History has already told us that the hiring of Dan Enos as offensive coordinator would mean a shaky beginning to this Arkansas football season. Heck, the hiring of any offensive coordinator who was running anything but Kendal Briles’ exact offense of the past three years would have struggled at Fayetteville; you’re seeing a similar situation at Alabama where the Tide is experiencing severe growing pains with new hire Tommy Rees from Notre Dame and trying to make something of ‘Bama’s odd mix of quarterbacks.
We saw it at Arkansas in 1997 when then-athletic director Frank Broyles ordered then coach Danny Ford to go against everything he knew and bring aboard Kay Stephenson and his “pro-style” offense — things went so badly early that Ford and the Hogs didn’t even know they had scored a touchdown in a 31-9 season-opening loss to hapless SMU. (By the way, that Stephenson offense didn’t totally catch on with quarterback Clint Stoerner and his veteran line and receivers until the last third of the ‘97 season, just in time to get Ford fired).
Gus Malzahn’s new hurry-up offense for Houston Nutt in 2006 had growing pains. Even Bobby Petrino calling his own offense in 2008 had a rough start with an install of a near-180-degree style from the Nutt approach. Same can be said for Bret Bielema and Jim Chaney with a completely different approach from the Petrino regime in 2013.
Remembering the First Dan Enos Tenure
When Dan Enos replaced Chaney as Bielema’s offensive coordinator in his third year at Fayetteville, the change was cheered by fans — and with a returning senior quarterback, a star runner in Alex Collins, a future pro tight end in Hunter Henry and the Sam Pittman-coached veteran offensive line, the switch was supposed to go seamlessly.
That idea imploded in Week 2, when Enos dialed up good plays between the 20s to run up 515 yards of offense, 412 of those through the air, but could manage just 12 points to Toledo’s 16.
The next week in Fayetteville, fifth-year senior Brandon Allen had a horrible night overall, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes nickel-and-dimed the Hogs to death and Arkansas fell 35-24. The Hogs and Red Raiders were tied at 21 at halftime, but Enos’ offense managed only a field goal in the last two quarters and were unable to keep up with Mahomes and Tech. Alex Collins, who had 175 yards rushing and had run all over Texas Tech the year before in Lubbock, was wasted in Enos’ desire for a balanced offense.
And, yes, after a disappointing start there were grumbles about this Enos offense, not to mention sudden questions about whether Robb Smith’s terrific defense of 2014 had been a fluke.
But that’s also when Enos fully established a different reputation: that of a quarterback guru.
Arkansas lost in Week 4 of that 2015 season, turned it around on a 24-20 win over Tennessee in Week 5 before mustering only 14 points at Alabama. Then, with a 54-46 win over Auburn in Week 7, the lid came off. The Razorbacks’ offense came alive with Allen’s almost All-SEC-level performance over the last half the season, leading the Hogs to seven wins in the last nine games and a third-place finish in the SEC West for one of the more pleasing 8-5 records ever. Even their one-point loss to Mississippi State burnished Enos’ credentials as Brandon Allen matched Dak Prescott punch-for-punch in a 51-50 shootout.
As Allen, Henry and Collins happily strolled off the Liberty Bowl field in Memphis and on to pro careers, one could sense an uneasy “we won’t see their likes again” feeling, though.
Deja Vu for Arkansas Football
For Dan Enos and Bret Bielema, indeed, it was never better than 2015. They would later appear to have no clue how to adjust offensively for a second half in some shocking losses, and the 2016-17 seasons both imploded at the end, leading to Bielema’s firing and Enos’ hiring by Nick Saban to coach his quarterbacks in 2018.
Notice Saban didn’t hire Enos as play-caller. Those quarterbacks, though, just happened to be Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Another amazing 2018 season for ‘Bama, ending with a stunning blowout loss to Clemson in the national title game, allowed Enos to sneak out from under Saban’s watchful eye to call plays again, this time at Miami; that didn’t end so well.
Maryland, a middle-of-the-pack interloper in the Big Ten, was his most recent stop, coaching another Tagovailoa (Taulia), until he and Sam Pittman connected all while Kendal Briles was going back and forth with other opportunities.
