Outside of a couple of trick plays that went awry against Georgia’s much-heralded, fast defense in Arkansas’ season opener, there’s been no reason for the Razorback faithful (while lauding the coaching job of UA defensive coordinator Barry Odom) to find fault in his offensive counterpart, Kendal Briles.
Still, some have.
Leave it to Razorback fans to praise or fault coaching above all else for Arkansas’ weekly football fortunes. Truth is, it’s both coaching and it’s talent, plus a lot more tangible and intangible factors, that come together either in positive ways — or with the disastrous results we’ve witnessed these past three years of watching Razorback football.
Plus, before we go too much farther in literally handing an honorary Broyles Award for college football’s best assistant coach to Barry Odom for what he’s managed in the 1-1 Razorback start, let’s note a couple of things: the humble Odom immediately cites the players for making all of his calls work, and Arkansas is getting some marvelous fundamental instruction on the defensive side not just from Odom, but from Rion Rhoades with the linebackers, Sam Carter with the defensive backs, and most especially from the work of Derrick LeBlanc with the defensive line.
Watch how the Hogs D-linemen use their hands now, and how low they get under gargantuan offensive linemen.
The players have clearly bought in to what Odom and those coaches were selling all the way back to pre-COVID days. Even without the 15 organized days of spring practice, their overall performance, the strategy to contain the opponent’s strengths, and the effort have been night-and-day different from anything we’ve seen out of Arkansas since Bret Bielema’s third season.
No longer will we beat up on John Chavis, Arkansas’ defensive coordinator of the previous two years, except to note that this week, University of Tennessee grad Chris Low, ESPN’s college football writer, took the time to profile Chavis, who’s now coaching voluntarily with former UT quarterback Jeff Francis and a Knoxville entrepreneur at a Knoxville middle school.
It was a typical “look how far the greats can fall” feature that mentions all the great players Chavis coached before obsolescence seemed to set in these last few years. For Razorback fans, all of Chavis’ most recent “greatest hits” (e.g. Jamal Adams, Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Eric Berry) weren’t close to recent enough.
The story did, however, fail to note that Chavis can volunteer his time since Arkansas is still paying him $1.2 million not to coach this defense.
Arkansas is also paying Chad Morris most of the $3.5 million or so he’s still making over the next four years, with Auburn keeping him as one of the lower-paid offensive coordinators in the SEC in the process. He’s so far giving Auburn its money’s worth in a poor start. And, of course, the UA still waits to find out what a court decides on whether it still owes Bret Bielema $7 million-plus of his salary for failing to do his job at Fayetteville and then working schemes to have the UA pay his NFL salary.
Hog fans are so sick of failure, and paying past coaches for failure. That’s why no one outside of the Arkansas fanbase can truly understand how much it meant to the Razorback faithful to see that 21-14 victory Saturday night in Starkville, Miss., over Mike Leach’s Mississippi State version of the “Air Raid.”
With better execution on offense, many Razorback fans surmised, they wouldn’t have had to sweat out those nerve-wracking last 5 minutes of a 7-point game. (We had to wonder, too, if Leach afterward was kicking himself for not taking field goals when given the chance earlier, and how the finish might have played out with Arkansas protecting a 1-point lead instead of 7-point advantage.)
But Kendal Briles and Arkansas, with two offensive difference-makers out before the second quarter with injury, were lucky to cobble together the offense it did. Wideout De’Vion Warren mostly shined all night, and was hardly remembered for letting a 30-yard throw bounce off his chest in the fourth quarter because he had snagged a 52-yard deep throw from Feleipe Franks in the first half, took in a 19-yard throw wide open for the Hogs’ first offensive touchdown, and more importantly, held on to a 11-yard pass with under 2 minutes left in the game to give Arkansas the chance to run out the clock.
Just moments later, junior receiver Mike Woods drew head coach Sam Pittman’s ire for drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty that, instead, would require the Hogs to give back the ball to the Bulldogs, though they faced a lot of green with barely any time to cover it. Still, Woods had snagged a major 20-yard catch in the third quarter in a scoring drive that pushed Arkansas to a 21-7 lead on the road.
Here’s a deep dive into how Kendal Briles gets his offense cooking:
Trelon Smith, the junior transfer running back from Arizona State, gamely filled in for senior Rakeem Boyd when the latter appeared to hurt his lower right leg in the first quarter. Smith rushed for 48 yards on 14 carries.
Redshirt freshman tight end Hudson Henry had what essentially was his coming out party with a 12-yard third-quarter touchdown reception and three more catches.
But otherwise, with both Boyd and Treylon Burks (Knee bruise, perhaps? No one officially said what his injury was) out for most of the game, Briles had little skill to work with in dialing up the right plays against an aggressive and experienced SEC defense, other some talented receivers and a very solid Franks, the Florida grad transfer, at quarterback.
Unlike his performance against mighty Georgia, Franks didn’t throw an interception, and never telegraphed any throws for the defense. Perhaps his one mistake was holding on too long on a run-pass read option with Warren, with Henry breaking open downfield, resulting in a tumultuous fumble deep in the Hogs’ end during the fourth quarter.
Odom’s charges turned back that threat and more. It’s been ages since a Razorback defense faced such demands on the road against an explosive foe and didn’t wilt. It was reminiscent of the defenses Arkansas used to display on the road in better days with Ken Hatfield and Lou Holtz as head coach. Maybe the most comparable recent performance was one in 2006 at Auburn, when the defense held the Tigers to 10 points while the offense took off with such difference-makers as Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. McFadden announced his arrival — as did then UA offensive coordinator and now Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn — to the nation that day against the No. 2 Tigers.
