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. Ole Miss
From left to right, Brandon Burlsworth, Grant Garrett and Russ Brown pose for a picture in 1997.
Social media can produce craziness. I don’t spend much time on any of it, but every now and then something falls into my lap that is a pleasant surprise.
That happened Monday morning as I was checking on family with Facebook. It’s about the only platform I use aside from the Hawgs Illustrated premium forums.
I found myself entranced with Grant Garrett’s 500-word essay on Arkansas football. Garrett, a highly successful businessman from Lake Hamilton, rates as one of my all-time favorites.
You probably remember him as the center on the great offensive line of 1998. Brandon Burslworth and Russ Brown were the guards. Bobbie Williams and Chad Abernathy were the tackles.
Garrett’s Facebook post preached patience for Arkansas coach Chad Morris and athletics director Hunter Yurachek. It was a compelling read.
A quick search confirmed that I still have Garrett’s phone number. After a text to make sure I wasn’t interrupting a Labor Day meal, Garrett was on the line. Oh, it was like old times, better than peanut butter and jelly.
Garrett had witnessed the Arkansas opening 20-13 win over Portland State, a disappointment to many. Why didn’t the Razorbacks make a big jump as Morris started his second season?
“It’s because we are at an all-time low,” Garrett said. “We just are. It’s not like it was in 1998 when Houston (Nutt) came in for my senior year. He had a ready-made team that included a lot of veteran linemen on both sides of the ball.
“And, we had leaders that were battle tested. I bet there were about 20. Go down that roster and see guys like Madre Hill, Brandon Burlsworth, Clint Stoerner, Anthony Lucas, Russ Brown, Ryan Hale, C.J. McLain, David Barrett, Kenoy Kennedy, Randy Garner and lots more.
“We were tough, tempered steel. We’d gone against each other four or five years and played in the SEC. Iron sharpens iron and we were good. We were ready to bust out.
“What we have now isn’t close to that in leadership or ability. I see some good young players, but we weren’t playing young players in 1998 and we weren’t playing a lot in 1995 when I was a redshirt freshman on another good team.”
Garrett is a suite holder in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. He goes to all of the home games, taking clients for Garrett Excavating, his company of about 150 employees.
“I go to all the home games, then I go to the Texas A&M game in Arlington,” Garrett said. “Russ Brown has a suite a few doors down. We enjoy getting back for all of the games.”
Those two spend their time talking about the hard work they put in to become a top-level SEC football team. It’s the same things they are doing now to be successful in business.
“I get a kick out of millennials in the work place,” Garrett said. “They think there are short cuts. There aren’t any and that especially goes with football.
“It just takes time and hard work. You have to put together several recruiting classes, then build those players in the weight room and get them ready on the practice field. And, they have to play and learn how to play in the toughest league in the country.”
It’s not what anyone wants to hear as Morris tries to rebuild the Hogs.
“No, it’s not,” Garrett said. “And, I’m sure no one will want to hear this, but where we are is like we were coming off the death penalty. We are starting at zero. It’s a monumental task and there is huge pressure to win.
“But we have to be realistic; we are starting over. We were way down.”
Garrett thought it was a mistake when fans grew tired of Nutt. He played for Danny Ford for four years and Nutt for just one, but football became fun under Nutt who won his first eight games in 1998.
“The reality of it was that we had good players and were ready to win, but we hated to go to the football office,” Garrett said. “For whatever reason, it wasn’t working under Coach Ford any more. We got a breath of fresh air with Coach Nutt and we took off.
“But it’s different now in that Coach Morris didn’t inherit a ready-made team like Coach Nutt did.”
Garrett has followed the program closely.
“I think Bobby Petrino could coach, but he didn’t know how to sustain a program,” Garrett said. “He wasn’t about staying at Arkansas, either. He was not a good leader.
“Then, we had John L. Smith, not a good coach and not a good leader.
“Then, we ran out and got Bret Bielema. He came in with a lot of energy and was a good leader. But let’s face it, it wasn’t a good fit.
“I think he got into a position where he didn’t think he could be fired. Then, started a family. He took the easy way in recruiting and didn’t do well in the right places like Texas. He didn’t know how to recruit in the South.
“A lot of times, it’s just about fit. You do or you don’t and fit is really important in recruiting.”
Garrett thinks both Morris and Yurachek fit.
“I know they do,” he said. “I’ve been around Coach Morris probably eight to 10 times. He gets Arkansas and he fits.
“I’ve been around Hunter a bunch, too. He’s been in my home. He fits and he wants to be here.
“I don’t think Jeff Long fit. I’m surprised he stayed (10 years) because I never thought he acted like he wanted to be here. He wasn’t right for Arkansas.”
There is a lot in Garrett’s post on Facebook. The summary is wonderful, better than what I’ve written in advance to the season:
“We are an extremely young team that has at best, young, inexperienced leaders at the helm, and at worst has some veterans with poor leadership habits that will take time to overcome.
“Are Morris and Yurachek going to be successful? No one really knows. They are fighting fights that most of us will never hear about, or at best, we will never know the whole story only getting to hear biased bits and pieces.
