State of the Hogs: Spring game won't tell everything about 2019 team

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, April 5, 2019
Ben Hicks, Arkansas quarterback, drills Friday, March 1, 2019, during Arkansas spring practice in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Ben Hicks, Arkansas quarterback, drills Friday, March 1, 2019, during Arkansas spring practice in Fayetteville.

Football is improved at Arkansas. Don’t be fooled by the lack of depth for the spring game Saturday.

Yes, there are still some glaring problems. There aren’t enough linebackers to make it through an SEC season. If you don’t have enough linebackers, it’s hard to be good on defense.

Oh, there are some. No one will see De’Jon Harris, who is out this spring after foot surgery. He’s the bell cow of not only the defense, but the team.

“It’s his team,” said Chad Morris, the second-year head coach.

The most important recruiting pitch last winter came from defensive coordinator John Chavis. The UA linebackers coach took Harris to dinner and convinced the senior-to-be star – a potential All-SEC first teamer – that another season was just what he needed to climb the draft boards.

But there are not enough numbers at linebacker. Bumper Pool will likely be the other inside linebacker in what is now universally in college football a nickel defense down after down. Grant Morgan is next behind those two.

Outside of that, the talent underwhelms. Hayden Henry, Deon Edwards, Andrew Parker and Giovanni LaFrance are still yet to wow coaches on a daily basis.

What will help that bunch is what is going on around them. The defense is more physical as a whole. That’s been the part about the spring that is most to like. The hitting has improved in what has been a much more physical spring.

The other major deal this spring is what is happening at quarterback. I would have been hard pressed to give a thumbs up with a prediction on that position over the winter, before Ben Hicks announced he’d transfer from SMU.

With Ty Storey and Cole Kelley leaving the program and Connor Noland spending the spring with the baseball team, who was there to lead the offense? It’s nice that Harris is there to lead the defense – or the team, in the words of Morris. But if a quarterback is not also a team leader, you’ve got trouble.

John Stephen Jones is a nice player, and that’s my word for the undersized quarterback. He’s got the intangibles, decent speed and some arm touch. But he’s not going to wow with his pocket passing. He’s just too short to be very good at that.

Daulton Hyatt and Jack Lindsey have sparkled with the backups now and then, but never has anyone suggested they were going to take control as an SEC quarterback.

As they say at Oaklawn, where is the true thoroughbred to take control of the race? I didn’t see him – until Hicks arrived.

Morris has told me over and over that the key to his offense and his team is quarterback play. Everything revolves around quarterback play. Acquiring Hicks was a huge deal.

The head coach has been careful not to label Hicks a leader, but I’ll be surprised if he’s not a captain next season. Players like him and follow him. Quarterbacks have embraced him.

You can hear Hicks instruct all 10 of the other players on the field as he makes the call between plays. Of course, there are no huddles in this system. He knows their roles in the offense as well as he knows his. It’s probably frustrating that the offense is still diluted as the wide receivers, tight ends and linemen learn the nuances.

I still don’t see the full Morris run-pass option game, all the way down to the quarterback counters. I suspect they’ll get to it sometime in preseason camp and unleash it during the fall.

Why? You have to crawl before you can walk, and that’s still where the Hogs are in the Morris offense, somewhere between a crawl and a walk. They still have a long way to go before they’ll be running in this offense.

Oh, you saw a few quarterback counters sprinkled in last season with Storey, when the linebackers and safeties were flying out of the box in man-to-man coverage.

But the heart of the offense is that RPO game, extremely tough to time. Hicks knows it, but the receivers are still not quite there. They will be soon.

“It’s a tough offense to learn,” Hicks said, noting the Hogs are exactly where he saw his SMU teammates starting their second year under Morris.

The key to the crawl-before-you-walk stage is not to be soft in the process of walking. That’s why there has been so much detailed hitting, including new drills that emphasize that before every practice. It’s all about getting fundamentals right.

I expect the linebackers to look more fundamentally sound in the Red-White game. I’d instruct fans to turn their field glasses to the linebackers and perhaps the safeties. The tackling has been poor for several years at safety. I think Kamren Curl and Joe Foucha have taken steps forward in that area this spring, as have the linebackers.

Chavis won’t say that in interviews, but I can tell that’s his focus in the portions of practices that have been open to the media.

Red-White games are vanilla in all areas, but the one thing they can’t dumb down or hide is tackling. Either you can tackle, or you can’t. You can script plays – and eliminate the RPO situations – but you can’t change basic football. Someone has to tackle the ball carrier every play.

And, nothing happens good without great leadership. It’s not clear if Harris will be dressed in uniform. Look for No. 8 and check out the way he encourages and even coaches his teammates. They will listen.

Hicks wore No. 8 at SMU, but he'll wear No. 6 for the Razorbacks because Michael Woods, one of the UA’s better wide receivers, already had that number, along with Harris.

But he’s the No. 1 deal right now: Hicks is a graduate transfer, meaning he doesn’t have to take a full class load to be eligible. Ironically, he’s enrolled in a leadership class in his graduate program. The NCAA requires grad transfers to be enrolled in only one class, all Hicks is taking.

Hicks picked out the leadership course, offered online. He told Bo Mattingly in a podcast this week that it takes him 30 minutes of daily work on his laptop to do the reading and answer the questions, then it’s off to football.

“It’s like my job is now football,” Hicks said last month. “I have my degree, so it’s like I’m in the work force now. It’s football all day, every day. I can help others in their tape study. I can be in the football offices all day.”

That’s what you want at quarterback, a player/coach.

Morris has said this all spring: the Hogs are better. And, in the next breath, he’ll probably say that No. 8 is the leader. You’ll see Saturday that No. 6 is pretty good, too.

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