterback Mason Fine (6) prepares to begin a play during an NCAA college football game against SMU on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Apogee Stadium in Denton, Texas. (Jake King/The Denton Record-Chronicle via AP)

When do you change quarterbacks? There is a simple answer: When there is a better one standing on the sideline.

That's the question and answer I got from talking to a trusted coaching source this week. It doesn't ever change and the classifications of the quarterbacks are not the concern.

“If he's a freshman and he's the best you have, find a way to get him trained enough to get some snaps in games,” he said. "There's nothing worst than playing a quarterback who does not inspire confidence. That spark you get from good play at quarterback is the key to football. He's your guy. Find one who the team trusts and will play for.

“Your team knows who your best quarterbacks are and you can count on them talking about it when you aren't around. You play the best players. Period.”

OK, there is the backdrop that sits in the lap of new Arkansas coach Chad Morris gets ready to coach his third game. He's 1-1 and only briefly during those first two games did either one of the two oldest quarterbacks play well.

There was one quarter in the opener when Ty Storey hit a hot streak. That was in the second quarter against Eastern Illinois when his receivers got behind slower and out-of-position defensive backs in the 55-20 victory.

There was an even smaller window of the third quarter last week when Cole Kelley hit two big plays for touchdowns, one of them a simple pop pass of about 18 inches to T. J. Hammonds, who went around left end for 64 yards.

The difference in the 34-27 loss to Colorado State was quarterback play. CSU's K.J. Carta-Samuels completed 22 of 27 passes for 291 yards in the second half to lead the comeback. He was far and away the best QB on the field in the game.

The Hogs had better players in most areas against CSU, predicted to be one of the bottom teams in the Mountain West Conference. The Rams entered with a 0-2 record and without a competent defense. The Hogs did run for 299 yards, but couldn't execute in big situations in the passing game, particularly on third down after building the lead.

I winced when Kelley offered his explanation of the game.

“I thought we had it in the bag – until they tied it up,” Kelley said. “We are better than they are. They know that, we know that. But they won the game.”

Until they tied it up? Well, I had a feeling things were going to end badly well before then, like as soon as the Rams rolled 96 yards to get within one score. Actually, it seemed like a shaky lead when they scored a touchdown and got the two-point conversion to make it 27-17.

I see the problems with this team. It's short on talent in plenty of areas, but the most glaring is at quarterback.

Morris has explained several times that he doesn't want to play two quarterbacks, but he will until someone takes charge. How long do you wait for either Storey or Kelley to step up? Maybe not much longer.

Joe Craddock is the offensive coordinator and play caller, and also coaches the quarterbacks. Asked who is third behind Storey or Kelley among three freshmen, Craddock on Monday said it was Connor Noland, the true freshman from Greenwood. The others grouped with him in getting little practice time in the last two weeks are redshirt freshman Daulton Hyatt and true freshman John Stephen Jones.

What Craddock didn't say Monday was whether the practice reps would change this week to give one of those freshmen more time. I suspect it did. I suspect Noland might see some action this week. I'm not going to argue against it.

Quarterback is the most important position on the field. The Hogs were good enough in every other area to win comfortably against CSU. No, others made mistakes, but the quarterback is the ultimate difference maker.

Morris has done nothing to belittle his two older quarterbacks, a junior (Storey) and a sophomore (Kelley). Both are still finding their way in the Morris system, supposed to be uptempo. It hasn't been fast paced so far.

Playing a true freshman is problematic because they are unlikely to be able to play at an up, up and away tempo, either. But this might be the week to see what they can do.

North Texas is not an easy touch. It has terrific quarterback play with Mason Fine. Interestingly, he grew up not far from Fayetteville, in the tiny town of Peggs, Okla., and led Locust Grove to unprecedented success in his four years playing quarterback there.

If you go back three years to his freshman season at North Texas, it sounds like the offense was in a similar position as it is now at Arkansas. The Mean Green struggled with an older transfer quarterback, Alec Morris from Alabama.

