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.
Eye beyond trenches: UA O-line coach teaches varied perspectives
Brad Davis, an assistant coach with the University of Arkansas football team, speaks with members of the media Thursday, February 6, 2020, inside the Fred W. Smith Football Center on the campus in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Perhaps first-year University of Arkansas offensive line coach Brad Davis will follow one of his mentors, Sam Pittman, into the head coaching ranks some day.
Davis sounded like a head coach recently when he took a riff about the optimism he feels for the advancement of the current Razorback offensive line into different territory.
"The truth is, whenever our players come back, whenever they say it's time to return, it'll be a true indication of who really put this team at the forefront of what they did," Davis told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Because right now the biggest challenge for our players really is how they can go out and push themselves."
Davis' commentary was connected to remarks about his offensive line unit, but the words could apply to the entire roster during the time of the coronavirus. The NCAA does not allow coaches to request video of players working out during the suspension of team activities, which has been going on since March 12. But strength and conditioning staffs across the country can provide workout plans and suggestions.
"They have a plan," Davis said. "They're given workouts and instructions on how to go out and accomplish things. But truthfully, the guys who can come back in great shape and show that they've made progress in spite of the virus, those will be the guys that really kind of stand out in my mind. Those will be the guys who show you how much it meant to them."
He shared some thoughts about how the virtual instruction Arkansas coaches have been conducting with position groups has offered a chance at creativity.
"When something like this hits, as tragic as this virus has been for our country, for me, I tried to find somewhat of an opportunity to take advantage of it and get ahead," he said. "So what I've found in my travels is that a lot of offensive linemen are taught the game from one perspective. They kind of have this box mentality of, 'I've got this guy or this guy.' So I like to teach the guys the game from the opposite vantage point. Study what your opponent is seeing. If you can just flip sides and look at what you're doing and look at the presentation the defense has and how would you respond.
"So that's how you're going to respond. It gives our guys anticipatory skills. It gives them an opportunity to see the big picture and understand all the moving parts that make things happen on the defensive side of the football."
Senior center Ty Clary called the virtual meetings important, particularly for a team that has not gone through one practice since Pittman's hiring.
"You can't replace on-field work," Clary said. "You just can't do that. But also getting so much time to learn our plays, and now I'm getting to hear things I wouldn't get to about defensive schemes and watching certain [defenses] do certain things."
Pittman described Davis as a premier communicator and recruiter, and an outstanding technician as a coach.
"I trust him, and I know he is a great person," Pittman said. "He is as good an offensive line coach as there is in the country. If you go by jobs that he has been offered, he is as good an O-line coach as there is in the country because he has been offered a bunch. He has been offered some since he has been here."
Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said he was on board with Davis' approach, which has been a slower-paced install of the offense than what Briles is taking with the quarterbacks.
Davis said a broader knowledge of defense can help offensive linemen anticipate when and where pressure might come and how the defense might approach various down-and-distance situations.
"Just something as simple as looking at a cornerback's demeanor, you know, is something that an O-lineman probably would never do," he said. "But looking at his eyes, does he have 'man' eyes or is he looking through the receiver to the quarterback? I mean, it gives you perspective."
Davis has his work cut out handling the front line of an offense that has struggled the past few seasons. However, in the not-too-distant past, the Razorbacks led the SEC in fewest sacks allowed three consecutive seasons that corresponded with Pittman's tenure as offensive line coach from 2013-15.
Clary is one of four returning starters on the front, along with guard Ricky Stromberg and tackles Myron Cunningham and Dalton Wagner. Add in tackle Noah Gatlin, who is returning from knee surgery; Shane Clenin, who has drawn praise from the coaches through the winter and spring; several other developing young players; and an influx of 300-pounders in the 2020 signing class, and the Arkansas offensive line appears improved.
Davis is holding back any projections for his current group.
"Honestly, it's a little bit premature, and here's why I say that," he said. "We had a very limited amount of time with the guys. What I did get to see them do is lift and run. I didn't get to see them do an incredible amount of true football movements.
"I'm optimistic. I'm excited. I think we have great energy. I think the guys are into it, and I think they want to be good. So that's a starting point for me. So I think it's really preliminary for me to go out there and say right now what I have, who we're counting on, who I think is going to be the starters, those things."
The Razorbacks were fifth in the SEC and 31st in the country with 1.58 sacks allowed per game last season. But they ranked in the 100s in total offense (111), passing offense (103), red-zone offense (114), time of possession (111) and scoring (110). They also were 85th in rushing with 147.2 yards per game, despite having a 1,133-yard rusher in Rakeem Boyd.
Davis isn't harping on those stats or what the offensive linemen put on tape in previous seasons.
"What I did come in and explain to the guys is ... what's been done here in the past is behind us," Davis said. "We don't spend a whole lot of time talking about it. Everybody's got a clean slate and a fresh opportunity.
"If you will work and come in here and grind for this team and show us you want to help this program win football games, we're going to find a role for you. So I think our guys have embraced that. I've been very proud of the effort I did see from these guys, the gains they made in the weight room, the fact they've gone out and pushed and challenged themselves."
Clary and Wagner are coming off shoulder surgeries to repair torn labrums, and Gatlin is more than 10 months removed from his knee surgery.
"We had several guys recovering from injuries, and I thought they rehabbed like pros," Davis said. "I was very excited about that. So I have every reason to be optimistic."
Davis' reputation is already stout in the industry. Pittman said a rival SEC West team had been interested in hiring Davis shortly after he had left Missouri to become Pittman's first hire.
"I'm not going to talk about any other SEC program," Davis said, "but here's what I will say. The opportunity to work for people that you care about and you love is very, very rare in any profession. Not just football. It's hard to find a job that you're passionate about and people you're passionate about. I have that here.
"Coach Pittman, I would have followed him to the edge of the earth. It doesn't matter where he's at. He's been that special to me. He's somebody that I'm going to strive every day to make him proud of what I'm doing. It's as simple as that.
"Not achieving and underperforming here would obviously set me back and it would hurt me. But not having Coach Pittman's approval would probably be one of the biggest detriments to my career. He's been that special to me in my life. So I'm willing to do anything and for as long as it takes to be with him to get this program going and to win."
Sports on 05/19/2020
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