And now, after three Razorback games, you know what deja vu feels like.
What is common for Enos in both 2015 and now is having a fifth-year Arkansas senior quarterback, though this one’s a bit different than Allen — strong-armed yet not possessing all the throws Allen had, but with exceptional feet, and talents that have already provided some top-of-the-SEC peak moments.
The obvious differences: No returning receivers of note; another talented tight end who is two years behind the experience Hunter Henry had in 2015 and who hasn’t learned the intricacies of TE blocking (apparently neither have the veteran tight ends who also play); no Alex Collins. Not even a Raheim “Rocket” Sanders circa 2022, the second-leading rusher in the SEC.
Everything else has played out like 2015: inconsistent line play, inconsistent play calling, slow-developing running game, low-energy effort among the entire offense, a quarterback looking confused at times operating a new offense which so far isn’t geared to his strengths.
Can Enos Work His Magic Again?
To make 2023 play out the way 2015 did, Dan Enos and Sam Pittman will have to work magic at a much higher level than eight years ago. Enos turned Allen into a relaxed, polished and confident passer and team leader over the last nine games. Enos and Pittman got on the same page with an O-line playing in a dominant fashion by the finish. Henry not only had a stellar year to move up the NFL Draft lists, he came up with one of the most unbelievable plays in Arkansas football history: the Hunter Heave at Oxford.
By the last two-thirds of 2015, Dan Enos’ offense was geared to outscore all the opposition, and could, with the exception of Prescott and Mississippi State, who survived a botched Razorback field goal at the end.
This season, against BYU in Saturday night’s 38-31 loss, Enos’ offense managed 24 points, but only 7 in the second half. Offensive penalties up and down the offensive line made the already-tough mountain climb twice as hard. Arkansas put up 424 yards of offense (shades of the Toledo game; and 177 rushing, which was shades of Collins vs. Texas Tech in that 2015 loss at Razorback Stadium under the lights), but it was an inconsistent assembly and wrecked even more by quarterback sacks of KJ Jefferson.
Arkansas’ success up front in the past two years has been more a result of Jefferson’s running and big-play ability rather than any dominance by the O-linemen. Briles’ offensive line splits, devised by his dad years ago, played a part in that, too.
Now, Enos has altered the offense to limit Jefferson’s running — if you thought they were hiding it over the first two games to save it for BYU, you were sadly mistaken — and turned him into a pocket passer. His escapability of the past two years seems drastically reduced, some of it by Jefferson’s own slowing down from the quarterback we saw in 2021. His No. 1 accessory the past two years, running back Sanders, came back heavier and struggled against Western Carolina. He hurt his knee in that game, and hasn’t been back. (He’s had knee swelling and the timeline for his return is not yet known.)
Sanders’ backups are limited: Speedy AJ Green scored twice against BYU, though only used for nine carries, but is clearly ineffective as a pass blocker and won’t be playing during must-pass situations like Arkansas faced in the fourth quarter Saturday night; Rashod Dubinion is only slightly better as a pass protector and probably a better receiver though not as fast as Green, and through three games in his sophomore year doesn’t appear to have picked up the ability to follow blocks.
Dominique Johnson sometimes has flashes of his old self, the DJ before the consecutive serious knee surgeries he had in 2022; but more times he looks like a guy who hasn’t come back from those said operations.
Isaiah Augustave, a true freshman running back, was expected to play only enough to maintain a redshirt season because of all the talent ahead of him. If he’s as good as forecast by Florida prep scouts, he may be needed sooner rather than later; but, again, it takes a while for a young back to pick up the blocking part of his job, as we’ve seen with Sanders’ replacements.
That’s unfortunate considering Arkansas’ front five OL and assortment of tight ends often could not protect against even a four-man BYU rush.
