Year two of the Chad Morris era is just around the corner. Year one of the Chad Morris era was a disaster. Anything and everything that could have gone wrong, did. 2018 was a culmination of a lot of unfortunate events happening at the same time. The Colorado State collapse, the North Texas catastrophe, and the Ole Miss break down. All of which played a part in the worst season in program history. The good news is, there is no where to go but up for these young Razorbacks.
Last year, Arkansas struggled with the two most important positions on the field, offensive line and quarterback. Coach Morris recognized that issue, and went out to recruit two junior college linemen to play for the Hogs in Chibueze Nwanna and Myron Cunningham. The staff also looked toward the transfer portal to reel in two upgrades at quarterback: Ben Hicks (SMU) and Nick Starkel (Texas A&M). Those two gunslingers will provide experience and leadership at the position, something Arkansas did not have in 2018. Landing Kelly Bryant would have been a slam dunk, but the combination of Hicks/Starkel is undeniably better than Kelley/Storey.
The offensive line will be better, no doubt. But how much better is the question. The depth is not as much as a concern this year as it was last season. Position coach Dustin Fry has a difficult task in figuring out the five guys that work best up front. The first of two major injuries in fall camp was OL Noah Gatlin, a red-shirt freshman from Jonesboro that was expected to battle for a starting job, who went down with a torn ACL that will force him to miss all of 2019.
The receiving core will look completely different from last year. Jared Cornelius (graduated), La’Michael Pettway (transfer to Iowa State), and Jonathan Nance (transfer to Missouri), are out. A quartet of four-star pass-catchers are in, Treylon Burks, T.Q. Jackson, Trey Knox, and Shamar Nash. Two adjectives to describe this group would be big and fast. Physically, these dudes look the part in the SEC. The second of major injuries coming in fall camp was receiver Deon Stewart. The Arkansas native also went down with a torn ACL. Stewart was expected to be in the starting group this season.
The Razorbacks three leading rushers all return for another year in Fayetteville. Rakeem Boyd, Devwah Whaley, and Chase Hayden will also benefit from improved play at the other offensive position groups. A better passing game will allow the defenses to play back in coverage instead of stacking the box as we saw last season. A better offensive line gives the tailbacks more holes to run through. Another name to keep an eye on is T.J. Hammonds. He is a shifty runner with great hands out of the backfield. All four guys should see their rushing totals increase from last year.
The tight end group is poised for a breakout season. C.J. O’Grady is the leader of the group and will be playing on Sundays in 2020. Chase Harrell has picked up just north of 30 pounds and looks like an action figure, according to Coach Morris. The new guy in the room is Hudson Henry, brother of current Charger and former Razorback great Hunter Henry.
Regarding the quarterback position, the Head Hog has kept his mouth shut about which player has the edge. The battle is down to Starkel and Hicks, yet John Stephens Jones has received some praise as well. I believe the former Aggie will lead the Hogs out of the “A” for the opening game against Portland State. While Hicks has a better grip on the system and has a great relationship with the coaches, Starkel seems to be more of a leader and has played in this league before. Nick’s arm is a bit more electric and he loves to throw the deep ball, something Arkansas will be able to utilize with a crop of speedy receivers.
Defensively, John Chavis’ group is led by McTelvin Agim and De’Jon “Scoota” Harris. The unit as a whole has a lot of area to improve in 2019 after a woeful season that saw them give up 34.8 points per game, good for 13th in the conference and 108th in the nation. Across the board, a lot of shoes will need to be filled. Only five starters return from last year. Jalen Catalon, Greg Brooks, and Mataio Soli are all true freshman that could see a lot of playing time in 2019.
Behind “Scoota”, the linebackers that will see the most action are Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan, brother of former Hog Drew Morgan. After that, depth and experience become a major issue. Hayden Henry and D’Vone McClure are a couple more names to keep in mind.
Agim is moving back to his natural position, defensive tackle, where he will most likely play at the next level. Alongside him is T.J. Smith, Dorian Gerald, and Gabe Richardson. This group MUST improve if the Hogs have any chance of the postseason. With the secondary being young, getting pressure on the quarterback can alleviate some blown assignments in the back end. The D-Line is the strength of the defense. Proven pass rushers with a sprinkle of exciting true freshman should lead to a solid year for the big guys up front.
The secondary returns a whopping zero interceptions from 2018. Arkansas is the only team in the SEC that can say such a thing. Kamren Curl, who was just named to the Preseason Coaches All-SEC third team, will be the leader of the defensive backs. True freshman Devin Bush and Catalon will play huge roles, including sophomores Joseph Foucha and Jarques McClellion. Honestly, this group worries me the most on the roster. I can see the secondary being a strength in 2020, but there will be a few bumps along the way.
Time for the moment we have all been waiting for…
I have Arkansas going 5-7 (1-7). The ceiling for this team is six wins, with the floor being four. There is no absolutely no possible way the Hogs will lose to Portland State, Colorado State, San Jose State, or Western Kentucky. All are at home too, so no worries there. Anything outside of the four to six-win range is highly unlikely and extremely unrealistic.