“I can also promise you that they will both make some mistakes. Our job as fans and supporters is to support them as they are working hard and spending time away from their families to better our university and our program. Both of them fully understand what is required to turn things around and those they have to win in order to stay. They get Arkansas and they are a great fit for our state, they just need time to get it done.”
What’s getting it done?
“I would be happy with five wins this season,” Garrett said. “Then, I would say within five years, we are going to be where we all want to go. I think then we could be competitive every year and a (New Year’s Six bowl game) appearance every five to 10 years is realistic.”
The freshman class is talented, but Garrett recalls playing as a redshirt freshman. He was considered a “can’t miss” prospect in high school, signed by Louis Campbell.
“Coach Campbell was the man who came into my home,” Garrett said. “I remember Coach Ford telling us that we might play some early, but maybe not much.
“Then, in 1995, being thrown onto the field from our own 5-yard line for my first snap. We were all set to play our backup line and we messed up a kickoff against South Carolina.
“I recall Coach Ford going crazy on the sideline when he figured out we were still going to go in, our freshmen group, the backup line. We went 95 yards and I’m still not sure how we did it.
“I recall having to make that first snap. It was deer in headlights. No way any of us were ready to play.
“And, I look out there now and see how young those backups on the offensive line are right now. And, I also see how little some have played their current positions on the offensive line.
“So what they are doing with the offensive line now is figuring it out. It’s sure not like that O-line that Coach Nutt had when he got here in 1998.”
No, it’s not, but it will get there.
“You have to play these young guys in the line and it will come together eventually,” Garrett said. “And, they have to develop leaders. Clint Stoerner was our leader and he’d taken his lumps behind us for two years.
“I just want to see improvement and know that character is being developed.”
Can the Hogs win at Ole Miss? Sure, Garrett said. The Hogs were close against the Rebels in Little Rock last year.
The keys for a victory – and yes, that’s still what this commentary is about each week – start with playing sound.
“I thought we made some mistakes last week that they will clean up,” Garrett said. “I think the line can block better, maybe get to the second level (against linebackers and safeties) a little better.”
So that’s where it starts this week.
Can the Hogs get more than two touchdowns out of six red zone chances? Morris said the running backs have to finish runs better, but there has to be better blocking at the second level of the defense.
Offensive line play wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t at an SEC level, either. Center Ty Clary still needs to improve his snaps. He’s part of the answer on getting to linebackers. So are the tight ends, probably off on their blocking a little without Cheyenne O’Grady as their leader.
Ben Hicks completed 14 of 29 passes. He wasn’t sharp. There were two or three throws that probably would have been interceptions against SEC defensive backs. Yes, there were four or five drops, several on third down that killed drives.
Expect Nick Starkel to play, too. He threw an interception in the red zone and was in on another fruitless red zone possession. He’ll continue to get chances and must step up if he wants them to continue.
Both Hicks and Starkel can play better than they did in the opener. They’ve looked better than that in scrimmages and that was against a better defense than Portland State.
The Hogs will see a better offense this week, the zone read of Ole Miss offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez. Arkansas defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis likes to blitz and had the Hogs in pressures of some kind in over 50 percent of the snaps against the Vikings.
It’s hard to blitz against a run-pass option or the zone read. That’s a recipe for giving up big plays. Outside of quarterback scrambles of 22 and 16 yards, Portland State got nothing in the run game. Can the Hogs do that again?
Look for De’Jon Harris to have a big game at inside linebacker. He only had three tackles last week and that was among the lowest in his career since becoming a starter. Obviously, Portland State didn’t test him, but look for Ole Miss to try his side a few more times.
If the Hogs can get pressure with defensive tackles McTelvin “Sosa” Agim, T. J. Smith, it might be another big day for the secondary. Joe Foucha, Kamren Curl and Jarques McClellion each had an interception last week. It happened because of the pressure created by the defensive line.
The Hogs have been trying to upgrade play at safety for several seasons. The combination of Curl and Foucha seems to have clicked so far in the second season of the Chavis defense.
Veteran assistant Ron Cooper has both playing at a high level. Curl, a junior, has started two years, at corner as a true freshman and at safety last season. Foucha, a sophomore, started his last game as a true freshman.
Curl was solid in the opener. Foucha capped an equally good performance by intercepting the last Portland State pass with 11 seconds to play.
It wasn’t a surprise to Chavis based on how they played in August practices, especially Curl.
“I thought Kam Curl probably played as good as he has played,” Chavis said. “I thought he was very solid on the back end. When you start breaking it down in the offseason - not that all our kids haven’t gotten better - he probably made the biggest improvement.
“So I’m not shocked to see him play as well as he did. Now what we’ve got to do is continue.”
The key at Ole Miss is how well both tackle. There were too many missed tackles last year as the Rebels rallied for a 37-33 victory. The Rebels made 611 yards in total offense, averaging 8.4 yards per snap. How well the safeties tackle will be a key to whether or not those numbers drop and the Hogs don’t have to get into a scoring battle.
