Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Top 10 Keys to Victory for Florida A&M game
NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE Arkansas center Frank Ragnow prepares to snap the ball to quarterback Austin Allen Tuesday, March 28, 2017, during spring practice at the UA practice facility in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — It’s time to predict the season. I’m going to do it in speedy fashion.
It’s all centered around what it takes to win in the SEC. Arkansas didn’t have enough speed last year. I noticed it especially on defense, but Bret Bielema’s fifth team may have what it takes to turn the corner.
You turn the corner with better speed, but not just on defense. It’s the theme of what leads me to pick eight victories in the regular season with a hint that it might turn out to be nine. Maybe a bowl victory could get the Razorbacks to double digits.
Before you say not so fast, consider some of the places the Hogs have improved their speed. It’s across the board.
It’s the improvement on speed that led me through several interviews during preseason camp. That was the point of several questions I asked Bielema and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads recently. They seemed to agree that the Hogs are both faster physically and playing faster, especially on defense where the switch to the 3-4 has put more athletic players on the field.
“I think where you look at some of our regular wide receivers last year, talking about Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister, the group we have this year with Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones and LaMichael Pettway is faster,” Bielema said. “I see some of what you are saying especially at that position. I think at running back, Devwah Whaley is faster than Rawleigh Williams. Chase Hayden is faster than all of them.”
Bielema noted that there is plenty of speed in the tight end group. He said Cheyenne O’Grady, Grayson Gunter and Jeremy Patton “all can run really well.” Gunter will redshirt.
Rhoads thinks the Hogs have helped themselves in the secondary with the addition of some speed. Britto Tutt, out last year with August knee surgery, has displayed an SEC burst this fall. He’s had trouble with his knee swelling, but that has gone away as camp has progressed.
“The days when he’s fresh, he’s shown that speed,” Rhoads said. “We know with the amount of reps we’ll use him in games, he’s going to have that burst.
“What we see with Britto, if you ask them to backpeddle then turn and get back to the spot, he’s going to be the second fastest in the group. Ryan Pulley would be the fastest.”
True freshmen Kamren Curl and Chevin Calloway, both corners, have given the Hogs a little more speed in the two-deep. Both will play this season.
The switch to the 3-4 is the most critical aspect of getting a faster team on the field. There is more quickness and speed on the edge with outside linebackers in what truly is a five-man front, than defensive linemen in a 4-3 front.
I see more speed at linebacker where De’Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw have jets. Their top backups – Grant Morgan, Giovanni LaFrance and Dee Walker – are also quick and fast. Morgan might not win any races on signal, but he seems to play faster than anyone because of recognition of keys.
If there is a blur in that group, it’s redshirt freshman Walker, maybe a bit undersized at 6-2, 215 pounds. He’s a true 4.4 man.
“You could see that Dee was fast in the first 14 practices,” Rhoads said. “But what I’ve seen in the last two is that the light has gone on. Now, you really see his speed the last two days. It was just a glimpse now and then in those first 14 practices.
“Giovanni missed some time in the spring (with an injury) and so he’s just getting back up to speed as far as the physical aspect and speed, but you see his speed now, too.
“Grant is the smartest of that bunch. He would finish behind them in a race, but he’s gifted in other ways and plays as fast as any of them.”
Junior college transfer Gabe Richardson adds speed at outside linebacker, as does true freshman Hayden Henry. A converted safety in high school, Henry has the ability to recognize keys and react with a burst. He plays downhill and makes plays.
Rhoads said playing fast can be simpler than just the speed on the field. It can be about understanding and believing in the scheme. That goes back to the trust players have in what Rhoads and his assistants have taught in the switch to the 3-4.
“I like to hear what the kids are saying,” Rhoads said. “They say they enjoy the scheme. That’s led to us playing faster as a defense.”
The other reason for raising my victory total this August has to do with motivation. I’ve seen coaches and players more focused after last season’s 7-6 finish. They have worked like crazy in the last eight months after blowing big halftime leads against Missouri and Virginia Tech.
