The statistics support that Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles is an effective play caller.
The Hogs are ranked No. 6 in total offense in the 14-team SEC with 479 yards per game this fall and are No. 2 in rushing yards with 243.8 per game with the sensational Rocket Sanders leading the charge in the backfield. The Hogs are ninth in passing with 235.3 yards per game. That mark may be a little low considering Arkansas boasts veteran quarterback KJ Jefferson, but after losing the most dominant receiver in school history in Treylon Burks, a drop-off seemed likely.
All in all, before last week’s upset loss to Texas A&M, Arkansas had won three straight games and was No. 10 in the nation and Briles looked to be manning the controls well. However, after the loss Saturday night at AT&T Stadium, some questioned Briles’ play calling. In particular, a trio of plays designed to get the ball to Malik Hornsby, a speedy quarterback-turned-receiver, drew the ire of fans.
Arkansas led 14-0 in the second quarter and was driving on the A&M 38-yard line. That’s when Briles decided to force the issue with Hornsby. First it was a batted pass intended for the Texas native, then an end around which lost a yard and a fumbled reverse that Hornsby managed to get back to the line of scrimmage with.
The Hogs punted and A&M promptly answered with a touchdown. Jefferson fumbled on the next drive at the goal line, losing the ball while trying to jump into the end zone. The ball was retuned for a 97-yard score to tie the game.
The fumble and resulting scoop-and-score really swung the pendulum of momentum. Arkansas didn’t score again until around 10 minutes to go in the game. However, the turning point may have come on the drive before. Instead of sticking to what was working and punching in another score to go up 21-0, Briles tried to get cute with Hornsby. That gave A&M new life, and they were able to score for the first time. If Arkansas went up 21-0, it’s doubtful A&M would have had enough spark to come back.
Obviously, the fumble didn’t help and would have capped a solidly executed drive to put the Hogs back up by two TDs before the half.
It is troubling that after those two disappointing drives, Arkansas’s offense was null and void for a good portion of the rest of the game.
Reflecting on the Malik Hornsby Conundrum
As I re-watched the game and scanned social media and listened to talk radio this week, a couple of things stood out. First, Hornsby’s name came up a lot. It seems like Briles can’t figure out how to work him in the offense. I’ve never been an offensive coordinator, but giving it to him three consecutive times doesn’t seem to be the answer.
The guy is a QB, so let him play the position. He was very effective running the ball against A&M last year and in the Outback Bowl win against Penn State. Have a package of plays that he can run for a few series or in the middle of a drive. Like many of these Wildcat formations, keep Jefferson in the game. The possibilities are limitless.
It definitely appears Hornsby is more comfortable under center. That makes sense because he has been a signal caller since high school. If Briles really wants the ball in his hands so badly, snap it to him. His speed is lethal, and Arkansas needs to figure out a way to use him. The plays they ran with him don’t need to be scrapped, but the timing needs to be better. A play like that needs an element of surprise and needs to be flawlessly executed. Maybe more work needs to be done in practice?
Briles may also want to peek at what Kansas City Chiefs head coach did with Tyreek Hill. I am in no way implying that Hornsby is Hill or Jefferson is Patrick Mahomes, but Reid was masterful in working the duo together and calling plays that creatively used both players. One of the more innovative plays was the little shovel pass from Mahomes to Hill that is also used on occasion with star tight end Travis Kelce.
If Arkansas is going to use Hornsby at receiver, Briles needs to be more innovative and calculated and make sure the entire offense is prepared to run the play. Jefferson and Hornsby are both talented, and are capable of things that allow for the playbook to be wide open.
The other take that stood out to me in a sea of opinions and rants this week was what I head from legendary Fayetteville TV personality Mike Irwin. The venerable anchor made some good points about the matter on his ‘Ask Mike’ segment, including if Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman should be more involved. He said Pittman’s ability to oversee play calling is the one box that Pittman, a longtime offensive line coach, hasn’t definitively checked since he’s been hired as a head coach.
Irwin’s point was that some head coaches such as Missouri State’s Bobby Petrino may not be calling plays, but they are managing the process. Irwin said the verdict may still be out on if Pittman has the ability to do that or not.
Looking Ahead to Arkansas vs Alabama
My assumption is Pittman isn’t the micromanager type. But I imagine there was a conversation either at halftime or this week about not being too predictable with Hornsby. Briles has shown he is capable on his own, and I don’t think Pittman ever needs to interrupt the flow of the game, but definitely discussing how to use different players is an issue that needs input from him. I am confident he can add good insight and don’t buy into a notion that just because he coached the offensive line doesn’t mean he lacks some good offensive philosophy takes that could help Briles mold his game plan.
The Hogs don’t have it easy this week as they try to rebound offensively with No. 2 Alabama coming to town Saturday afternoon, and if Arkansas isn’t in sync, it could be a long day. However, regardless of what happened in the A&M loss, Arkansas has a good football team and Pittman is a good coach with a good staff. Make no mistake, this is the best chance Arkansas has had to upset the Crimson Tide in a long time.
Their chances will go up if Briles can call a solid game that includes a few wrinkles, Hornsby can get in the flow and if the execution is there.
Mike Irwin on Sam Pittman
In the video below, Irwin wonders about the details of how Pittman oversees of offensive play calling during a game. “What is he doing behind the scenes with these type issues? Is he just fine? Did he feel like they lost the [Texas A&M] game because of mistakes? Or does he agree that some of the play calling was strange? I don’t know.”
“The only time I’ve ever heard him make a comment was at halftime of the bowl game last year. He came back out and made some remark about, ‘We got to start giving the ball to… KJ Jefferson, we can run the ball.’ He didn’t say, “I told Kendal Briles that,” but he implied it. So that’s one time where you’re kind of giving direction to your offensive coordinator/play caller and telling him, ‘This is what you better do.'”
“So how much of that does he do? Is he passive? Is he just sitting back and saying, ‘Well, okay, I guess that’s all right. I think he’s good?’ I don’t know. I can’t answer that question, but that’s the one question mark I have about Sam Pittman as a head coach right now.”
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