North Texas coach Seth Littrell decided in the season opener against SMU that Morris wasn't the answer and asked Fine on the sideline during the game if he wanted to burn his redshirt. Absolutely, came the answer. There was no looking back.

Fine measures 5-11, 180 pounds, but that's about 15 pounds bigger than what he played at in Locust Grove when he was probably headed to Emporia State or Central Oklahoma until Littrell offered a scholarship.

All Fine did at Locust Grove was rewrite the Oklahoma passing records with 13,081 yards while helping his team post a 37-3 record his last three seasons. He was two-time Gatorade player of the year, a first in Oklahoma.

Fine was the Conference USA offensive player of the year last year as a sophomore when he threw for 4,052 yards. He destroyed SMU two weeks ago, completing 40 of 50 passes for 444 yards.

That sets the stage for our top 10 keys for this week's game with North Texas. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.


The Quarterbacks

One thing is certain, North Texas has its man. The Mean Green players know they have a proven warrior in Fine.

That's probably the wrong word, given Fine's heritage. He's one-quarter Cherokee. He often wears a T-shirt under his uniform that has North Texas spelled in Cherokee. He said he's going to work to teach the Cherokee language back home after his playing career is done.

Without question, Fine is a tough customer. He's often played with a shoulder brace because of taking too many hits. North Texas allowed 39 sacks last season, but Fine played every game for the first time in his career.

The Arkansas staff knows it will be tough to get to Fine that much this time. North Texas has an improved offensive line and Fine has a quick release and doesn't hold the ball as much as earlier in his career.

Can the Hogs match Fine with equally fine quarterback play? That's the biggest key of this game, and in football, period.

Quarterback play is the great equalizer. So far, the Hogs have not been the equal to almost any team in the SEC this season at quarterback. Can that change?

It might have to be one of the freshmen to get that done. I feel badly for Kelley and Storey, admired by their teammates. But if they can't get it done, they'll have to step aside and see if one of these young phenoms can produce.

I suspect it will be Noland first. He's run a similar offense under Rick Jones at Greenwood. Jones learned his system from Morris, with some tweaks. The languages used to call plays are different. But it's maybe time to see if Noland speaks Morris.

The Run

Can the Hogs sustain the running game that was the bright spot in the trip to Fort Collins last week? They had averaged only 2.2 yards running in the victory over Eastern Illinois. That jumped to a healthy 5.6 against the Rams.

Devwah Whaley was the lead back, with a career-best 165 yards on 26 carries. Rakeem Boyd had the best per-carry mark at 9.6. Boyd's ability to sink his hips and drive for extra yards was obvious. He may have earned more carries with that performance.

Of course, Hammonds made 64 on a run-like pass reception, just the little flip forward as the slot man came around on what amounted to a jet sweep. That went in the passing totals, probably inflating them to a figure that doesn't show how poorly the Hogs threw and caught in the game. Take that out and Storey and Kelley combined for just 10 of 21 for 174 yards.

Pass Rush

Yes, Fine is quick to get the ball out of his hands. The UNT offense is built around quick release throws, but the Hogs must find a way to pressure Fine.

Can Randy Ramsey add to the pass rush with his first playing time of the year? The fifth-year senior was expected to be the best off-the-edge rusher in the John Chavis defense. The new defensive coordinator raved about Ramsey in the spring, but a hamstring injury has decked the speedy end.

The big question even if Ramsey plays might be how effective he can be without practicing much in August. I've never seen a player miss almost all of August practices and jump on the field to provide big minutes or even efficient play.

I recall when Tenarius Wright missed most of camp seven years ago. He was not a factor for that senior season. You need to practice to play well.

Dre's Burst

The Hogs ached for Dre Greenlaw's burst at linebacker last week at Fort Collins. The Chavis defense features lots of blitzes at weakside linebacker and Greenlaw has the speed to make them dynamic.

