Note: There are a lot of important decisions that will be made in the next two or three weeks that could ultimately decide if we have a season and how that season plays out. We will continue our preview series until the SEC officially alters/cancels the season and the preview series will continue until updated and completed.
Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
As bad as last year was for the Missouri football team, at least we weren’t Arkansas.
Chad Morris was a good hire in my eyes, as well as most of the national college football media, as he brought in a Hurry-Up-No-Huddle (HUNH) offense to a state that produced a lot of speed in their high school ranks. But Morris was in the fraternity of coaching hires that were the first batch to get hit with early signing day and he was ill-prepared to salvage his first class, leaving barely any guys who were able to contribute last year.
On top of that, he wasn’t the best war time general. His staff was made up of really good recruiters but awful tacticians and developers of talent. Arkansas Fight has an excellent piece on all the numerous ways Morris and his staff failed, but the gist is that he valued his scheme over the skills his players had, coached way too conservatively, and had no idea how to perform at a P5 level, let alone in the SEC. After two years, four wins, 0-fer in the SEC and 2-4 against G5 teams, Morris was shown the door.
Here’s what Arkansas did in 2019:
I’m….I’m so sorry, Arkansas fans. No one deserves that kind of year.
But hey, big new shiny coach is here! Let’s learn more about him!
Sam Pittman – 1st Year – 0-0 (0-0)
It’s hard not to root for Sam Pittman.
A career offensive line coach, the dude has worked his way through high school, community college, D-II, and G5 ranks to get to where he is right now. He’s never coordinated an offense (outside of one year in high school), but has held many “assistant/associate head coach” titles in his long career. He had a brief stint as Missouri’s o-line coach in 2000 before going off to work at Northern Illinois, then North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and finally Georgia before becoming Arkansas’ head man. At his press conference he was willing to show a lot of emotion as he talked about his journey and how he never thought he’d get the opportunity to be a head coach of a football team. He’s a little goofy and loves to post selfie videos on Twitter but he seems to be just a genuine dude that the players absolutely love. He’s also assembled quite the staff, bringing in big names as coordinators and young up-and-coming coaches that are solid recruiters to fill out his positional coaching staff.
Kendal Briles – Offensive Coordinator: I’m not going to mince words here: Briles is a real piece of crap. He got his start with his father, Art Briles, at Baylor in 2008. Baylor then started making a meteoric rise as the Briles clan improved the Bears’ recruiting efforts and became a warp speed offense capable of dropping 50 points on any team. However, that rise was not only powered by an insistence to sign talented players who had a history of sexual assault, but a football staff that was active in protecting their players from any repercussions for the multiple accusations of gang rape and sexual assault. Briles the Elder was fired while Briles the Younger remained defiant in the face of public outcry, openly supporting his father – even to this day – and maintaining that he, his father, and the staff did nothing wrong. Kendal was never directly implicated in the coverup but he was accused in a federal lawsuit of using the lure of relationships with white women to recruit black players, specifically stating, “Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at BAYLOR and they LOVE football players”. He has subsequently settled a lot of lawsuits out of court and has yet to take any blame for the disgusting culture he and his father help facilitate on the Baylor campus.
So not a character guy, is what I’m saying. But he keeps getting jobs because he can make college athletes score a lot of points on the football field.
While Briles did field some elite offenses at Baylor – 3rd in 2015 and 27th in 2016 – the demons in his reputation have caused him to be a bit of a rolling stone, featuring three one-year stints at three different schools: FAU in 2017 (Offensive Rank: 30th), Houston in 2018 (20th), and Florida State last year (49th). If history holds, he’ll have an immediate, positive impact on the Arkansas offense, and if he sticks around, he should develop them into a scary points-machine going forward.
Here’s hoping he also doesn’t install fear into the student population as well.
Barry Odom – Defensive Coordinator: Never heard of him.
Scott Fountain – Special Teams Coordinator
Jimmy Smith – Running Backs
Justin Stepp – Wide Receivers
Jon Cooper – Tight Ends: Cooper was an offensive analyst under Josh Heupel for the most pointsy of the Odom offenses of 2016-2017 campaigns. He followed Heupel to UCF where he was the tight ends coach for 2018-2019, and is now a P5 position coach. Great for Jon!
