Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a 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. Rice
Ken Hatfield, former Arkansas Razorbacks football coach, gives the keynote address at the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast on Thursday at the Holiday Inn of Northwest Arkansas in Springdale.
Ken Hatfield always delivers the goods. The man who I think is now the greatest ambassador for Arkansas football did again this week at the first Hawgs Illustrated Sports Club.
When Hatfield threw it open at the end of the program for questions, the best came from Matt Jones, our top staffer at WholeHogSports.com.
“Some here may not have realized it, but you were a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee,” Jones said. “Can you tell us about some of your experiences in that process?”
After detailing the end-of-year routine, Hatfield mentioned that committee members watched what amounted to hours and hours of tape of the top teams to make their picks. Then, he went to the crux of how he decided if a team was worthy of consideration, the specialty he said he brought to the committee from 2018-20.
“I watched the offensive and defensive lines,” Hatfield said. “If they didn’t have (great line play), then I didn’t think they were going to do much.
“If you can run the ball with five guys working in a cohesive unit, you are going to be successful.”
It goes to reason that if you can stop the run with a great defensive front, it’s just as important.
It’s probably the reason Hatfield answered my question about what he thinks after watching practices this August under second-year coach Sam Pittman in a positive manner.
“I think we have a good team,” Hatfield said of the Razorbacks. “I believe in Coach Pittman. I watched the way the team played under him last year.
“It was a tough year, nothing usual (with limited practice and zero spring work) because of covid, but he had our team playing like fighting Razorbacks. There was a chance to win five games.”
There is no questioning Hatfield’s judgment on Pittman. Hatfield is one of Arkansas’ greatest football coaches, the man who led the Razorbacks to a 55-17-1 record and two Southwest Conference championships between 1984-89. He also won conference championships at Clemson and Rice in the 1990s.
If there was one reason to smile even with a 3-7 record last year, it was that the Hogs did look like they fought until the end, just like Hatfield’s great teams.
I always enjoyed listening to Hatfield’s assistants talk about demanding top effort. Fred Goldsmith, the defensive coordinator under Hatfield who left in 1989 to become Rice’s head coach, often played an undersized bunch. He just wanted them to play like fighting Razorbacks and they did.
“I think it’s about setting the tempo,” Hatfield said. “I think Sam did that. I also think the transfers added this offseason will really help.
“I like the way KJ Jefferson played at the finish against Missouri. If he can carry on from that, we are going to have a good team.”
That doesn’t mean easy victories, not even Saturday when Arkansas plays host to Rice at 1 p.m. at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Don’t be fooled by the odds that favor the Hogs by three touchdowns.
Hatfield coached at Rice for 12 seasons from 1994-2005. He knows the Owls won’t roll over.
“Rice will be a tough game,” he said. “Rice is not just something you eat. I know how they are going to play. It will be ball control, so you better make hay when you get the ball.”
Hatfield played that game at times as a coach. He knows that you aren’t always going to dominate with superior talent. But you can still win when the other team has an edge in players.
The key is to be solid up front. That’s what I see in these Razorbacks.
Some of the most talented offensive linemen on this team are youngsters, but experience and the ability to mesh wins up front. Toughness comes from physical practices. That’s what Pittman understands the most.
Pittman made his reputation as an elite offensive line coach. Hard work was the hallmark of his group. If you talk to Frank Ragnow, Travis Swanson and others who toiled for Pittman up front, you understand they both loved and respected Pittman. They also knew that once practice began, it was going to be a tough day. It was so much fun off the field that no one minded the hard work.
You can tolerate blood, sweat and tears if there is also some fun along the way. Trust is important, too.
“I really like the way our team works,” Pittman said last week. “As far as earlier in camp — maybe Days 10 through 12 — I was disappointed with offensive execution and that they weren’t urgent enough, but they have picked things up from there.”
After the second scrimmage of August practices, an old friend who coached many years gave me a report. He said Pittman’s practices are demanding, physical and full of hard, tough coaching.
“They are getting coached hard and firm,” the old timer told me. “These coaches get after them. I like it.”
I like the versatility of the offensive line. Pittman said Ty Clary, the starter at right guard, has also cross trained at center and both tackle slots. Brady Latham, listed as first team at left guard but battling Luke Jones, has also cross trained at both tackle spots.
The experience level among the five offensive line starters is impressive. Left tackle Myron Cunningham and right tackle Dalton Wagner have started most of the last three seasons. Center Ricky Stromberg started most of last season. Clary has been starting in various roles for most of the last four seasons, since surprising as a first-game starter as a true freshman walk-on.
That’s the group that most have frowned about for the last several seasons. They might not be the strength of the team yet, but it’s a much-improved bunch. Maybe they will earn praise this season.