Greenlaw made 10 tackles in the opener in less than one quarter of action. He is expected to play this week after rehabbing an ankle sprain.

Still, it's probably a given that he'll have to split time with backup Bumper Pool to make it through a game. The Hogs need Greenlaw. He's one of the best linebackers in the SEC and it could prove to be the difference if he can get some pressure on Fine.

Offensive Line

There are finally lots of bodies available to play in the offensive line. The Hogs had 10 scholarship linemen at practice for the first time this season earlier this week. Morris said the coaching staff felt like celebrating.

But, it's not clear how much the most heralded player coming off the injury list can play this week. Colton Jackson played left tackle for much of the last two seasons. He has been out since back surgery in the middle of July. He's back about four games ahead of schedule.

Morris hinted that Jackson may get in for two possessions this week. It's not clear who will start. Redshirt freshman Shane Clenin started the first game, then sat out with an ankle injury last week. True freshman Noah Gatlin started last week. Clenin has worked at tackle and center this week in practice. It could be that all three play against the Mean Green.

Tight End Depth

Is this the week that the offense has four tight ends available? C. J. O'Grady has been suspended for the first two games for violating team rules. Jeremy Patton was hobbled in the opener, but played well in Week Two. Austin Cantrell has been a constant, playing well in both games. Grayson Gunter has battled a leg injury.

With Cantrell, Patton, O'Grady and Gunter rolling, the offense could have some new wrinkles with multiple tight ends playing multiple spots.

Turnovers

There have been plenty in the first two games. The Hogs recovered five fumbles in the opener then got just two takeaways at Colorado State.

No doubt, Chavis emphasizes producing turnovers. But, North Texas has protected the ball. Fine has thrown one interception in two weeks. North Texas has only fumbled once, losing one.

This is a stat line that has to change if the Hogs are to win. They feature a little more speed and blitz a little more than the first two opponents.

The Key Matchup

The best Arkansas cover man is cornerback Ryan Pulley. He was beaten a few times last week by terrific CSU wide receiver Preston Williams (12 catches, 154 yards). There was also a key pass interference call against Pulley.

Pulley will likely be lined up opposite Rico Bussey. He has 17 catches on the season.

The 6-2, 190-pound junior caught 47 passes last season. He had nine catches against SMU in the opener. Pulley will likely be matched up on Bussey. It will be the battle to watch all day.

The Kicking Game

The Hogs lost the kicking game in most areas against CSU. Placekicker Connor Limpert missed two kicks, although one was wiped away by a defensive penalty. He converted from 28 and 31 yards, with the one miss in the books from 48 yards.

But it's the punt game that seemed to haunt the Hogs. CSU's punter averaged 56.8 yards on five kicks. The big problem was that Jared Cornelius let three of his punts hit the ground. He was replaced in the second half by Deon Stewart. That helped when Stewart returned a punt 45 yards, although the Hogs came up empty on the next possession when Kelley couldn't connect in the passing game and Limpert missed his field goal.

Morris said Cornelius couldn't find the ball in the scoreboard lights against CSU and probably was tricked a little by the light air with punts sailing further than anticipated. He'll get another chance against the Mean Green.

Interestingly, North Texas features Arkansas transfer Cole Hedlund at placekicker. Hedlund, benched for poor results with the Hogs, has hit all seven of his field goal attempts this season and enters the game as the highest-scoring kicker in college football with 32 points through two games.

The Hog Walk

While probably not a key, it's going to be different. Morris has asked fans to mass in Lot 44 around two hours before kickoff to greet the team as busses arrive.

Generally, players have walked from the bus to the game day locker room with headphones blaring and just a wave to fans. Morris said that will change.

Morris said the specific time of the Hog Walk will be sent on social media accounts well in advance of the game.

"We'll get the word out," Morris said Wednesday night on his radio show. "It's important. Our players will take out their ear buds and interact with fans. I've encouraged them to sign autographs. It's OK to stop them and talk to them."

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