Sam Pittman and Kendal Briles haven’t had time to assemble the weapons they need for this ultra-modern style (for Arkansas) offense to click, getting to the point where tempo offsets other deficiencies. Any new offense requires a good 4-5 games, at least, of full implementation, and sometimes nothing begins to fully come together until the final month of the season.
So far, even when Boyd was healthy, the Hogs haven’t summoned much push up front and have little to show for their efforts in a running game, averaging just 2.2 yards per carry in two games (last in the country). It appears that most of the work with the line in this offseason’s overhaul has focused more on pass protection than run blocking.
There are good reasons for this lack of push, and the focus on passing over running at this point in the season. There is no real experience up front, save for senior left tackle Myron Cunningham, who arrived as a junior college transfer last year and could still stand for another year or two of SEC-level strength training.
Along with Cunningham, last Saturday night’s starting offensive line, playing every possible snap, had two redshirt freshman starters at guard, a sophomore who hasn’t redshirted yet now playing center for the first time, and a redshirt sophomore who hasn’t played in a year lining up at right tackle. They need much more seasoning than having no spring, six weeks of fall camp and two games can offer.
Which brings us back to that Georgia game.
There, the poorly executed trick plays – in particularly, a double reverse from the UA 14 that led to a safety and nearly could have been a fumble recovery for touchdown for the Bulldogs, and a reverse pass using Treylon Burks as the thrower to a well-covered Woods downfield with an attempt that should have never left his hand – were an admission by Pittman and Briles that they knew Georgia’s defense presented mostly an insurmountable task for their guys up front. Arkansas’ one touchdown in the 37-10 loss (after the Hogs led 7-5 at halftime) came on an improvised route by Burks and a scramble out of pressure by Franks, who looks better scrambling and throwing than he does in the pocket.
The best overall offensive march that day was Arkansas’ first drive of the second half that reached Georgia’s 3, but Franks failed to see Tyson Morris wide open on the left sideline before the Bulldogs’ pressure brought him down, resulting in a short field goal.
Offense requires precise timing pretty much across all 11 positions, gained through repetition and confidence. Defense requires being in the right place and effort. That’s why, when a new coach or coordinator takes over, defense often stands out the most at first.
How Kendal Briles schemes his run game:
Bobby Petrino needed half of his first Arkansas season, 2008, to get his offense in gear. Then, even into his third season, the Hogs’ running game needed a few outings to get rolling over his passing attack. Bielema, with Pittman coaching the o-line and Jim Chaney calling plays, started the UA offense over in 2013 with a totally opposite style from Petrino’s. Chad Morris inherited limitations throughout the lineup on both sides, though the defense — as shown by the most recent Hog graduates into the NFL like Kamren Curl and McTelvin Agim — wasn’t nearly as short on ability as the staff let on.
Rare is the first-year coach at Arkansas who inherits the kind of talent on both sides that Houston Nutt found in 1998 when his initial team exploded out of the blocks to an 8-0 start; the same could be said for Lou Holtz in 1977, who had the genius Monte Kiffin coordinating a tremendous defense while Holtz used all his skilled-position weapons, solid option quarterbacking from Ron Calgagni and a stout group of linemen to put up big numbers on the way to a glorious 11-1 season.
Usually, coaching changes happen because one side or both have seen talent levels drop precipitously. Arkansas is still in that position through two coaching changes with its linemen, and SEC quality depth is still shaky in the offensive skill spots. Bret Bielema built up the offensive line with Pittman, then let the quality dissipate drastically, while the defense was lacking in the kind of overall skill, strength and speed that separate pretenders from contenders when he was ushered out in 2017. Morris spent most of his time trying to run off anything Bielema had left him.
At least Morris earned some of that $16 million salary by signing the likes of defensive backs Jalen Catalon, Greg Brooks and Joe Foucha and defensive ends Mataio Soli and Eric Gregory from out of state. Those former blue-chippers were among the swarm of defense that brought down the Air Raid last Saturday. So, too, was Bielema signee Jonathan Marshall, benefiting from LeBlanc’s tutelage and dominating MSU’s center all night. Arkansas rarely if ever has played a rush-3 front with such effectiveness, at least in hurries and keeping an opponent’s run game under wraps, like it did Saturday night.
Also, when have former walk-on linebackers made such strides in performance in one year as we’ve seen from the indefatigable Grant Morgan and gutsy Hayden Henry? Morgan and tackling machine Bumper Pool combined for 35 stops at Starkville, and yet there were a few choice fans noting that Pool could have, should have, had maybe five more. All of a sudden, when a 20-straight-SEC-loss streak finally ends, some fans become greedy. “Pool should not miss those tackles, he could have had more than 20.”
Or, of course, “Briles should call better plays.”
No, the time has not come to break down Briles’ play-calling, not with what he’s faced with both his personnel and against the speedy, athletic, sizable opponents on the other side — and what he’ll face again on Saturday in Auburn. He spotted State’s weakness a couple of times in the passing game, and it put the deciding points on the board. Personally, I appreciate that he’s given a few offensive players the chance to succeed or fail in the first two games. He’ll move on to what works more consistently as the season progresses, even though the schedule will remain hellaciously hard.
And yes, Odom’s defense did the team a favor by scoring as well. They’ll probably need a few more of those, the same way a really good Georgia needed a pick-six plus a blocked punt to finally put Arkansas away in the opener.
The Razorback offense, for lack of a better description, is a work in progress. This work may take a while. When it arrives, when the experience up front kicks in and when more difference-makers take a spot on the roster in coming seasons, then Arkansas will have fully arrived again. They’ve managed to do that in fits and starts in the SEC over the past 22 years, when Houston Nutt showed that the Hogs could indeed compete with the top half of the conference, and when Bobby Petrino pushed the bar back to that level and beyond.
That time will come again.
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