Players have said there is a “chip” on their shoulder dating back from those losses. Bielema said he has seen a chip on the shoulders of his coaches, too.
“We all do,” Bielema said. “If you own it, you breathe it and live it.”
Bielema said the failures in the last two games helped the focus and intensity in preparation for this season, perhaps beyond where it would be if the Razorbacks had held on to beat Missouri and Virginia Tech.
“If we had won nine, people would be talking different,” he said. “They would be saying, ‘They are making a push.’ It’s so different of an outlook. Since we didn’t capitalize on it, it’s different now.”
Now it’s time to get to the Top 10 reasons the Hogs will do well Thursday night against Florida A&M. Let’s be speedy.
Top 10 Keys to Victory
It has to improve over last season, especially on short yardage where the Hogs were among the worst in college football. I ache to see solid running plays from the opposition’s 2-yard line. I know that Florida A&M isn’t TCU, but it’s something to watch for in the opener.
The guards were inexperienced last season. Left guard Hjalte Froholdt and right guard Johnny Gibson should give center Frank Ragnow the kind of bulk, strength and foot quickness to dominate in the “A” gap, something that was missing most of the time last year.
Improvement at Linebacker
I think Dre Greenlaw, De’Jon Harris, Randy Ramsey and Dwayne Eugene should be the best group of linebackers the Hogs have put on the field in recent years. There’s experience and ability Eugene was the rage of August camp. He’s playing the Hog linebacker which plays to the tight end side.
Greenlaw played just seven games last season after going down in the Alabama game with a broken foot. Coaches have been cautious with Greenlaw in camp, but he’s full-speed for the opener. He is a difference-maker in this defense.
The clear edge in the matchup of quarterbacks is experience. Allen started every game last year and returns as a fifth-year senior. FAMU counters with true sophomore Ryan Stanley. The difference is passing accuracy. Allen was a 61 percent passer, Stanley just 56.4.
Allen is among the best quarterbacks in the nation, a pure passer with a tough mindset to stay in the pocket under pressure. Stanley is more athletic and had running gains of 447 yards last year. He was 4-1 as a starter.
Allen seems to have trust in his new wideouts. Jared Cornelius is trying to fight back from a back injury that kept him off the field for the first three weeks of camp. Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones, T. J. Hammonds and La’Michael Pettway are the top hands at wideout, with freshmen Jarrod Barnes, Koilan Jackson and De’Vion Warren pushing for playing time along with junior college transfers Jordan Nance, Brandon Martin and Gary Cross.
The Hogs are in a new 3-4 scheme under Rhoads. The key might be the off-the-edge blitzes from outside linebackers Ramsey and Eugene. I also suspect Richardson, the junior college transfer at outside linebacker, will get some blitz chances.
Can one of last year’s weaknesses change the way the defense plays? There was almost no pressure off the edge last season. The Hogs should be able to pressure the Rattlers with their new scheme.
The Left Side
The Hogs had to replace only one starter off last year’s offensive line, left tackle Dan Skipper. The new blindside blocker for Allen is sophomore Colton Jackson. He’s gotten rave reviews in August camp.
I thought he was a highlight in the first scrimmage of the camp. I watched him every snap and didn’t see a false step. Line coach Kurt Anderson said he prepared a teaching tape of Jackson’s best plays that he’ll use going forward to coach left tackles.
The other question mark in the O-line had to be Froholdt. He’s light years ahead of where he was last year when there were busts in pass protection in almost every game.
“I think fans will like what they see of Hjalte this year,” Anderson said. “He’s a much different player. He’s very good and he’s still going to get better.”
I’m not saying Santos Ramirez, Josh Liddell and De’Andre Coley are going to make anyone forget about Steve Atwater, Kenoy Kennedy and Ken Hamlin, but they are better this season.
Ramirez has been the leader. He joins Kevin Richardson, Allen and Ragnow as captains. No one would have predicted that at the end of last year when he was inconsistent in his tackling. He’s always been a fierce hitter, but didn’t always wrap up the ball carrier.
