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. Texas A&M
The large video screen shows the Arkansas and Texas A&M logos before an NCAA college football game at AT&T Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
The phone rang earlier in the week as I was closing in on the lead topic for this piece. It said “Floyd Sagely” on the phone.
Sadly, a woman was speaking. I knew it couldn’t be good.
His phone calls had become less frequent and there were always explanations about poor health that might keep him from hearing me speak on the Razorbacks in Fort Smith.
That was sort of the point of those calls, but my great friend still wanted to discuss the Razorbacks. He had both questions for me, but there were also encouraging words for fans.
“Stay tough behind the Razorbacks,” Sagely said. “Things will turn. They always do for our Razorbacks.”
There would also be encouragement personally. Oh, how he loved to read about the Razorbacks. Those talks confirmed everything I’d ever heard from Frank Broyles and my late father, Orville Henry, that Sagely was a smart and great man.
Of course, Sagely wasn’t on that call this week. He passed away Tuesday at 89. As everyone has noted this week, the Hogs lost one of their greatest Razorbacks.
Sagely was a great two-way player, an end and back lettering from 1951-53. He was All-Southwest Conference in ‘53, leading the league with 30 receptions and also leading the Hogs with three interceptions. He is probably the last UA athlete to start in football and basketball three straight years (when freshmen were not eligible). He’s on the UA all-decade team.
The next section comes from a recent interview on what he hoped the Hogs were about to become. Sagely phoned or wrote anytime there was a new coach. He usually could see something positive, even with the hire of Chad Morris, although there were reservations. He liked the Morris play calling, but worried about his decision to take bulk off of linemen. That seemed counterproductive.
What he wanted was better use of all players in a system that incorporated deception in play calling. He thought he’d seen that while watching Morris coach at Clemson. Deception produced the most anguish when Sagely, a great defensive back, played in the NFL.
“What got me most was deception,” Sagely said. “You do something that makes me hold my spot for a split second, it became much tougher to play defense. Just make that defensive player pause and you have the advantage. All it takes is a split second.
“You go power against power up front, the defensive lineman has the advantage. The offensive line has the advantage when a little deception is added. One instant is all it takes to get an angle for the block.”
The Morris philosophy was to drop some weight in the offseason in favor of more speed and agility. Sagely applauded.
“I played two sports, football and basketball (at Arkansas),” he said. “Basketball is running. Then, we had football offseason, then basketball offseason. There was six weeks of the year I wasn’t running. That’s the secret, the running.
“I don’t know what the (NCAA) rules are now, but what I’d do is have my football team compete in basketball during the winter. I think it would solve the conditioning. It did for me. I think the players would like it, too. It was my biggest asset. I did that for four years.”
Interestingly, Sagely bailed on that concept as the losses piled up for Morris. The hiring of Sam Pittman and the switch to bigger linemen on both sides of the ball was applauded by Sagely. Win in the trenches is what Sagely said.
The last call I got from Sagely was last spring. It came after I wrote a piece about progress under Pittman over winter conditioning, something Sagely never had to face because he was always on the basketball team.
“We’ve struggled for a long time, but I think our problems are about over,” he said. “This looks like a good coach and someone the players will play hard behind. There are lots of ways to get a team to follow you but this coach can do that. They will fight for him.”
Oh, my will I miss these type discussions. I’m sure Sagely had the same type visits during his many days spent with Broyles. They were the closest of confidants. They often played golf together and discussed common problems within their respective businesses. If there was a big decision to make, Broyles always called Sagely. Sagely was also close to my father.
One of my great honors was to play my first round of golf at the Arkansas State Golf Association Stroke Play in Hot Springs with Sagely in my pairing. I’m sure that my dad and Monk Wade, then the ASGA Executive Director, had something to do with that pairing.
“You are going to enjoy your day with Floyd, as long as you don’t try to out-hit him,” my father said as I left for Hot Springs. “He’s long, one of our state’s greatest athletes. His drives will be 50 to 75 yards ahead of you. You can’t out-hit Floyd Sagely.”
So that’s where will start with the keys to victory as the Ho. 16 Hogs face the No. 7 Aggies in a game Floyd Sagely was excited about. The starting point is on hitting.
Hitting in golf and hitting in football mean two different things, but they are similar in that it’s about raw power, especially at the line of scrimmage.