The offensive line is a massive concern. They are going to struggle this year. The quality of opposing defensive lines Arkansas has to face on a week to week basis is really challenging, and I am not sure if Arkansas has SEC caliber lineman to compete.
Defensively, the lack of depth at linebacker and the young secondary scare me the most. If “Scoota” gets hurt, who is going to step up and be the leader for the linebackers? We all know college football is turning into a pass happy league. Entering a season with no members of the roster with an interception is a huge area of concern. Too many question marks for me to be confident about a bowl game in December/January.
On a glass half-full note, a three-win improvement paired with a conference win is nothing to be disappointed about. This keeps the program on the right track for 2020. A five-win year shows recruits that Coach Morris has improved and the stuff he is saying during visits is holding true. The roster turnover CM has dealt with is unheard of. Expecting a four or more win jump from last year is asking a lot. With all of that being said, every position group on offense is better, and the defense should be better being more familiar with the schemes and terminologies. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was Fayetteville.
Predicting which conference opponent the Hogs will beat is tough. Ole Miss, Kentucky, Mississippi State, and Missouri are all more than capable of falling at the hands of the Razorbacks. Let’s break down each conference game in chronological order.
The Ole Miss game in week two is as close to a coin flip as you can get. This one will be a shootout even though both teams are breaking in a new quarterback. Arkansas has a lot of new toys to experiment with. It may take a few weeks before Coach Morris can get this team into a groove. With this one being in Oxford, I’ll give the advantage to the Rebs in this one.
Ole Miss 37 Hogs 31
The A&M game in week five is another intriguing match up. Bobby Petrino was on the sidelines the last time… You know the rest. Kellen Mond is the signal caller for the Aggies for the third consecutive year. This is a game that I will predict A&M to win every time until Arkansas can prove they can seal the deal and get over the hump.
Texas A&M 31 Hogs 21
The Kentucky game in week seven begins a stretch of four conference games in four weeks for the Razorbacks. Both teams are coming off a bye week as well. Many football experts see a significant drop off in the win column for the Cats. While asking for ten wins is a bit much, they will firmly be in the postseason. With a dual threat quarterback returning in Terry Wilson and a salty defense, I expect a good year for Big Blue Nation. This game will be competitive and low scoring. I just can’t see a 2018 ten-loss team knocking off a 2018 ten-win team on the road.
Kentucky 24 Hogs 17
The Auburn game in week eight has not been a friendly foe for Arkansas. The past three years, the Tigers have lit up the scoreboard and rammed it down the Razorbacks throats. 979 yards on the ground to be exact, which is good for 326.3 per game. Auburn will be breaking in true freshman Bo Nix this year, as he was just announced to be the starter week one against Oregon. By the time October 19th rolls around, Nix won’t be playing like a true freshman. The Auburn defensive line is arguably the best in the conference, and maybe in the nation.
Auburn 34 Hogs 13
The Alabama game in week nine could be a bloodbath. Nick Saban hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down anytime soon. The Crimson Tide’s starters will have their helmets off by the fourth quarter.
Alabama 52 Hogs 13
The Mississippi State game in week ten has “upset” written all over it. After watching Arkansas get drummed in Tuscaloosa, the Bulldogs will be looking to sleep walk through the Razorbacks and into their bye week. With the exception of last year, the Hogs and Dogs tend to play fairly competitive football games. No Nick Fitzgerald, no Jeffery Simmons, no Montez Sweat, no Jonathan Abram, you get the point. Losing their stud quarterback and three defensive first round picks to the NFL Draft is going to take a toll on “Stark Vegas”. Coach Morris finally gets that elusive first conference win of his tenure on the natural grass of Razorback Stadium.
Hogs 28 Mississippi State 24
The Louisiana State game in week thirteen just got more exciting. Coming off a refreshing bye week, Arkansas is on a two-game win streak. But most importantly, a bowl game is just out of reach for Razorback nation. Unfortunately, LSU is still LSU, and some believe to be a dark horse playoff contender. Baton Rouge will come alive and send the Razorbacks back to Northwest Arkansas with their sixth loss.
Louisiana State 30 Hogs 16
The Missouri game in week fourteen will be the best environment experienced by Chad Morris in his time as the Razorbacks head coach. War Memorial Stadium was oddly electric last year, and imagine that environment this time around. Kelly Bryant makes his return to Arkansas. Barry Odom and the Tigers got hit with a bowl ban in January, meaning the 2019 edition of the Battle Line “Rivalry” will be the Tigers bowl game. It only makes sense for Kelly Bryant to direct a game winning drive for the Mizzou offense and steal a win, and a bowl game, from Arkansas’ fingertips in the final minutes. It only makes sense for this game to play out that way, right?
Missouri 35 Hogs 30