Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Arkansas vs. Florida

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, November 12, 2020
Arkansas defensive lineman Malcolm Sheppard (96) defends a pass thrown by Florida quarterback Tim Tebow during a game Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009, in Gainesville, Fla.
( Benjamin Krain)
Arkansas defensive lineman Malcolm Sheppard (96) defends a pass thrown by Florida quarterback Tim Tebow during a game Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009, in Gainesville, Fla.

Malcolm Sheppard has bragging rights with his colleagues in law enforcement in the heart of Tennessee this week.

A deputy sheriff in Williamson County just south of Nashville, Sheppard would like to extend that to some old college and NFL rivals, too, this week when Arkansas travels to play No. 6 Florida in Gainesville.

Sheppard played two seasons in the NFL, splitting his time with the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans. He started on the defensive line four years (2006-09) for the Razorbacks, serving as team captain his final two seasons.

“Since I finished my NFL time at Tennessee and stayed in the Nashville area, I have a lot of friends who are Tennessee Vols fans,” Sheppard said. “They were sending me a lot of texts during the day leading up to our game. They all stopped right after halftime. My phone went silent.”

Sheppard said he was thrilled with the way Arkansas bounced back with a 24-13 victory. He said he didn’t need to do any talking after the game. The Hogs did it for him.

That’s his style. He talked with his play on the field. A fierce competitor, it’s still stunning to think back on a personal foul penalty called on Sheppard by referee Marc Curles in one of the key plays as No. 1 Florida rallied past the Hogs, 23-20, at the Swamp in 2009.

The SEC later said Curles was wrong on that penalty. Florida offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert surprised Sheppard with a crack-back hit that is now illegal in college football. Gilbert threw up his arms when he made the hit and Curles — seeing only the end of the play — wrongly flagged Sheppard.

“I think it was just part of some great competition,” Sheppard said. “I had that with Florida, between me, Gilbert and the Pouncey twins (Mike and Maurkice). We always had something going. They would get riled up at me.”

Sheppard battled those three in the NFL, too. He said there were sometimes “words” about that game.

“I remember that play well at Gainesville,” Sheppard said. “We were amped up and thought we were about to beat No. 1. That play — and some other wrong calls — really helped them come back. There was that play in the end zone when they pushed Ramon Broadway to make a catch. It was offensive interference and wasn’t called.”

Broadway was shoved by wide receiver Riley Cooper on the play.

“I guess everyone has a bad day in their profession,” Sheppard said. “That was a bad day for Curles. I really, really believe he had a bad day. If there had been just one bad call, you might not think so much about it, but there were several.

“I think that can happen when you have a No. 1 team getting some preferential treatment. We had been struggling, but we had some good players like Ryan Mallett, Greg Childs and some others that turned out to be pretty good. That day we played to our potential and we should have won.

“We were in good shape in the fourth quarter until the flags began to fly. That was so deflating. Those were 15-yard penalties that gave them first downs.”

Co-workers bring up the hit by Gilbert that drew the flag on Sheppard.

“We’ve watched the replay of that hit at the department,” Sheppard said. “It was acting on Gilbert’s part. He threw up his arms like I did something. Maybe I should have worked on my acting.

“But I think them being No. 1 helped get them that win. They got preferential treatment.”

Sheppard thinks that same thing happened to the Hogs earlier this season when Auburn got the end-of-game break in a 30-28 victory.

“That call was wrong, too,” he said. “I think that’s a case of a higher-ranked team getting a break.”

The message is clear: flip the switch by fighting your way into the rankings.

“I believe that and I think it’s going to happen,” Sheppard said. “I think the way our team is playing now, we will be ranked by the end of the year. Then maybe you get some favoritism by the referees.”

Sheppard, a native of Bainbridge, Ga., applauds the work of new Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and his staff.

“What they are doing is exactly what you need to play in the SEC,” Sheppard said. “You do it with line play. I think you need to have a passing game, but you win by controlling the run game.

“You have to make that offensive line strong to have success. It’s nice to have some elusive wide receivers and backs, but the formula to win in the SEC is in the trenches and that’s what Coach Pittman is doing.”

Florida is favored over Arkansas by 17 ½ points, but Sheppard thinks an upset is possible.

“We’ve proven that we are a very, very dangerous team,” Sheppard said. “I can’t say enough how proud I am of our team and our coaches. Coach Pittman has instilled a mindset of winning football.

“Everything is coming together. Coach Pittman is a real treat.

“I’ll be tuned in Saturday night. I think it’s a game the Razorbacks can win. I believe that.”

Sheppard knows belief is part of the battle. He’s seen things turn on belief in the change in coaching staff.

“It’s a great staff and we haven’t seen that with our team in a number of years,” he said. “It’s there now. I see it in the way the team plays and I’m enjoying that.”

And that brings us to the top key: Arkansas’ coaching staff.


