Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Arkansas vs. Portland State
Arkansas quarterback Ben Hicks rolls out to pass Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, during practice in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. Visit nwadg.com/photos to see more photographs from the day and the team's scrimmage.
Fans seldom get it when a player or coach says, “The game has slowed down.”
Through the years I’ve heard Bill Montgomery, Joe Ferguson, Quinn Grovey, Barry Lunney Jr., Clint Stoerner, Matt Jones, Ryan Mallett, Brandon Allen and Austin Allen explain the difference between what they were as a first-time starter and a senior.
Those were all quarterbacks and the who’s who in the Arkansas record books. All started multiple seasons for the Razorbacks. Time listening to them explain what they see and how they reacted to it are among my most cherished interviews.
Quarterbacks are the focal point of what fans want and what reporters chase. Among my favorite memories with my father, the late Orville Henry, include his views of the great Arkansas quarterbacks. He said those were the players he spent the most time interviewing, just as the rest of us in the sports writing game.
So there was great interest when Arkansas coach Chad Morris explained some of the reasons for picking senior Ben Hicks over junior Nick Starkel as the starter for the opener with Portland State at 3 p.m. Saturday. Experience in the offense with Hicks trumped perhaps the overall arm strength with Starkel.
Oh, and Morris said accuracy is probably more important than arm strength. Both have accuracy. It’s that knowledge of the offense and familiarity with offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Joe Craddock that gave Hicks the slight edge and the first start.
Hicks not only understands how to play his position, but how to coach the youngsters at wide receivers destined to log many minutes this season. If they don’t get their alignment correct, Hicks can move them in or out as they try to push defenders into space that they can’t cover either for the run or the pass.
The key to this offense is how it provides creases and open areas that can be exposed by the run-pass option game that Hicks runs so well.
That’s the key to the season, along with the defensive line. I love to watch how defensive tackles control the heart of the line. The improvement I see from the quarterbacks dovetails with the improvement I see from defensive tackles McTelvin “Sosa” Agim and T.J. Smith.
I loved the way Morris explained the quarterback play, and also what I’ve heard from defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis on the way Agim and Smith turn into disruptive demons in the heart of his defense.
As far as the quarterbacks, it’s the ability to see what happens before it happens. Yes, you have to get the alignments right and the pre-snap reads that come when the defense steps to them. But, you also have the post-snap reads.
We never get them as fans and sports writers. What happens after the snap makes the defense salty. Portland State mixes its defenses well after the snap. So what the quarterback does post-snap is more critical. Seniors with experience do that in their sleep.
Morris has been coaching quarterbacks his entire coaching career. It’s what he did so well all the way back to his Texas high school coaching days at Eustace, Stephenville and Lake Travis.
The quarterback play in his college stops at Tulsa, Clemson and SMU has been solid, if not spectacular. You have to give him the benefit of the doubt as he picks Hicks over Starkel at least for the start of the 2019 season.
The nugget that Morris offered Monday was in my mental wheelhouse for quarterback play. It reminded me of all those senior quarterbacks who told me the game had finally slowed down.
“We are talking about knowledge,” Morris said. “With knowledge, the game slows down. That’s hard to explain to the average fan. What it means is anticipation and that helps get the ball out on time.”
Getting the ball out on time did not happen last year. Craddock explained to me before a golf outing last month that the offensive line should not be blamed for all of the sacks in their first year at Arkansas.
“The quarterbacks didn’t get the ball out on time,” he said. “We had some open guys at times and the ball just didn’t come out.”
And, the protections didn’t always include just the line. Backs and tight ends are assigned blitz pickup in many situations. They whiffed or went the wrong way.
Running back Rakeem Boyd had no training in the offense, arriving a couple of days before the start of August practice. Chase Hayden also struggled with pass protection. Devwah Whaley was the best, but Boyd and Hayden have closed ground in that part of their game.
Defensive coordinators can figure that out. If the team only pass protects well with Whaley on the field, guess what happens when the others trot off the sideline: it’s going to be a blitz and the quarterback doesn’t have the help to contain it.
I’m stunned when I look at the starting lineup and compare it to the first game of last season. Not one starter is the same as that game last season against Eastern Illinois.
Now, Ty Clary finished the season as the starting center and Colton Jackson ultimately was the starting left guard. Boyd played plenty, too. Wide receiver Mike Woods played starter’s minutes by the end of the season. Tight end Cheyenne O’Grady was among the team’s best players but was suspended for the first two games.