The Challenge Enos Faces
All the aforementioned shortcomings seem ill-suited in total for a “pro-style” running and drop-back passing attack. Most of the receivers and tight end seem to have been recruited from the Island of Misfit Toys transfer portal. Of the better ones, Anthony Armstrong, from little Texas A&M Commerce, has been solid and had a quiet nine catches against BYU for 98 yards; Isaac TeSlaa, from renowned Division II Hillsdale College, has some of the best hands anyone’s seen at Razorback Stadium.
The question is, can he get open against high major competition — and what’s with running him in motion on the final play of the game Saturday night when Jefferson had to try for the end zone while under duress?
The rest of the wide and slot receivers don’t deserve a lot of mention so far. The Hogs’ top returnee at the position can’t seem to catch. The most talented receiver is freshman tight end with a wideout build in Luke Hasz. Frankly, Enos can’t dial up enough plays for him.
But why Dan Enos calls on a shotgun snap and a running back carrying over tackle on fourth-and-short seems stunningly absurd. Not only did it fail against Kent State when Pittman and Enos rolled dice from their 34 to start the second half up only 8 points, they called it again from the BYU 48, fourth-and-a-half-yard with a 10-point lead and apparently in control of the game again after losing 14-0 lead.
The first time, the Hogs’ kicking game botched the field position and the momentum as BYU ran off 21 straight points. After the Razorbacks rebounded, this choice near midfield, up 31-21, completely changed the game, whether Pittman during his postgame media time could figure that out or not.
We’re not sure what book Pittman is referencing with his analytics and “Samalytics,” but here are the coaching rules Pittman should be following:
- 1. The smartest coaches with faith in their defense punt it away and get the ball back with four downs on a short field; but nevertheless …
- 2. You run a quarterback sneak for a half-yard. You have your 6-foot-3, 247-pound quarterback dive over, with maybe two running backs behind him pushing — you know, the way the Philadelphia Eagles push Jalen Hurts over in short yardage.
- 3. But you do not run a slow-developing shotgun handoff to a running back and run over the tackle in fourth-and-a-half yard against a massed defense, especially with this O-line.
Sam Pittman asked for this, though. He sold the fan base, too, on how Dan Enos’ return would perfectly blend with what Pittman has built with Arkansas football in four years.
What’s Ahead for Arkansas Football
We’re still trying to figure out what Sam Pittman’s really built. While Pittman completely turned the program around in Year 2 with a fun and impressive 9-4 year culminating with a bowl win over blue blood Penn State, you shouldn’t be in Year 4 of your program looking for offensive tackles, then turning to second-year players who were average prep recruits to fill those spots. Then, he’s got a fifth-year senior team captain at guard who disintegrated before our eyes in a flag-filled performance of holding and procedure calls.
With Kendal Briles’ departure, Dan Enos was an easy hire for Pittman. Enos wanted out of Maryland, and the Arkansas football job was finally coming open after all of Briles’ after-season waffling and desire to be praised and compensated even more. Pittman chose the quick, comfortable hire.
For that matter, Cody Kennedy was an easy hire for Pittman three years ago, probably the easiest of any he’s made. Rather than seek out a veteran offensive line coach (who surely would want to work with one of the best college line coaches of his day in Pittman) to bring along the O-line, bring in some new ideas current to football, and let Pittman worry only about the team, the head coach made an easy hire when his first choice left for LSU after 2020.
You might look across the entire coaching staff and see what seems like easy hires, though we can say that had Pittman not brought in the defensive combo of Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson, imagine where Arkansas’ talent level would be today.
The talent still has to jell as a team on the defensive side. But really, what’s the most athletic area of the team today? Outside of Jefferson, and with Sanders sidelined, it doesn’t appear to be on offense. Yet wasn’t Pittman hired to address that side of the ball, and especially the road-graders up front, since that was his career calling card?
On top of a completely new install and what looks like an attempt to fit square pegs into round holes these first three games, some obvious talent issues have put the Enos Offense 2.0 on the spot as the Razorbacks head to LSU for a nationally televised Saturday night matchup.
Eight years ago, it took Arkansas’ offense seven games to really get cooking. To prevent things from going off the rails, Arkansas probably can’t afford for a similar timeline to play out this time around.
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…