Brad Davis – Offensive Line: Davis was last seen managing a Missouri offensive line that forgot how to do offensive line things in 2019. I still really don’t understand why they started falling apart last year, especially after that same group did so well in 2018. But I’m assuming Davis knows what he’s doing and will do great things for the Razorback line.
Derrick LeBlanc – Defensive Line
Rion Rhoades – Linebackers
Sam Carter – Cornerbacks
Kenji Jackson & Michael Scherer – Defensive Quality Control: I usually don’t dive into the support staff, but for obvious reasons, these two stood out. Jackson was a disruptive safety on the 2010-2011 Missouri teams while Michael Scherer was the starting middle linebacker and defensive captain for Barry Odom’s first Missouri team. I’m glad these two are getting opportunities to develop their coaching careers. Sucks it has to be at Arkansas!
What positive things can you say about the 105th best offense in the country? Well…um…their line was good at getting their running backs 5 yards (45th)! And down right excellent at avoiding sacks (25th)! And they were also oddly good at passing down situations (39th). But with the 80th-ranked rushing attack, 111th-ranked passing attack, and just an abhorrent display of football competency on standard downs (119th!) there was just no hope for the Razorback offense. A massive upgrade in coordinator and a talent infusion at quarterback – paired with 63% of 2019’s production returning – might be enough to pull them to respectability.
Quarterback – Feleipe Franks – Redshirt Senior
Feleipe Franks was on track to have an awesome year last year. Yes, he threw a few too many interceptions in those games, but he had improved his completion percentage by a whopping 20% and his yards per attempt was a monstrous 9.3. If that held through the year, that would have been second in the country behind Joe Burrow’s 9.7. Unfortunately Franks dislocated and fractured his ankle against Tennessee and was lost for the year. Seeing that Kyle Trask was going to be the guy going forward, and knowing that Arkansas was in desperate need for a competent quarterback to pair with Kendal Briles’ offensive wizardry, Franks made the jump from Gainesville to Fayetteville for his last season in the college ranks.
The bar to clear is absurdly low: no 2019 Arkansas quarterback had a completion rate better than 53% or threw more touchdowns than interceptions, so just by showing up Franks has improved the quarterback room by light years. He’ll be the presumed starter and mentor for last year’s third-stringer K.J. Jefferson and incoming freshman Malik Hornsby.
Running Back – Rakeem Boyd – Senior
Arkansas fans got an early Christmas present last year when Boyd said he’d come back to play in 2020 thanks to the Briles hire. And, truthfully, Boyd was a lone bright spot for the Hawgs: 42.9% success rate, 52.2% opportunity rate, and 6.35 highlight yards were all the best on the team by quite a bit. He also chipped in 19 catches on 26 targets for a decent 160 yards. He’ll be joined by two senior backs who combined for 104 yards on 20 carries. They’ll be looking towards redshirt freshman A’Montae Spivey and incoming freshman – and former Mizzou target – Dominique Johnson to buoy the running back stable going forward. If Boyd gets hurt or is ineffective, though, there’s not many proven commodities that can step up.
Wide Receiver – Mike Woods – Junior
Why was Arkansas’ passing attack so bad? Certainly the quarterback shuffling didn’t help. But, if you asked me, when the top six receiving targets include two running backs AND the top three targets were two freshmen and a sophomore, that tells me everything I need to know about the quality of the passing game. Mike Woods, the aforementioned sophomore, was the top target earner and had 4 of the Hawgs’ 14 receiving touchdowns, but had a terrible 53% catch rate with a 40% success rate which – unfortunately – was the best of the receivers. When your #1 receiver catches essentially half the balls thrown his way and only gets the necessary yards 40% of the time, the passing game is pretty useless. Chad Morris did Sam Pittman a favor by redshirting half of the blue-chip receivers from the 2019 class, plus they’ll get a crop of some super tall receivers from the 2020 class, but the receiving corps needs a lot more reliability to become a consistent threat. They’ll be hoping that throwing youth at the problem last year solves some of those problems this year.