Rhoads has made a big impact with Ramirez as far as tape study and attention to detail in alignment and formation recognition.
“It’s the small, little things,” Ramirez said. “That’s what makes the difference. I didn’t know what I was doing last year. I can play faster now. I had to think about things last year. I was over-thinking it. Knowing it allows me to play faster.”
Ramirez redshirted as a true freshman because of a hamstring injury. He’s made a big transition on the mental side since then.
“I got off track for a bit,” Ramirez said. “I think maybe when I first got here I was cocky and arrogant. Finally I realized that what I was doing wasn’t going to get the job done to get to where I wanted to go. At this level, mental preparation is everything.
“I think with the move to the 3-4 we just have to be way more accountable to each other. We needed what we call extra ‘championship time.’ That’s extra tape work. We had to become our brother’s keeper.”
The Hogs should be better at cornerback, especially with depth. Three newcomers should help. Britto Tutt was scheduled to be a backup last August when he went down with ACL knee surgery. He’s joined in the battle for backup spots by bluechip freshmen Kamren Curl and Chevin Calloway.
“What I have always said if you have one cornerback, you have none,” Bielema said. “If you have two, you have something.”
Bielema thinks that starters Ryan Pulley and Henre’ Toliver have been terrific in camp. There is speed in those three backups.
Rhoads said Curl and Calloway have earned their backup status with solid camps. They have speed and cover ability.
How much will the Hogs play sub packages on defense against the FAMU spread, as coached by former UA assistant Alex Wood? Rhoads said the Hogs played 87 percent nickel last year with Toliver as the sub for a linebacker.
“We will still play nickel if we see four wideouts,” Rhoads said. “But I do think we can play our base more this year. Dwayne Eugene and Randy Ramsey as our outside linebackers both have the versatility to play against the spread.
“If we see one back with a tight end, or two tight packages, we’ll stay in base.”
The nickel back is Richardson, backed up by Liddell. Richardson went out in the opener with pectoral tendon tear that needed surgery.
Interestingly, Richardson said it was pore tackling fundamentals that led to the injury. He said he was trying to make an arm tackle against a Louisiana Tech wideout that resulted in the tear.
Rhoads said Richardson’s return has solidified the defense. He will probably be on the field a lot against the Rattlers.
That’s something to watch in the opener. Rawleigh Williams retired in the offseason after a second neck injury. Devwah Whaley, David Williams and Chase Hayden should get the bulk of the carries. T.J. Hammonds returned to practice last week after a knee sprain early in camp. He may be a week away, but figures to be in the rotation at some point.
Whaley and Hayden are the fastest of the group, but Williams has impressed in camp with a steady hand and reliable pass protection sets. The graduate transfer from South Carolina was listed as a co-starter with Whaley in the season’s first depth chart.
This should be the edge for the Hogs for a FAMU team playing with just four days rest and after a 10-hour bus trip from Tallahassee.
Rhoads said the defense is two-deep at most places and three-deep in some areas. At nose tackle, the Hogs plan to rotate Bijhon Jackson, Austin Capps and Dylan Hays, a walk-on moved from center this summer.
The depth at linebacker seems improved with walk-on Grant Morgan learning both inside spots. Dee Walker, among the most athletic players on the team, has closed camp with a flash. He should play, too.
The rotation at defensive end has been solid with strong camps from backups Briston Guidry, Jake Hall, Jonathan Marshall and Armon Watts.
Offensively, the offensive line has improved depth. The surprise in camp was the quick rise through the depth chart of Fayetteville native Ty Clary, listed as a blueshirt, or a player that has been promised a scholarship after the season. Clary is listed as the backup at right guard and has played well enough that Gibson has worked some at right tackle in place of Brian Wallace.
“Clary will knock your head off,” Froholdt said. “He’s a really good player.”
Tight ends have developed to the point that Gunter can redshirt after an off-season shoulder surgery. Austin Cantrell, Cheyenne O’Grady, Jack Kraus, Will Gragg and Jeremy Patton all are listed on the depth chart.
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