Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Arkansas vs. Texas A&M

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, October 30, 2020
Sam Pittman reacts to play inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday, October 17, 2020. Photo courtesy Walt Beazley, Arkansas Razorbacks.
Sam Pittman reacts to play inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday, October 17, 2020. Photo courtesy Walt Beazley, Arkansas Razorbacks.

Do you want your head coach to call the plays? That seems to be an integral part of the plot Saturday as Arkansas heads to Texas A&M after a bye week.

New Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said emphatically when he was hired that he wouldn’t call plays on either side of the ball. So far, no one has questioned that his two coordinators — Kendal Briles on offense and Barry Odom on defense — are calling the plays.

There is confirmation that Pittman will give them guidance. For instance, on a critical series against Auburn with a chance to run out the clock with a first down, the first-year head coach told Briles to run the ball twice and then to pass if it wasn’t third-and-long.

Two running plays produced lost yardage, so Briles called a quarterback draw on third down, a play that failed to produce a first down. Auburn burned all three timeouts, but got the ball back with 2:06 to play.

Everyone knows the rest of the story: Auburn’s backward fumble was ruled intentional grounding and allowed the Tigers a chance to avoid certain defeat. This space isn’t about that call.

And, it’s clearly not about any calls made by Pittman. After the Hogs beat Ole Miss 33-21, Pittman downplayed his role.

“I didn’t do nothing,” he said. “I just stood out there and watched. I didn’t do nothing.”

No one among the Arkansas fan base believes that. In fact, they wouldn’t take “nothing” for Pittman right now. He’s told national media outlets he is at his final destination and is quick to mention he has a retirement home in Hot Springs he used this past weekend.

It’s my belief that play calling is overrated. It’s about line play and physical toughness over what a coordinator picks on his sheet. But I’ll pacify those armchair quarterbacks who live and die with every call.

As far picking plays, Jimbo Fisher is the clear man in charge of the Texas A&M offense. He has a coordinator in name, veteran Darrell Dickey, but Fisher is the man giving the call to the quarterback in most situations and in all critical stops. He whispers the call into the ear of senior quarterback Kellen Mond.

And, in fact, Fisher has a reputation of being a “quarterback whisperer,” a developer of that key position even before Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy in 2013. It was Winston who helped Fisher win the national championship at Florida State.

Strangely, I’d be more worried about this game if Dickey was absolutely in charge of the calls, than with Fisher calling the game. Fisher has the reputation as a solid play caller, but I think Dickey’s presence in the press box gives me more cause for concern than Fisher looking over the call sheet from the sideline.

I have tremendous respect for Dickey. It dates to my early days covering college football. I did one-on-one interviews with Dickey three times during his four years as the starting quarterback at Kansas State.

It was an interesting time at K-State. Jimmy Dickey was desperately trying to right the ship in Manhattan, Kan. That happened briefly with his son running the triple option and mixing in some effective play-action passing.

Jimmy Dickey held strong beliefs that players should redshirt and used that weapon in 1981 in an unusual way. He redshirted all of his seniors and that group returned in 1982 to lead the Wildcats to their first bowl game in school history.

Ultimately, the Wildcats fell back to misery after the younger Dickey graduated. And, after a brief fling in the NFL with Seattle and New Orleans, Darrell Dickey landed at Texas A&M as a graduate assistant under Jackie Sherrill.

His resume reads a bit like Pittman’s, with lots of stops at interesting places. There is one exception: Dickey got a Division I head coaching gig early on. That was from 1998-2006 at North Texas where he led the Mean Green to five bowl games and was four times the Sun Belt Conference coach of the year. The Mean Green won 26 straight Sun Belt games during one stretch.

There is one interesting item after Dickey was fired at North Texas in 2006, a donor insisted that a new practice facility bear Dickey’s name. That was done.

Dickey’s resume includes two stops at Memphis, the first under Charlie Bailey and the last under Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell. Among the highlights there was Dickey’s push to sign quarterback Paxton Lynch, a diamond in the rough found in Deltona, Fla.

Dickey’s career has been split between coaching tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks. He’s been an offensive coordinator at Memphis, Texas El-Paso, SMU, Utah State, New Mexico, Texas State, Memphis and now Texas A&M.

Dickey did learn his way around the SEC with four years split between Mississippi State and LSU from 1990-93.

Dickey’s stamp is on this offense. It is sound, features near perfect decisions by the quarterback and does not beat itself. There is a strong running game, coupled with effective play-action passing featuring tight end Jalen Wydermyer and deep shots to freshman wide receiver Kam Brown.