So there is some experience back in many places and you’d have to begin that discussion with Hicks. He has started most of three seasons in Division I, just not the SEC. But he played against Power 5 teams like TCU. He is not a newbie.
That’s just on the offensive side. Chavis feels so much better about the experience on his side of the ball. Most have played and there are ultra-talented freshmen on the second team that could provide real SEC speed when they are ready to contribute. It will happen this season.
Chavis said Agim was good last year, but he’s been off-the-charts improved in his buy-in from the move to defensive tackle from part-time defensive end, part-time tackle last year.
Smith has improved, too. He’s been one of the leaders in the offseason and was given the first Frank Broyles Award midway through camp. It’s for off-the-field contributions as much as his play, but both are important in the new award. Smith has given many hours of community service at local schools.
That leads to what you’ve been waiting for: a prediction on this season, then the keys to victory, the point of this column.
I’ve gone back and forth between five and six victories. For sure, this is a much-improved team from the 2-10 of last year. I would feel much better about six if the Ole Miss and Kentucky games were not on the road.
I’ve seen that almost every preseason pick of the summer has put the Hogs at five. I like the idea that the defense has avoided injuries through August camp and put some trust in Chavis, the staff’s most experienced coach.
I’m going with six victories in the regular season, with a closing thought that it will allow for another strong finish in recruiting and another jump in wins in 2020.
This team is one year away from being really competitive in the SEC West. I am already excited about the possibilities of the trip to Notre Dame early in 2020. I think the Hogs will be rolling by then.
Now for the keys:
It’s the No. 1 reason to predict success for this team. The upgrade at quarterback is extreme.
Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel are so much better than Ty Story and Cole Kelley. That’s talent and experience. It’s not close. Those two barely completed 50 percent of their passes last season. Hicks and Starkel will top 60 percent.
No one wins with average quarterback play and the Hogs were not even average last season.
John Stephen Jones and K. J. Jefferson are waiting in the wings, both better runners and decent throwers. Jefferson’s accuracy isn’t as good as the other three, but he’s got some magic in his feet and great size. A retired coach made some favorable comparisons with Cam Newton when he watched Jefferson early in August camp.
Most everyone who has watched Jefferson imagines some packages that would involve running plays. He looks like an SEC tailback playing quarterback. That’s where the Newton comparisons start.
Portland State rotates a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks, Davis Alexander and Ajani Eason. Neither is 6 feet tall. They will run counters and sweeps from an offense that often features two tight ends.
The Improvement on Defense
Is there some? I think a lot. John Chavis is excited about the overall knowledge of the scheme. He said his guys understand what they are doing and that’s allowed them to play faster.
Chavis is married to the blitz, but he said limiting some of the things they did in the spring helped them understand the base and play faster. Oh, does the game slow down for the defense in time, too? It does.
Defensive end pressure and solid cornerback play are the keystones of the Chavis defense. When those two positions are good, the linebackers get to make a lot of plays. That’s where the turnaround is happening for the Hogs now.
The Offensive Line
Anyone who has read my columns knows that right behind quarterback play in importance, in my personal view, would be O-line play. It’s been anemic in recent years.
Last year, O-line coach Dustin Fry had only eight healthy linemen on scholarship for the bulk of August camp. He got a few back for some weeks, but it was a revolving door.
Some played before they were ready. More are ready now and there is more talent, too.
If you want to watch something fun, pick out junior college transfer Myron Cunningham at right guard. He’s 6-6 and getting close to 300 pounds. He runs like a good tight end. He has the bend in the hips that the NFL notices in a hurry.
Fry has rolled Cunningham between left tackle, right tackle, left guard and finally at right guard. From the start, he was destined to be a starter; it was a matter of finding the weak link and plugging in Cunningham there.
Another aspect to watch would be snaps. Ty Clary is the returnee at center and has improved in a big way. He’s emerged as a leader and has the snap consistently perfect. Both quarterbacks have praised Clary’s ability to pick up defensive alignments and set the protection. Hicks can do that well, too, but likes what he hears from his center.
The Vikings play an unusual defensive front that features lots of eight man looks. It’s akin to the old “46 defense” used by the 1985 Chicago Bears. At times, the visitors will cover all three interior offensive linemen to give their linebackers free reign.
The Defensive Ends
Keep the program handy because defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell is going to rotate three seniors and three or four freshmen at the two end positions.
