Previews 2018: Arkansas, Auburn and LSU

Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Chad Morris addresses the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 17, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Razorbacks head coach addresses the media during football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas Razorbacks

Projected record: 3-9 (CSU, AU, TAM, UA, OM, VU, , MSU, UM); 0-8 and 7th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 6 (LT, LG, RG, RT, TE, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (RDE, NT, DT, MLB, WLB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings

QB: Fr DL: Av
RB: Fr LB: Av
WR: Fr DB: Fr
OL: Fr ST: Av

Overview: This isn’t Bret Bielema’s Arkansas anymore, and for a couple of years at least, it’s not going to be fun to be Chad Morris. A roster built for a smash-and-thrash offense and opportunistic defense is now being forced to change modes. The offense will go to the spread, while the defense will be retooled into a typical John Chavis linebacker-driven scheme, in this case perhaps featuring a guy named Bumper Pool. It’s going to be a rough year.

Offensive breakdown: Imagine being a fullback who signed onto one of the last programs in FBS to use the position, and then Chad Morris shows up. Players like Kendrick Jackson and Hayden Johnson will be relegated to spot duty in this one-back (sometimes no-back) spread attack that makes Bob Petrino’s former Arkansas offenses look staid by comparison. The running back group, though, does have the potential to be the strength of the offense, as Devwah Whaley, Chase Hayden and T.J. Hammonds all put up decent-to-good numbers last year despite problems along the offensive line. They’ll need a similar performance this year, because the line isn’t getting any better.

With Frank Ragnow gone out of the middle of the offensive line, the only real upper-tier SEC player left is left guard Hjalte Froholdt. Seniors Johnny Gibson and Brian Wallace return on the right side, and Dylan Hays will be Ragnow’s successor at center. The big issue is left tackle, as Colton Jackson is going to miss at least half the season with a back injury, which puts one of two freshmen, Dalton Wagner or Shane Clenin, into the starting lineup there. Arkansas’ line underachieved badly in 2017 and may well have been the reason Bielema eventually got let go. With depth at a premium, and the line transitioning from maulers to finesse blockers, expect growing pains.

The receiver corps could end up being in OK shape. Despite not technically being returning starters, Jonathan Nance, Deon Stewart and Jordan Jones all return, and they led the stat sheet for the team last year. La’Michael Pettway and De’Vion Warren jumped ahead of Jones and Stewart in spring, which should bode well for depth. Freshman Michael Woods is also in the mix and has turned some heads in practice. Senior Jared Cornelius seems like he’s been here since the Reagan administration. One thing Arkansas does have an overabundance of is good tight ends. Cheyenne O’Grady is a proven option as a pass-catcher, and Jeremy Patton and Austin Cantrell are battling him for the starting job. And then there’s Trey Purifoy, who is basketball-tall and could wind up being a red zone specialist.

The real question is who’s running this show. Cole Kelley started about half the games last year and despite being a physical freak at 6’7”, 265, didn’t look like much of a passer. He was also stone-stoic in the pocket and was too frequently a target for hungry defensive ends. Ty Storey, a junior who is much more mobile, is neck-and-neck with Kelley for the job and might be a better fit for what Morris wants to run. Daulton Hyatt and a pair of true freshmen, Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones, round out what is a fairly stout depth chart. Noland, who was probably Arkansas’ top recruit, already has fans clamoring to see him play.

Defensive/ST breakdown: John Chavis has been around the league long enough to have seen everything – but also, to have is tendencies mapped by opponents. As he does everywhere he goes, Chavis will convert Arkansas to a pure 4-3 defense that relies heavily on the linebackers to make the scheme work. In that regard, he’s got a decent group to work with, with good experience in the middle (De’Jon Harris) and weakside (Dre Greenlaw). Grant Morgan leads Dee Walker for the open strongside slot. Alexy Jean-Baptiste offers depth, along with Arkansas’ top defensive recruit, the humorously-named Bumper Pool. The question here for all is whether they can execute Chavis’ coverage schemes on midrange throws, with a secondary concern over general size. Aside from Harris in the middle, Arkansas is lacking a lot of oomph.

Up front, Arkansas returns enough experience to be solid. T.J. Smith and McTelvin Agim hold down the middle, while Randy Ramsey returns at weakside end. Gabe Richardson and JUCO transfer Dorian Gerald will compete for the other end slot, although Arkansas is a better team when Agim isn’t playing inside. If Agim moves back to end, it will probably shift Ramsey, and allow Briston Guidry or Jonathan Marshall to take the other tackle slot.

The secondary needs help. Ryan Pulley moves up from a nickel role to be the bellcow at cornerback, but he needs more consistency, as well as to show he’s fully recovered from a pectoral injury. Consistency is also a concern for returning safeties Santos Ramirez and Kamren Curl, the latter of which mostly ran at corner last year. Chevin Calloway came out of spring the other starter at corner, but a pair of tall upperclassmen, junior Britto Tutt and senior Nate Dalton, are competing there. Freshman Montaric Brown appears to be the third safety.

The kicking situation ought to be in good hands, as Connor Limpert was more or less automatic in 2017. Punter Blake Johnson, though, needs to turn it up a notch after a season that saw him average less than 39 yards per kick. The return game will revolve around Jared Cornelius, who is dangerous in that role. The coverage teams badly need an infusion of talent and speed, as Arkansas struggled at times there.

Overall Trend: Down. There’s no guarantee Morris’ brand of football is going to go over in Fayetteville, and the Morris hire wasn’t really seen as a catch-the-world-on-fire move to begin with anyway. Morris was 14-22 in three years at SMU, which points to where the Arkansas program is at the moment. The lack of any explosive playmakers on either side of the ball is a significant concern, and then there are general concerns over depth and quality of athletes. It’s easy to say things will get worse and then better, but only one half of that statement is something to bet on at the moment.

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