Interestingly, Brown and Wydermyer are among the few underclassmen starting for the Aggies. They rely on upperclassmen in the trenches with size and experience everywhere.

That’s where we will start this week’s keys to victory.


Line Play

Fisher might be a quarterback guru, but what the Aggies have done in the trenches is the key to the surge that has them No. 8 in The AP Top 25 with a 3-1 record against the SEC.

Four of the five starters in the offensive line are starters. The guards are both 335 pounds and the tackles weight 315.

The Texas A&M base defense is a 4-2, with all upperclassmen. There are four senior starters, two juniors. Those six players own 14 letters. The Aggies rotate three at the nose tackle spot and all are 335 pounds.

Can the Hogs match these two groups with physical intensity for four quarters? The man calling the plays benefits from the kind of experience, size and talent that makes up the A&M fronts.

Turnovers

There is little doubt that turnover margin has been a key part of the turnaround for the Razorbacks this season. They are plus-7 (with 14 gained) to lead the SEC. Texas A&M is plus-1, with only seven lost.

The Hogs lead the nation with 10 interceptions, including three by redshirt freshman Hudson Clark against Ole Miss.

Can the Hogs force Mond into mistakes? He’s had plenty of time to find receivers, but the key to improved play as a senior is quicker decisions. He doesn’t hold the ball long. He’s thrown two interceptions in 130 attempts.

“He’s playing fast, the receivers are getting open and the offensive line is doing a good job of protecting him,” Pittman said of Mond. “This is the best I’ve seen him. He’s confident. He doesn’t have as many rushes this year, which means he’s living in the pocket, throwing deep balls and really having a fine year.

“We need to get pressure on Kellen with three rushers and make sure we can try to contain him when he gets outside the pocket.”

For the most part, Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks has taken care of the ball. He’s thrown only three interceptions and lost one fumble.

Protection

This goes back to solid line play, something the Hogs have added this season. Because of injuries, they have rotated seven players at the five spots, with Ty Clary and Dalton Wagner both playing key minutes off the bench. Clary may be close to regaining a starting spot he lost to start the season.

The Hogs have improved pass protection this season, but they still are among the nation’s worst in that area. They have allowed 12 sacks this season, 12th in the SEC and 73rd in the nation.

Conversely, this is what the Aggies do best. Mond’s two sacks came in the first half of the season opener against Vanderbilt. Mond was not sacked against Alabama, Florida or Mississippi State, the reason Texas A&M leads the nation in fewest sacks allowed.

Linebackers

There are some good ones in this game. They will be asked to make plays for both teams. How they play will go a long way to determining the outcome.

Texas A&M touts senior middle linebacker Buddy Johnson as an All-America candidate. He’s been a starter since late in his sophomore season. He led the Aggies with 77 tackles last season and is tops with 42 this season.

Weakside linebacker Aaron Hansford is just as good. He’s made 24 tackles, second on the team.

Everyone knows the Arkansas linebackers have been off the charts good this season. Both Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan have earned national defensive player of the week honors. Morgan got his with a 19-tackle effort against Ole Miss. Morgan’s pick-six in the final minutes gave Arkansas breathing room when it was still a one-score game.

Pool missed the Ole Miss game because of rib injuries. Morgan has battled an elbow injury, too. Pool has practiced this week, but it’s not sure if he can make it through a game.

The Ones

Johnson wears No. 1 for A&M. Jalen Catalon is the Arkansas playmaker wearing the No. 1 jersey.

While linebackers have made a significant number of tackles for both teams, Catalon is the catalyst for the Arkansas defense.

Morgan has 52 tackles, but only 13 are solo. Pool has 36 in three games, but only 16 are unassisted. Of Catalon’s 45 stops, 29 are solo - an incredible number.

Catalon often is the man who gets the Hogs started. He makes a big hit or can ignite the Hogs with a play when the ball is in the air. His interception return against Ole Miss excited the entire stadium.

“Somebody has to set the tone. Somebody has to be the intimidator,” Pittman said. “He was against Ole Miss.

“It’s like the fights. If you sit around and wait on the other old boy to throw a punch, he might knock you out; you probably ought to throw the first one. That’s what we try to do, what we talk to our kids about, that we’re going to fight, so let’s throw the first punch and see what happens.”

Third Down

It’s been called the key play in the game of football. Yes, scoring touchdowns is what everyone remembers, but the measurement of a defense is whether or not it can get off the field.

Arkansas is first in the SEC with a 32.4% ratio on third down. Texas A&M is 11th at 49%. If the game is played with similar ratios, it might favor the Hogs and Odom’s defense.

