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.
Not a complete restart: Hogs hopeful familiarity on offense pays off
Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd (5) carries the ball for a 52-yard touchdown during a game against Mississippi State on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- When college football gets the go-ahead to resume with on-field activities, possibly midway through the summer, the University of Arkansas will be working from behind.
Without a lick of spring practice, the Razorbacks will have to be primed to conduct concise installation of new systems on both sides of the ball while also ramping up their conditioning.
It will not be easy for first-year Coach Sam Pittman and coordinators Kendal Briles and Barry Odom.
Pittman has maintained a positive outlook regarding the long coronavirus lull, saying he thought the Razorbacks could be ready to host Nevada in the season opener on Sept. 5 if they can resume organized team activities by some point in mid-July.
On offense, Briles has been teaching new terminology, schemes and checks, and he's doing it with a key newcomer in transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks, who is expected to roll out with the starters and get plenty of first-team work. Franks has never taken a live practice or game rep with Briles or his new teammates.
"We've been really pleased with Feleipe and his ability to go through workouts in the weight room and do everything those guys ask," Briles said on a teleconference last month. "We just want to see him throw a football. That's the craziest thing, you know? I've been around him since January, and I haven't seen him throw a football because we haven't had the opportunity to be able to do that."
Franks said Briles' offensive schemes were a big attractant as he came out of the transfer portal from Florida as a graduate transfer.
"That was one of the most important things for me: What kind of offensive am I going to be in," Franks said of his thoughts regarding his official visit to Arkansas. "I really like Coach Briles' philosophy, Coach Pittman and everything they bring to the table."
Franks is a slight unknown, even after competing at a high level in the SEC with the Gators, but the Razorbacks have lots of knowns on offense who could help the unit accelerate out of the gate in practices rather than sputter.
Arkansas returns eight offensive starters, including senior tailback Rakeem Boyd, who rushed for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Even more impressive, Boyd averaged a hefty 6.2 yards per carry on one of the nation's least efficient offenses.
"I recruited Houston when I was at another institution, so I recruited Rakeem from high school," Briles said. "A very talented back. The thing about him, he's a really powerful runner, but he's got elusiveness as well. He's got good ball skills."
Four players with significant starting experience are back on the offensive front. Center Ty Clary will be in his third year as a starter, while guard Ricky Stromberg and tackles Myron Cunningham and Dalton Wagner would be second-year starters if they re-earn those berths.
The position has been upgraded with a strong class of signees, plus the return from injury of tackle Noah Gatlin, who would have battled Wagner last season for a starting role. Returners like Shane Clenin, Beaux Limmer and others are said to have made offseason strides that should bolster the position better than it was the last few years.
The background of Pittman as an O-line savant with highly regarded position coach Brad Davis should only mean improved play up front for the Hogs in 2020.
At receiver, starters Treylon Burks, Trey Knox and Mike Woods all return, so that position has a chance to be better. Additionally, position coach Justin Stepp, an ace recruiter who builds strong relationships with recruits and the players at his position, was retained by Pittman, which will help in the transition year.
It's clear the NCAA will have to alter the standard spring and summer calendars for football to have a chance to be played in September.
In recent years, Division I college programs have been allowed 15 practices in spring that must wind up before the end of April. There is limited allowable contact between coaches and strength and conditioning staffs during the summer, meaning players largely conduct their own throwing and workout sessions.
Franks said small groups of players have gone through throwing and catching work in recent weeks, though school facilities remain closed.
"We find a way to throw every Monday, Wednesday and Friday," Franks said on a recent teleconference. "I think it's important, especially in times like this when everything is limited, it's important to be in a routine, because it's easy to get distracted and get out of routine.
"It's important to set a routine and follow that routine and make sure you're going along with that."
In the months of May, June and July, players have typically been allowed to engage in voluntary workouts, conditioning and video study at campus facilities, though that has not been the case this year. The Razorbacks, like their SEC brethren, are hoping all the right protocols can be followed that would allow for a June 1 opening of the team's training and weight room facilities, as Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek suggested to the UA Board of Trustees early this week.
The NCAA has allowed for the last three weeks eight hours of virtual instruction, so installations and practices have a good chance at running smoother when on-field activities resume.
Franks said the suspension due to covid-19 is not ideal, "but at the same time we get these extra hours in these meetings. They are kinda working with us to do this other stuff. That stuff helps when you're learning a new offense.
"We have a quiz after every meeting and that helps when you go over that stuff. I can speak especially at the quarterback stuff, when you go over that and you come back in fall camp you already know all the calls and everything.
"It's just playing with your new teammates and doing all this stuff. Guys who have been doing it for a couple of years it's just about performing because you have all this time to learn the offense. It's just about taking advantage of it. It will help."
Briles said the whole coaching staff is eager to get rolling as soon as officials allow it to happen.
"I mean, Coach Pittman, we talk about it on a daily basis, we want to get back in here and go to work," Briles said. "We're going to make sure we're doing everything the right way and keeping everybody safe and healthy. Once we do get back, we'll figure a schedule out and we'll pull together collectively with support staff, strength staff, football operations and everybody to work backwards from that first game and see how we're going to do everything to get ready to play."
Sports on 05/10/2020
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