Staff Confidence

That has to be the key for the Razorbacks with Pittman sitting out this week after testing positive for covid-19. He got the word early Monday to stay home. He’d just gotten out of the shower when a phone call revealed the test result. A second test also was positive.

The Hogs didn’t miss a beat, with assistant head coach Barry Odom elevated to interim coach. Odom, the former Missouri head coach, has been the rage of the SEC with an amazing rebuild of one of the worst defenses in college football.

It appears the Hogs have a chance to make the most of a bad situation with the Odom move. He’ll change from the press box to the field. His replacement in the box will be Michael Scherer, a former Mizzou linebacker under Odom and a quality control assistant at Arkansas.

Pittman low-keyed his stay-at-home order with covid-19, noting for about the third time this season, “I haven’t been doing much.” He doesn’t call signals on either side of the ball and also defers to special teams coordinator Scott Fountain. Pittman, with only a sore back as a symptom of the virus, said his role in Florida preparations has been similar to past weeks, except during practices.

“I’m in every team meeting. I’m able to speak to the team,” Pittman said. “Basically the difference is that personal interaction with the kids, and then I’m not at practice. I watch it at night and review it with the coaching staff.

“Once I send them off to practice…I wait until they post the practice on my laptop. It’s just different. I don’t want the kids to think any different. If they do, Florida will beat the heck out of us. We have to be locked in on everything but me.”

Pittman said on his weekly radio show, “Our fans don’t have anything to worry about. Barry and our staff will have our team ready.”

The New Coach

Odom gets the reins for probably one week. Pittman could be back as early as Wednesday of next week, if testing goes well. The Arkansas players don’t seem concerned, especially those on the defensive side who have worked closely with the defensive coordinator. They know he was head coach at Missouri and has won at Florida in that role.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” defensive end Eric Gregory said. “He was the Missouri head coach last year so I feel like he knows the job a little more than any of the other coaches on the staff just coming from a head coaching job last year.

“So I feel like we’re going to be very well prepared. So I feel it’s very good he’s been a head coach before this.”

Kyle Trask

Each quarterback gets his own segment because they are stories by themselves. Trask, the senior Florida quarterback, has been a national story since taking over for Feleipe Franks early in the 2019 season.

Trask has completed 125 of 182 for 1,815 yards with 22 touchdowns. His start to the season compares favorably to what Joe Burrow did at LSU last year on the way to winning the Heisman Trophy. Trask is starting to get consideration for the Heisman, too. He’s thrown for at least four touchdowns in four games.

Burrow threw for 1,864 in his first five games last season. There’s only been one other Heisman winner to throw for more yards than Burrow, the 1990 winner Ty Detmer. The BYU quarterback threw for 2,197 yards in that start, but there were only three now-Power 5 teams among his first five foes.

With Trask pulling the trigger, the Gators gain yards in chunks. They average 7.42 yards per play. That’s led the way to 42.2 points per game. They don’t need many plays to do damage. They average just 66.8 plays per game.

Wide receiver Kadarius Toney has 29 catches and six touchdowns, but Trask spreads the ball around the field. Five players are in double digits in catches. The top two running backs have 21 catches.

Feleipe Franks

The top storyline for the night will be Franks returning to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He was the starting QB for the Gators until a serious ankle injury ended his 2019 season at Kentucky.

Franks earned his Florida degree last fall and transferred to Arkansas. He’s been superb to steady a position that had been a virtual revolving door and he did it through virtual learning for much of the last 10 months.

Franks threw for three touchdowns in the third quarter to lead the Hogs to the victory over Tennessee. It was the third time he’d beaten the Vols dating to his days with the Gators. Franks has completed 123 of 183 passes for 1,428 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Franks is like Trask in that the ball can go anywhere in the Kendal Briles offense. Treylon Burks has 31 catches. He might be the best wide receiver in the SEC. He’s just rounding into top form after missing the Auburn game with a knee injury.

Pittman has mentioned several times this week that his “disappointment” in testing positive is that he doesn’t get to “go back to Florida with Feleipe.” And, he added, “All he needs to do is keep being himself.”

Offensive Line

Arkansas has found some in the offensive line, with the return to form of Ty Clary, now starting ahead of Beaux Limmer at right guard, and Luke Jones able to rest Brady Latham at left guard. Clary has also started at center with Ricky Stromberg missing practice time last month because of covid-19 quarantine. Dalton Wagner and Noah Gatlin have both missed games because of covid-19 and have taken turns starting the last two games.

The Hogs displayed a little more ability to run in short-yardage situations against Tennessee, especially to the left side behind tackle Myron Cunningham and Latham.

The Arkansas offensive line could provide a key burst in the running game, something missing until two weeks ago against Texas A&M. The line blocking in the running game was a plus in the third quarter when the Hogs landed a 24-0 haymaker against Tennessee.