Offensively, the Hogs are trying to improve on their 33.3% conversion rate, which is 12th in the SEC. Texas A&M is on the other end of the spectrum with one of the nation’s best at 57.7% - second in the SEC and fifth nationally.

Style of Play

It’s been interesting over the last 10 months in trying to pin down the Arkansas defensive brain trust on how he’s going to line up his defense. Odom has been honest. It would be week to week.

Odom prefers a five-man secondary and that features safeties Joe Foucha, Simeon Blair, Myles Slusher and Catalon. You might consider nickel back Greg Brooks as a safety, too. Brooks can be a blitzer off the edge.

It’s been rare when Odom has brought in an extra lineman in his front. He’s played with three. But this week might be different because Texas A&M does play with a tight end most of the time and will pound the edges with running back Isaiah Spiller (64 rushes, 430 yards, 6.7-yard average).

What is likely to happen is that Odom calls more run blitzes. Foucha and Brooks have both been effective in run blitzes. Catalon can play tight to the line of scrimmage, too.

Odom has played lots of zone coverage in the secondary, but this might be the week there are more blitzes and cornerbacks Montaric Brown and Clark must play more man-to-man. It’s unlikely Odom leaves them exposed on a consistent basis, but there might be more of a sprinkle of blitz.

Special Teams

Clearly, this has been an up-and-down year for the Arkansas special teams. There have been blocked points, muffed snaps on conversions, kickoffs and punts out of bounds and too many illegal formations penalties.

Is this the week it all comes together? Perhaps there can be a big play in special teams. Pittman said that’s the goal.

“We need to get some yards in the punt return game,” Pittman said. “We need to get some yards in the kickoff game when allowed. A lot times kickers are kicking it out, but that’s one of (the areas that need improvement) there.

“I want to get a big play for us in special teams.”

Top return man Treylon Burks has been nursing injuries for most of the season. Perhaps an open date has allowed him to be healed and take his spots back on return teams. He’s the most dangerous player the Hogs can put in that position.

Physical Running

Which team can gain an advantage in the running game? Neither could last season in this matchup when Texas A&M prevailed 31-27 as Ben Hicks threw an interception in the closing seconds.

Texas A&M made only 89 yards on 33 rushes last year. Arkansas rushed for 98 yards on 26 attempts.

The key man might be Rakeem Boyd, returning to play at his old school. He rushed 18 times for 89 yards last year and was clearly inspired to play against the Aggies. He’s a Houston product and played high school against many of the Aggies. He’s kept in touch with some of his old teammates.

Boyd was injured in the Mississippi State game, missed the trip to Auburn and was less than full speed against the Rebels. An open date has freshened his legs. He should be sharp for the trip to College Station and could give Briles the kind of two-man rotation at running back that he envisioned this summer.

Could this be the week both Trelon Smith and Boyd are used in the same backfield, making it hard to key on either one?

The Hogs have not been physical in the run game, but that’s Pittman’s goal. It may take scheme to run the ball in short yardage or on the goal line.

“We can’t just turn around and say we’re going to bully you into the end zone,” Pittman said.

“We’re not a big, physical team yet to say, ‘We’re going to give it to this guy. What are you going to do about it?’ I think we’ll become that team.”

The Breaks and Intangibles

The Hogs are 2-2 and might be 3-1 except for a botched call to end the Auburn game. They are going on the road against a ranked team and that’s not the situation that has allowed for a lot of breaks since they’ve been in the SEC.

The historical reference points can be listed, but it should be enough to say some bad things have happened to the Hogs through the years.

Maybe it’s time they get a break at College Station. The way you get breaks is to take a better team on the road. Pittman is doing that.

The Hogs are good enough to win as an underdog at College Station, but they have to help themselves by avoiding the critical errors that doom an underdog: turnovers, penalties and errors in the kicking game.

The key here is that the Hogs now think Pittman can lead them to victory anywhere and against any opponent. Players believe. That’s half the battle.

It seems that Pittman has pulled this team tight and has spent the last week resting them more than beating on them in practice. They should be fresh and poised for a fanatical effort at College Station.

That’s what Arkansas fans have seen in other years against the Aggies, even with Bret Bielema- and Chad Morris-coached teams. It wasn’t enough. The Hogs have lost eight straight in the series, despite good effort.

Maybe the Hogs didn’t believe they could win in those situations. One thing is certain: they do now.

They head to College Station full of confidence. That’s the kind of intangible no one wants to go against.

It’s the toughest thing to create. You might know how to call plays, but instilling that will to fight and claw in a tough environment beats that. Pittman said he’s done “nothing,” but that ability to instill confidence is everything.

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