Tight End Play
Obviously, O’Grady’s return will help, but Grayson Gunter and Chase Harrell have to improve. Gunter was targeted on a throw in the back of the end zone. He’s a Mississippi product who probably would like another chance like the one he missed on against Portland State.
Gunter has to block a little better, as does Harrell, the converted wide receiver. Harrell had two drops that stalled drives. So this is a position that has to improve against the Rebels.
Tight end is supposed to be a team strength. It wasn’t in the opener. If the Hogs want their offense to improve, this is a position that has to roll in Oxford.
“We saw what (O’Grady) was capable of a year ago,” Morris said. “He’s definitely a playmaker. He’s 255 (pounds) and he can run and block. He creates mismatches. He had a good practice (Tuesday).”
No doubt, the Razorbacks must correct a few things from their 20-13 victory over Portland State, but Morris was encouraged with the response he saw from the team both immediately after the game and through the practices early in the week.
“A lot to correct from last week,” Morris said on his radio show this week. “That was the big emphasis coming in on Sunday. I think our guys are right on par with where they need to be.
“When you can win and still make huge corrections like we did, it’s one of the greatest teaching opportunities that we have. If you would have walked back in our locker room after the game, at that point right there I knew our culture had completely changed. Yes, they were excited after the win, but it was a somber exciting because they knew that we didn’t play to the standard that we were wanting to play at, and execute at that level. To me, as a head coach, that was very promising.”
Offensive Line Mesh
Injuries have forced a change in personnel up front. Austin Capps is doubtful with an ankle injury sustained against Portland State. He had missed time in August camp because of a knee surgery. It appears true freshman Ricky Stromberg will step in at guard for the start.
Left tackle Colton Jackson is still bothered by a foot injury and has missed practice time, but is expected to play. Myron Cunningham is the top backup at left tackle, but he started in the opener at right guard. If Jackson is back, then Cunningham can stay at guard.
This continued shuffling brings into question how strong the mesh can be up front. It was a problem last year and it will be something that will be key against the Rebels.
Capps could still play this week, but Morris said Wednesday that Stromberg “is part of our plan for this week.” Either way, look for Stromberg to be part of the plan going forward. He’s a talented prospect who has proven to be tough and physical despite a lack of weight. He dropped to 265 pounds at one point this summer, but has added 20 pounds and should gain some more as the season progresses.
Freshmen and the Heat
Expect a bunch of true freshmen to play this week. Tight end Hudson Henry is getting work with the top two units and could play. That will bring back bad memories for the Rebels. His brother Hunter was part of the famous fourth-and-25 play that led to an overtime victory at Ole Miss in 2015.
Among the other true freshmen expected to start are wide receivers Trey Knox, Treylon Burks, defensive end Mataio Soli, nickel defensive back Greg Brooks and Stromberg. Among other true freshman, defensive ends Collin Clay, Eric Gregory and Zach Williams will be in the rotation.
The rotation for playing time might increase in several positions this week because of the intense heat. High temperatures are expected to reach 98 degrees Saturday and they won’t subside much until well after the 6:30 p.m. kickoff.
“Every team has things they do to (use more players) this time of year in the South because of the heat,” Morris said. “The key is that you begin to hydrate early in the week and continue through the game. We anticipated playing more last week, but with the (close) nature of the game, it didn’t work out that way. We must play more this week.”
Bring “Dat Wood”
The Darren McFadden quote from the post-game interview on CBS after a victory over LSU in 2007 has given life to a new tradition, an award for the player who brings “dat wood.” McFadden displayed a baseball bat, then said, “Gotta bring dat wood!”
Agim got the award against Portland State, in part for the effort displayed in running down quarterback Davis Alexander on a scramble.
“He got to sign the bat,” Morris said. “We would like to pick a player from offense and special teams each week, too, but it was only Sosa this week. It wasn’t just that play, just the way he played the entire game.”
Agim had six tackles, two for sacks. He moved from a primary position last year of defensive end to tackle this year and has drawn praise from coaches for improved consistency.
The German Razorbacks
The Hogs received encouragement from a group of German coaches at practice this week. Larry Dixon, a former Arkansas assistant under Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield, brought three young coaches from Furstenfeldbruck to attend practices Wednesday.
All four coach with the Fursty Razorbacks, a club program in Bavaria that’s been in operation since 1986. Dixon, a former scout for the Dallas Cowboys, is the defensive coordinator for the U-19 Fursty team. Joining Dixon, a Morrilton native, were Johannes Reichle (linebackers coach), Nils Mahlert (safeties) and Andreas Berger (receivers).
Morris allowed the young coaches to sit in on player meetings, then follow the team onto the field for the practices. It was the second trip in the last three years for Dixon and Reichle. The group finished the day with T-bone steaks at Herman’s.
Dixon and Reichle arrived in Dallas in time to see the Auburn-Oregon game Saturday. Mahlert and Berger flew from Germany on Tuesday after coaching their youth Fursty team to the state championship.
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