Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
SEC FOOTBALL MEDIA DAYS Arkansas:
Search for success: After sad ‘18, Hogs football team looks to flip script
Arkansas head coach Chad Morris speaks to reporters during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
HOOVER, Ala. -- When the University of Arkansas contingent entered the crowded lobby at the Hyatt Wynfrey Hotel here on Wednesday morning, a cheer arose from a big mass of Alabama fans. The crimson and houndstooth clad Bama fans had been expecting Coach Nick Saban and three of his Crimson Tide players to be the first-arriving group on Day 3 at SEC Media Days.
The fans might have briefly mistaken the Razorbacks for Alabama players on an early morning in July, but there has been little comparison between the two SEC West programs during recent fall Saturdays.
While the Crimson Tide have powered to five national championships in the last 10 years, Arkansas has dropped into the SEC West cellar with two winless league seasons in the last six years, including 2018.
Arkansas Coach Chad Morris was dishing out doses of reality, not dodging the current state of affairs, in his time at the podium at the annual media showcase on Wednesday.
The second-year football coach didn't shy away from the pain of his 2-10 debut season in 2018, and he wasn't painting a picture filled with rainbows for the Razorbacks this fall. He discussed the continued laying of groundwork to build Arkansas back into contention.
"We know this, that in Year 2 as we move forward, the successes that were happening [inside the program] in Year 1 will show up on Saturdays," Morris said.
"And it wasn't fun. It wasn't a lot of fun when you go through tough times like that. But we know that building a program, there's a process that you have to go through. It's not fun. It's not always easy. But it's always necessary."
Morris thinks a postseason bowl bid is a reasonable expectation this season, but he knows the effort it will take to get there is simply another necessary step in the process of building Arkansas into a consistent winner.
"When you look at expectations for Year 2 and wins and losses, I'm not going to put a number on it," Morris said. "I know inside our program, in talking to our seniors and our leaders, they want to leave their legacy.
"And getting this program into the postseason is definitely a goal of ours and it's something we've talked about."
Senior linebacker De'Jon Harris noted the Razorbacks underwent a big transition when Morris took the reins after Bret Bielema's 4-8 final season.
"We've been building since he got here last year," Harris said. "I always respect Coach Morris. It didn't take much for me to buy in."
Senior defensive tackle McTelvin Agim understood the Razorbacks are very likely to be picked last in the SEC again after going 0-8 in conference play and bringing an 11-game league losing streak into the season.
"I understand why we'd be picked at the bottom of the SEC West," Agim said. "I understand why we'd be picked at the bottom of the SEC. We were 2-10.
Arkansas at a glance
Last season 2-10, 0-8 (last in SEC West)
Coach Chad Morris (2-10 in second year at Arkansas, 16-32 in fifth year overall)
Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock
Defensive coordinator John Chavis
Returning starters 15: Offense 5, Defense 7, Specialty 3
Key players DT McTelvin Agim, RB Rakeem Boyd, S Kam Curl, LB De’Jon Harris, TE Cheyenne O’Grady, RB Devwah Whaley
Bowl scenario The Razorbacks need to sweep their non-conference games and win two SEC games to reach the postseason. To do that, the Hogs must be more competitive in the fourth quarter, stay on the field longer on offense and play better third-down defense. Arkansas must also dramatically improve its poor turnover margin.
"But we work every day. We work just like everybody else in this conference, the way everybody in this nation works. So we're not backing down. We're not writing if off, we're not 'OK, we're having another 2-10 year.' Nah, we're coming to get something."
Harris parlayed a question about playing in throwback Darren McFadden-era uniforms this year into his designs for his final season.
"I really feel like if we have the success we want this year, we'll basically be the senior class that set the foundation," he said. "So I really feel like it's a special moment right now.
"I don't know how it'll play out, but just to be a part of bringing back the wood and the McFadden uniforms, I'm just blessed to be a part of it."
Senior tailback Devwah Whaley thinks the Razorbacks are headed toward improvement.
"Most definitely we've improved and we're going to continue to improve," he said. "The whole team's been working hard. We're hoping to have some improvements, which there will be."
Agim noted the difficulty level of life in the SEC West.
"It's very hard," he said. "Every game is about the same, talent wise. We've been in a lot of those games. I feel like they're winnable this year for us if we just do the right things."
Morris thinks the experience of helping Clemson grow into a national contender during his four years as offensive coordinator for the Tigers (2011-14) and his work turning the SMU program around from a 1-win team has provided him valuable tools in engineering a Razorback revival.
"When you take a head football coaching job, you know that establishing and enhancing a culture is your top priority, and it takes time and it takes consistency, and there's a certain process to follow to develop the results that you're looking for," Morris said.
"You can look at examples for guys that I worked for. Coach [Dabo] Swinney, guys in this league. Dan Mullen and Mark Stoops. It didn't happen overnight."
Aug. 31 Portland State
Sept. 7 at Ole Miss*
Sept. 14 Colorado State
Sept. 21 San Jose State
Sept. 28 Texas A&M*#
Oct. 12 at Kentucky*
Oct. 19 Auburn*
Oct. 26 at Alabama*
Nov. 2 Mississippi State*
Nov. 9 Western Kentucky
Nov. 23 at LSU*
Nov. 29 Missouri*^
# AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
^ War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock
Morris and the three Razorbacks at media days defended his work at building relationships with players. Morris was criticized in that department by what was described as a former player in a recent report by the "Inside The Team" Twitter account.
"I put zero credibility into somebody that's going to put something anonymous out there," Morris said. "You talk to our players, and you talk to our guys, and you walk into our locker room. I mean, I put no credibility into that."
Morris said forming and strengthening relationships with players is "on the constant forefront" of he and his staff.
"I did see it, but I've never heard nothing like that in the locker room," Agim said. "Coach Chad, I really believe, is a player's coach. ... He has a good heart."
Said Harris, "We saw it on Twitter. We know the truth behind everything. It's just something they put out. We don't worry about it.
"That's not Coach Morris. We know Coach Morris. He's always around. If we call, he's there to answer it. He's a good guy."
Whaley said he didn't read much into the anonymous criticism.
"He's great with players," Whaley said. "I mean, he's a great coach and a great person. ... He builds relationships with his players and he loves his players."
Third in a series previewing the 2019 SEC football season.
Sports on 07/18/2019
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