Now to the meat of this piece, the top keys to victory.
There is an assumption that Rice, the underdog, will be highly motivated. It’s a chance at an SEC victory. There would be few things sweeter, aside from perhaps beating Houston or Texas, the two teams up next for the Owls.
This is a way of saying that the Owls will have what old-timer Tommy Brasher has always rated as the most important intangible in sports: Do they care?
The former Razorback linebacker/lineman (1961-63) talked to me about the care factor just after Pittman replaced Chad Morris as head coach. He was disgusted watching the Hogs over the previous few seasons.
Brasher coached 30 seasons in the NFL and also had over one decade in high school and college before retiring to Bainbridge, Wash., where he watches every sort of college game on tape as a draft scout for the Kansas City Chiefs and old friend Andy Reid.
Watching defensive line play of the Razorbacks was a turn off. He’d call me to ask about the likes of McTelvin Agim, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise. He saw talent, but he also saw things that suggested lack of effort in an overall defense.
“It cuts me deep to watch that,” Brasher said. “That’s my program. When I played, we cared. We played like we cared every game.
“I look now and I don’t think they care. I can’t stand it.
“I watched the Alabama game (in 2019) and it was over after one play. Now a lot of people lose to Alabama; that’s no crime. But lying down is a crime. There was no doubt who was going to win after the opening kickoff.”
How do you fix it?
“It’s not in recruiting,” Brasher said. “That’s what Bret Bielema said he was trying to do and the same with (Chad Morris). No, you don’t fix it with recruiting. You make sure the ones you put on the field care.
“(Fans) always think it’s about play calling in football. It’s not. It’s getting players on the field who care.
“The SEC is just a notch below the NFL. It’s talent, but the first thing you have to get players on the field who care. It’s no different than the NFL in that regard.”
Brasher coached in the NFL for New England, Philadelphia (three times), Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Kansas City.
“I’ve always said the most important thing in the draft in the NFL, take players who care,” he said. “You hear someone say they must draft someone with all the abilities. If they don’t care, you are foolish to draft them.
“There are a lot of coaches who missed their opportunity to become bona fide head coaches because they drafted only the ones they saw jump high and run fast. If they didn’t care if they won or lost, it always shows.
“If you take the ones who care, you are going to be fine. That’s been my belief through 54 years of coaching.”
I have not talked to Brasher about the current Razorbacks, but will in coming weeks. I think he’ll like the look of this defensive line. I’m not sure there are a bunch of NFL players, but I think they will play like they care.
There are three transfers who look the part in scrimmages: John Ridgeway from Illinois State, and Tre Williams and Markell Utsey from Missouri. Ridgeway will probably miss this game because of an appendectomy.
The key for the game is how well the Hogs dominate up front with a deep and physically improved defensive line. They are three deep in most places and have benefitted from a wonderful buildup in the weight room with strength coach Jamil Walker.
Team insiders think this may be one of the best transformation jobs done in the offseason at Arkansas in ages.
Dorian Gerald, a sixth-year defensive end, has added about 20 pounds to 270 and has regained the quick twitch that made him the nation’s top junior college pass rush target three years ago. Williams has wreaked havoc in practice.
Pittman reminded when his offensive tackles struggled with Williams in two scrimmages, that he coached first-round draft picks at Georgia who could not handle Williams.
Zach Williams is another who has made a magnificent transformation. He’s ready for a breakout season, as is Eric Gregory, now a 300-pounder capable of playing end or tackle.
This is still a defensive line thought, but it’s something to watch on both sides of the ball. Barry Odom was hired as defensive coordinator mainly because Pittman said he couldn’t block a moving front that was the constant at Missouri. The Tigers moved just ahead of the snap, sliding a gap, or changing from a three to a four front.
Are they are over or under front? That is determined by where the nose guard plays. Odom has the capability of changing from one to the other, but it was rarely used last year because there wasn’t depth and Jonathan Marshall was best at nose tackle.
Rice plays a fast-moving front, too. The Owls are hard to pin down before the snap.
To say this may be a rare opener where defenses are in multiple looks might be an overstatement. Expect lots of movement up front in an effort to confuse blockers and quarterbacks.
It’s one of the games within the game. Can Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson figure out who he’s reading with the run-pass option? Can he avoid bad plays by making sure he makes the right reads in quick fashion?
There is a good chance both teams play more than one quarterback. The Owls have three quarterbacks with big-time experience numbers, although summer transfer Luke McCaffrey got his experience at Nebraska.
McCaffrey is expected to split time with Wiley Green. Both are slick runners, although McCaffrey is probably has the most wiggles.
Jefferson is the clear starter for the Hogs. At 6-6, 245 pounds, he’s more physical than slick, but has decent speed.