The team that brings “the wood” so to speak generally brings home the victory. We remembered the references to bringing the wood after Darren McFadden spoke at the Little Rock Touchdown Club this week.
This will likely be a physical hitting match. Making sure his team will hit has been the major focus of Pittman since he was named coach in December 2019. The No. 1 problem with the Morris team was that they had worked on speed and conditioning to the point they were too light. They may have wanted to be physical and hit, but they were not built to do that against an SEC team, or hardly anyone else.
There was a big segment on Pittman’s weekly radio show that featured the physicality — or hitting aspect — of this game.
“I think that’s going to be the tale of the game, to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “Who can whip who?
“You’re going to lose a few battles on both sides of the ball, but it’s going to be about who can sustain it for 60 minutes, and who can make a play when you’ve got to make a play. I like how our guys have played all year, so I don’t know why we would be concerned about that Saturday.”
Texas A&M offensive line
My tendency is to make this the No. 1 key every week. I’m old school.
But I was pleasantly surprised when sportswriter Travis Brown at The Eagle in Bryan, Texas, echoed my thoughts in a phone conversation this week.
“It’s oversimplification, but this game will come down to the offensive line,” Brown said.
The only returning starter for the Aggies is right tackle Kenyon Green. The 6-4, 325-pound junior was probably A&M’s best player on a great offensive line last year, but played guard.
Green wanted to try to tackle, a spot that goes higher in the draft and commands a bigger contract.
But injuries had complicated that scenario. Right guard Layden Robinson has been injured and to Green’s dismay, he’s been moved back to guard.
That leaves Blake Trainor at right tackle. He’s been average there.
The Aggies have been less-than average at center where highly regarded Luke Matthews has battled with injuries for the first three weeks. His status has been upgraded to questionable this week, meaning true freshman Bryce Foster might start, but Matthews could play.
The Aggies are still answering questions with the offensive line. As Georgia’s O-line coach, Pittman coveted almost every A&M lineman in the two deep. So he knows it’s only a matter of time until that group puts it together.
The pass protection has only been so-so and top running back Isaiah Spiller has complained about the details being off in the run game. That’s something just short of pointing figures at his O-line.
Defenses that have shown much movement up front with some creativity in the pass rush has given this Aggie line severe trouble.
That sounds like something the Arkansas defense can easily do.
Arkansas offensive line
Versatility seems to be the key word this week with center Ricky Stromberg (knee) and Dalton Wagner (back) missing practice after sustaining injuries last week.
Pittman said the Hogs are planning to play without either one.
The plan will be the same as the way the Hogs played most of the second half against Georgia Southern. Ty Clary will play center, Luke Jones left guard and Brady Latham right tackle. Clary also played right tackle in the game.
Don’t be surprised if Stromberg and Wagner play. They’ve battled through similar injuries in camp and made quick recoveries.
That group — along with left tackle Myron Cunningham — has drawn much praise for helping the running game average 282.3 yards, fourth in the SEC and eighth nationally. Texas A&M runs for 187.4 yards per game.
What happened last year does not determine 2021, but it’s a good lesson on what the Hogs needed to do to improve their chances.
It helps that the Aggies lost four starters in the offensive line. What the Aggies did best was protect quarterback Kellen Mond, graduated finally, for four quarters. He was never touched and wasn’t close to being sacked. He was 21 of 26 for 260 yards with no interceptions.
Mond converted 7 of 11 third downs, usually with passes to tight end Jalen Wydermyer. He caught six for 92 yards. Usually, Wydermyer was open because the Hogs were playing run or overextended with blitz pressure.
That huge and agile offensive line did commit some holding penalties, as called by referee Marc Curles, but it was mostly dominance both in the passing game and the run that allowed the Aggies to score two touchdowns in each of the first three quarters to build a 42-17 lead.
It was a physical whipping by the Aggies. Oh, there were some bright spots, like the way quarterback Feleipe Franks competed with 91 rushing yards (minus four sacks). Treylon Burks caught seven passes for 117 yards.
It was a strange game in that there were no turnovers by either team. That’s partly to do with how well the Aggies protected Mond.
It’s one of the most improved areas of this Arkansas team. New assistant coach Kenny Guiton has made that a point of emphasis and it’s shown up on game day. Warren Thompson, Tyson Morris, Ketron Jackson and Burks have all been credited with key blocks on touchdown runs.
The Hogs have 11 rushing touchdowns in three games. That’s one fewer than last year’s total in 10 games. And the 2019 Hogs rushed for just 14 TDs in 12 games.