Yes, Arkansas’ defense ranked 88th in SP+, but hey, at least it wasn’t 105th like the offense! And unlike that Hawgs offense, the defense was simply just not good at most things instead of being really good at three things and terrible at everything else. The Razorbacks D was admittedly pretty good at ruining success rates of opposing offenses (29th) and stuffing the run (37th) but had no ability to stop the pass (95th) and let teams move the ball on any down they wanted. They do return 68% of last year’s production – good for 52nd in the country – but lose their top two play makers in the front seven. Barry Odom only fields awesome defenses (when he’s a coordinator, ahem) but he’ll have his work cut out for him here.
Defensive Line – Mataio Soli – Sophomore
Of the 20.5 sacks committed by the Razorbacks defense last year, players responsible for 11.5 of those return. The defensive line accounted for 15.5 of the team’s sacks specifically, but returning linemen accounted for only 1 of those sacks. So! Lots of room for rapid improvement here! Soli was a blue-chip recruit thrown into the fire early and did fairly well from his end position: 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 2 run stuffs as a true freshman in the SEC is more or less expected. There are 18 defensive linemen on the roster currently and 12 are underclassmen, 8 of which are some type of freshman. The experience isn’t there and the quality certainly isn’t 100% blue-chip caliber, but it’s a great base to start building out a core depth chart.
Linebacker – Bumper Pool – Junior
The boy called Bumper was the leading returning tackler for the Hawgs, tallying 66 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, and 12 run stuffs to go with 5 passes broken up. Only four linebackers really saw significant playing time last year, which might speak to some shaky depth. With wrecking ball De’Jon Harris gone, they’ll need someone to step up run with Pool down to down. They bring in three linebacking recruits from the 2020 class to pair with redshirt freshman blue-chipper Zack Zimos so there should be at least a few guys that Odom likes and leans on heavily. But as with most of this roster, it’s full of youth and unproven guys so there are plenty of opportunities for any guy who can step up.
Defensive Back – Joe Foucha – Junior
Foucha did a little bit of everything last year: volume tackler (64.5, second leading returning tackler), havoc-creater (6 on the year), pass-disrupter (4 passes defensed and an interception). Here’s the insane thing to me— Arkansas played 10 defensive backs and all but two were upperclassman, both juniors. Of the remaining group, four were sophomores and four were freshmen. So, a.) no wonder they were so bad at defending the pass, and b.) in three years, the defensive secondary could only lose two guys. That’s a ridiculous amount of continuity and means that the secondary could be awesome…in 2021. As for this year, we’ll see how much of the issues were youth-related instead of talent-related. If it is a talent issue, then blue-chipper Myles Slusher can jump in and contribute immediately.
So what does it all mean?
Yeah…at this point we know this is definitely not going to be their schedule, but it’s all we have for right now so…roll with it. It’s a shame we miss out on Arkansas fans making the trek to northern Indiana to watch their Razorbacks get smashed by Notre Dame.
The last thing a rebuilding team needs is a schedule filled with 10 SEC opponents. I mean, just ask us! But especially when the majority of them will be SEC West teams, it’s going to be a rough year for Arkansas. But that’s ok! Every coach in the country should get a free pass for this year (for on-field performance, at least) since it’s going to be so (unfortunately) unique and filled with challenges that we will hopefully never have to see again. So, maybe, this might be the best type of environment for a young, untested team to go through: no expectations, maximum high level practice!
Feleipe Franks will be the best quarterback in Fayetteville since…man, I guess since Ryan Mallett in 2010. They have an excellent running back to build around and super young receivers who got some experience last year. The defense loses key guys in the first two levels but returns a lot of experienced youth in the secondary. It’s hard for them to be worse, so you can easily assume they’ll be better. However, with a new staff and full slate of SEC West teams, any improvement will hardly be noticed in the win column.
For Missouri, this is a peer team in a similar situation; if Drinkwitz wants to show proof of concept, this is the type of game he should win. Show us that, in a toss up game against a similar quality opponent in a similar situation that your scheme and coaching and planning and program are better every time. It’s one of the few games on the schedule that I feel confident Drink can win…but Arkansas is saying the exact same thing about us. Sports!