Backup QB Malik Hornsby flashed in August scrimmages with superb breakaway speed. Cunningham, the right tackle and a captain, called Hornsby “a show.”
How much Hornsby plays could depend on the score, but don’t be surprised if offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has some goal line packages for Hornsby.
There still seem to be some doubters among fans or around the SEC about Jefferson’s ability to be the difference maker for the Hogs. Teammates don’t seem to be among them. The comments from players during camp suggest Jefferson is top shelf.
Grant Morgan, team captain and anchor of the front at inside linebacker, said Jefferson deserves his captain’s role as the leader of the offense. He said he’s demonstrated with his play and his vocal maturity that he can lead that side of the ball.
Jefferson has improved his accuracy in the offseason. Briles wants his completion percentage to jump over the 65% mark this year. There are signs from camp that he can do that.
This was a trouble spot last season, but much work has been done to improve in the offseason. There was heavy work done in the spring and in August camp. Special teams coordinator Scott Fountain will benefit from increased depth.
The secondary is stocked with good tacklers at safety, cornerback and linebacker. That’s generally where the cover teams draw players.
The kickers have been solid in camp. Freshman Cam Little sparkled in at least one scrimmage. Punter Reid Bauer stepped to the front while top challenger Sam Loy missed time with an injury.
The return game should improve. Nickel back Greg Brooks asked for and then won the punt return job. He’s more than a center fielder, but has shown ability to field the ball anywhere it’s kicked. He has ability to make coverage miss and gain yardage, something the Hogs didn’t do last season.
On kickoff return, speedy LaDarrius Bishop has stepped up. He may be the team’s fastest man.
Both coaches wake up in the morning talking about physicality and winning the battle in the trenches. Rice coach Mike Bloomgren likes to refer to his approach as “bully ball.” Pittman doesn’t talk like that, but he probably doesn’t shy away from pointing to physicality before any practice.
If you want hit or you back down, you probably move to the back of the line on a Pittman team.
Who will win the hitting match? The guess is that it will be the Razorbacks, the SEC team. But it’s worth noting that these are not shy Owls.
Can the Hogs find some big plays if Treylon Burks doesn’t play? He has missed most of the last three weeks with a heel bruise. Even if he’s medically cleared to play, Pittman is reluctant to play anyone who hasn’t practiced.
That makes Burks highly questionable for the game. Are the Hogs ready with big-play replacements for one of the SEC’s ultimate big-play receivers?
Pittman thinks the Hogs will be fine either way. Trey Knox has had a solid camp. Tyson Morris has stepped up. De’Vion Warren seems to be 100% after knee surgery. John David White has sparkled in scrimmages.
It is interesting that the Hogs might be without two players who in the spring were expected to be starters. Mike Woods is at Oklahoma. He and Burks were both starters in the spring game.
Those who have covered practice have seen solid play from freshmen Bryce Stephens and Ketron Jackson.
This is where Arkansas seems to have improved the most. It’s the key to being able to call more blitzes. Odom has to feel like corners and nickel backs can play tight coverage to send blitzes, especially one or two of his three safeties.
Brooks and Trent Gordon are excellent nickel backs. Safety Malik Chavis can also slide to nickel and play like a corner.
But the key is the emergence of Bishop as the corner opposite Montaric Brown. Both are solid and among the team’s most improved players.
Backup corners Devin Bush and Hudson Clark are better than what the Hogs have started at corner in some recent years.
This is where the Hogs should really be improved. There are options almost everywhere in one of the deepest teams in the offensive and defensive front since the Houston Nutt days. There have been times the Hogs have been unable to field a backup offensive line in the last three seasons.
Tight end is probably the one position where depth is a concern. Blake Kern and Hudson Henry have missed significant time in camp, enough that running back Dominique Johnson worked some at tight end and quarterback Landon Rogers asked to move to the position.
There is good depth at running back, too. Trelon Smith sat out two weeks with turf toe, but is now full speed. He’s got help in true freshman Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, a 225-pounder who has learned to run inside behind his pads this camp after mostly taking the outside cut in the spring.
Josh Oglesby is another good option at running back. He’s a converted track man with speed to go the distance.
The depth at running back and improved play in the offensive line give Pittman confidence that there will be a running game.
In the first media briefing in August, Pittman was asked about offensive mindset. He does not want to rely on a slant pass to convert third-and-1 or make a yard on the goal line.
“We are going to turn and hand the ball off,” he said.
That’s all possible because of more depth everywhere on the team, the reason practices can be physical without a fear of losing a key man to injury.
It’s the final key to this week. Can the Hogs turn and hand the ball off on third-and-1 to move the chains?
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