Those wide receiver blocks enhance the ability for backs and receivers to take the ball to the house on long TD jaunts.
“A good blocker has to be a willing blocker,” Pittman said. “He has to want to do that to begin with. Coach Guiton has done a nice job and the kids have done a nice job, because they understand it’s a huge part of the game.”
Outside blocking was key to the Razorbacks’ longest play against Georgia Southern, a 91-yard touchdown reception by Treylon Burks, who caught the ball at the line of scrimmage. Pittman said tight end Blake Kern and receiver Tyson Morris made the key blocks to spring Burks.
Pittman said the offense’s best play this year was the result of blocking receivers — a 30-yard touchdown run by Raheim “Rocket” Sanders during the win over Texas.
“Tyson Morris made the block,” Pittman said, “and when Rocket went by him you would have thought (Morris) scored the touchdown because of how excited he was. That’s when you’ve got the team.”
Aggies defensive line
This should be the best unit on the field. The Aggies return starters Tyree Johnson, DeMarvin Leal and Jayden Peevy. End Michael Clemons (6-5, 270) is a highly regarded graduate student at the fourth spot.
But it’s strange in that the Hogs rushed for 222 yards on 42 tries last year. The Aggies are giving up 162 yards per game this year, much of it on quarterback runs. This lack of clamp-down defense against the run is a mystery.
There have been chunk plays at times, something the Aggies didn’t give up much last year.
So this bodes well for the rebuilt Arkansas offensive line. Perhaps it can split some holes for the bevy of fine runners the Hogs will rotate.
Arkansas defensive line
This is a strength for the Hogs, although perhaps not as highly regarded as the A&M D-line. What this group seems to have for the first time is depth, even after losing Dorian Gerald in August practices.
Nose tackle John Ridgeway may have some fun against the freshman center for the Aggies. Surely, the rotation of Ridgeway, Isaiah Nichols and Taurean Carter has given the Hogs great play at that position.
It’s not clear if the Hogs will play with a three- or four-man front against the Aggies. The personal guess is that it will be multiple with a heavy lean to a four-man front. That will likely put Nichols into the starting lineup and will mean Carter gets more snaps.
The key will be pass pressure from the outside with defensive end Tre Williams and Zach Williams. Both have the speed the Hogs have lacked on their outside rush, but there is depth behind them with Mataio Soli and Jashaud Stewart. Markell Utsey and Eric Gregory are solid at the other tackle slot in a four-man front.
The matchup with the A&M offensive line was a big win for the Aggies last year. This might flip this season with the Hogs holding an edge. It’s the big part of Pittman’s plan to end the nine-game losing streak to the Aggies.
Mond was nearly perfect last year, but he had unbelievable support. His pass protection was a thing of beauty.
Conversely, Franks was often running for his life. Big sacks were a huge part of the game.
How Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson and Texas A&M’s Zach Calzada handle the blitzes will go a long way in determining the game.
Jefferson throws well on the move. Calzada is more comfortable staying in the pocket.
Both quarterbacks have thrown for four touchdowns with two interceptions.
The wild card in this comparison is Jefferson’s ability to make big plays on called runs. He’s got 180 yards on 24 runs. This could be the difference in the game and open up the Arkansas running game.
There has been a sense that the Aggies have not been up for the Arkansas game in the recent meetings, perhaps because they did not feel threatened. Arkansas has generally put a lot of energy into this game.
The Hogs were not excited to play against Rice or Georgia Southern, but still won easily. They were emotional and enthusiastic against Texas. There is little doubt the Hogs will have their stinger back for this game. They know A&M has won the last nine games.
Pittman said there cannot be a rivalry when one team dominates the series. It would seem the Hogs are intent on making this a rivalry again.
The Hogs have been up and down with special teams. They were solid last week against Georgia Southern. Texas A&M is experienced and solid in the kicking game. Seth Small is one of the SEC’s most experienced placekickers. He has made 54 of 70 career field goal attempts.
The Hogs have developed a weapon in kickoff man Vito Calvaruso. Almost all of his kickoffs have been deep in the end zones and unable to be returned. That’s a good thing this week. The Aggies have top kickoff return specialists in Jalen Preston and Devon Achane.
Punt return specialist Ainias Smith is a threat. He’s fought through injuries, but should be full speed for the Hogs.
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