The seniors are Dorian Gerald, Gabe Richardson and Jamario Bell. All have speed and improved technique. Gerald and Richardson are junior college transfers ready to cut loose in their last season. Bell has bounced around too many positions, but has had his best August practices.
The freshmen have more speed than the seniors. Mataio Soli, Zach Williams, Collin Clay and Eric Gregory will play this season. Gregory is recovering from ankle surgery and may not be in the rotation this week, but look for him in one or two weeks.
This may be one of the most improved positions on the team. Jarques McClellan started as a true freshman last season. He’s much better in his second year.
But the real difference maker is Montaric “Buster” Brown. He’s a strong, 6-0, 187-pounder with ability to play press coverage. He’s made lots of plays in August and has emerged as a leader in the secondary.
The backups are much improved. LaDarrius Bishop and Britto Tutt are solid, along with true freshman Devin Bush.
You have to include nickel backs Greg Brooks, a true freshman, and Micahh Smith as corners, too.
Overall, this is a group that should be better in space. I’ll be interested to see how well they tackle in the opening game. That’s always a tough question to answer in the opener.
Can anybody kick it out of the end zone? It’s Connor Limpert, the lefty with the consistent stroke, as the placement specialist. He’s likely to be the kickoff man, too.
Oh, how I ache to see touchbacks on kickoffs. Now, can you score enough to get good at the kickoff? That’s the burning question. If they can, let’s hope that Limpert can consistently pin the other team deep.
The punting should be better. Like at every other position on the field, competition has helped the punters.
Sam Loy transferred from Colorado after also punting at Vanderbilt. He’s got a big leg. He’s competed with returnee Reid Bauer in August. Morris said both will punt, with the decision on which one to come in situations. It would be my guess that Loy is the long guy; Bauer for placements when the field is shorter.
This should improve. The kickoff return man is still De’Vion Warren, electric in the open field. His sidekick will be Montaric Brown. He’s got speed and the size to block for Warren.
The real addition in the return game is Treylon Burks for punts. He’s done it for years at Warren High School and has returned one in practice for 80 yards. He’s bigger than the usual return guy at 6-3, 223.
Morris said the emphasis on improved special teams began in January. The punt coverage team got a lot of work in the spring and the coaching staff got an overhaul with Barry Lunney Jr. given the title of Special Teams Coordinator. Quality control coach Daniel De Prato is a new addition to the staff with much experience in the kicking game.
There are more, from an improved De’Jon Harris, now better in pass defense, along with a deeper offensive backfield with Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley more capable of taking it the distance.
Boyd has been solid in camp after sitting out the spring with shoulder surgery. Whaley has picked up a step after dropping a few pounds.
Watch out for tight end Chase Harrell, converted from receiver in the offseason. He’s turned heads in camp, along with Grayson Gunter, now a solid blocker. Gunter has always been a threat in the throwing game, but lacked overall balance for the position.
Cheyenne O’Grady has practiced this week and should play. He’s also a difference maker at tight end. True freshman Hudson Henry has gained steam in August practice and will be a factor this season, too.
Game Day Atmosphere
Lots has changed beside the quarterbacks. The WiFi is supposed to be better. There will be a Hog Town party outside the stadium. Better than that, I guess, beer is going to be for sale in the stadium.
I will say that the best way to improve the atmosphere is to go on a winning streak. I’ve always heard that Razorback victories make everything sail (and sale) faster on Monday in Arkansas.
Car dealers tell me they sell more red cars and trucks on Mondays after a victory. That’s about to return as Morris continues to add recruiting victories.
There has been a lot written about the improved “culture” within the team since last year’s 2-10 debacle. The offseason program began with all the gear taken away that featured the Razorback logo.
It’s been a tough year with lots of introspective looks. Players have talked about the hunger that exists within the program.
Ben Hicks talked about that Wednesday night during a segment of the Chad Morris radio show. The question concerned a possible chip on the shoulder of the players.
“Obviously, I wasn’t here last year,” said Hicks, the SMU transfer. “But I know what happened here. I will say that all I’ve heard the last few weeks from Coach Morris is that someone is going to pay. That’s the message.”
Smith said it is a “chip on the shoulder” mentality. The players can’t wait to get started on getting things fixed.
It will start with the game slowing down at the most important position on the field. Here is a prediction that quarterback play is going to improve.
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