Florida’s running game shouldn’t be overlooked. The Gators average just 138.2 yards rushing, but that can be misleading. A big chunk of the passing game is flips wide to the running backs.

Tight End

Kyle Pitts is questionable for the Gators after absorbing a blow to the head in the Georgia game on a play that was ruled as targeting. That would be a loss because Pitts might be the nation’s best tight end and a top 10 pick in the draft.

Pitts looks to be a sure All-American for the Gators, the likely Mackey Award winner as the nation’s top tight end. But he also might be in the running for the Biletnikoff Award, generally given to a wide receiver. The criteria just say the award goes to the nation’s best receiver, a definition that would cover Pitts.

Pitts has 24 catches for 414 yards and that’s only in 4 ½ games. He’s caught eight touchdowns, six in the season’s first two games against Ole Miss and South Carolina.

However, the Gators aren’t shy on depth at tight end. Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer aren’t as talented as Pitts, but would be starters for many SEC teams.

The Hogs may have depth issues this week with back-up tight end Hunter Henry nursing a sprained ankle. Henry leads Arkansas’ tight ends with 15 catches, but senior Blake Kern has played as much as Henry of late.

Kern scored his first career touchdown last week against Tennessee and has proven to be rugged to tackle after the catch as his role has expanded. In the preseason, the Hogs advertised Kern as mostly a blocker.

Protection

This could be rolled into the O-line category, but it’s not just an area that requires tackle-to-tackle protection. Florida leads the SEC with 3.0 sacks per game. End Brenton Cox, with 24 tackles, is the top threat.

“We will have to use our backs and tight ends to chip on their outside rushers,” Pittman said. “We are going to have to help our offensive line. Florida has great speed off the edge.”

This is an area where the Hogs have left their right tackle (Wagner and Gatlin) exposed and it’s backfired. That side of the line will need some help against the Gators.

However, if the Hogs can give Franks time, Pittman thinks the Hogs can make some “throws to beat them deep.” It’s a risky Florida scheme as called by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Turnovers

The Hogs didn’t lose a turnover in the last two games, but that was almost luck last week when Franks fumbled twice in the open field. Franks recovered one of them, Wagner the other. The Razorbacks recovered all four of their fumbles in all against the Vols.

Florida protects the football, too. Franks and Trask both have thrown just three interceptions. Trask benefits from solid protection and a quick release.

“He gets the ball away quickly,” Pittman said.

That’s something the Hogs have asked Franks to improve. He has a habit of holding the ball while waiting for receivers to break open. Florida’s receivers get open quickly.

The Arkansas defense leads the nation in interceptions with 12. The Hogs may have to figure out another way to gain an advantage this week because the Gators don’t throw many.

The RPO

It’s short for the run-pass option and it’s the key to what Arkansas is doing to move the ball on offense. It’s gotten better every week. The RPO has helped the running game the last two weeks with 420 rushing yards in the Texas A&M and Tennessee games.

Franks said running backs Trelon Smith and Rakeem Boyd have benefitted from mesh of the RPO game, but it’s shown up in big plays in the passing game, too.

“I think that the success they’ve had in our running game opens up a lot of things that we do in the RPO and passing game,” Franks said. “I think those guys (Smith and Boyd) have done a great job of just running hard, doing what they’re asked and getting those hard-earned extra yards when it’s needed. Those yards don’t come easy, so they’ve done a great job getting hard earned yards when they run.

“They’ve done a really good job. Both of them have done a really good job.”

Defensive Scheme

It’s not a secret, but the way defensive coordinators approach building a scheme revolves around the experience and ability of the quarterback. The youngsters see a steady diet of blitz. The veterans with ability to throw see zone coverage and numbers in the drop.

So what does Odom do against Trask, clearly a quarterback who fits into that second category?

Blitzes don’t get to Trask because he delivers the ball quickly. So it’s likely there will be a healthy mix of zone coverages with man-to-man under coverage. Trask likes to dump the ball to his backs and will go for the outside wheel route two to three times a game, especially if you drop safeties too deep.

So the plan might be to play closer to the line of scrimmage with coverage in hopes of taking away some shorter throws. That tends to take away help coverage over the top and exposes safeties to play-action fakes.

This isn’t what anyone wants to be told, but the best defense against Florida’s offense might be a good Arkansas offense. Are the Hogs good enough on offense to win a scoring duel?

The answer for the Hogs might be the play at safety by Jalen Catalon. He seems to fix problems and make everything right. It could be in pass defense to help an inexperienced cornerback or make a key solo tackle when everything else breaks. Pittman praised Catalon this week.

“We’ve got a lot of good players on defense,” Pittman said. “Not to take anything away from guys like Grant Morgan, Bumper Pool, Jonathan Marshall and Joe Foucha, but Jalen is our leader.”

I’ll go back to something Sheppard said: This is a dangerous Arkansas team and perhaps getting more dangerous by the game.

Confidence can do that.

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