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Chad Morris’ first Arkansas offense should be fun and prolific. Now, about that defense ...

The Hogs have a chance at a bowl run. But let’s just say both sides of the scoreboard will be active.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Arkansas
Chad Morris
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

[The text of this preview has been updated with late-offseason injury news.]

Having an identity — defining how you plan on winning — can mean so much for a coach. You recruit to it, teach it, and waver from it as little as possible.

Maybe your identity is based on staying on the tactical cutting edge, like an Oklahoma State or a Clemson. Maybe it’s based on the triple option (Georgia Tech), the air raid (Washington State), or a smart-as-hell defense with an offense that gets out of its way (whichever team Will Muschamp is coaching).

But it only matters so much which identity you choose — what matters is that you can coach it.

Bret Bielema had an identity at Arkansas. His program was going to win by being meatier than the other team. He even had proof of concept, an example from late in his second season (2014), when the Razorbacks physically dominated LSU and Ole Miss, beating them a combined 47-0, then destroying Texas in the Texas Bowl.

In those wins, Arkansas allowed just 56 snaps and 11 possessions per game and controlled the ball for an average of 35:42. Their tailbacks averaged 39 carries. They created manageable third downs and leveraged opponents out of them.

Despite a series of close losses and a 7-6 record, the Hogs finished eighth in S&P+. They boasted two 1,100-yard rushers and a defense that created havoc and prevented big plays. The former Wisconsin head coach had needed just two years to establish a Wisconsin-like identity in the SEC West.

Bielema’s problem ended up being that he couldn’t maintain that identity. The SEC West comes with minimal margin for error, so a little slippage goes a long way. But over his final three seasons, his Hogs couldn’t maintain their image.

  • In 2015, the offense peaked, rising from 22nd to fourth in Off. S&P+. The defense faltered, falling from seventh to 65th in Def. S&P+.
  • In 2016, their run game fell to 102nd in rushing success rate and failed to get the most out of a solid passing game. The offense fell to 39th, and the defense couldn’t make up the difference (64th).
  • In 2017, the run game bounced back, but the passing game was inefficient. And the defense fell off the map (112th).

The Razorbacks’ point differential tells the story: plus-165 in 2014, plus-111 in 2015, minus-10 in 2016, minus-89 in 2017. In 2014, an 0-4 record in one-possession games prevented Arkansas from something amazing. By 2017, they needed a pair of tight wins (one a comeback win over Coastal Carolina) to avoid 2-10.

So it’s time to start over with a new identity. We don’t know that Morris’ will work, but we know he’s got one, in some ways the direct opposite of the last one. Instead of being bigger than your opponent, it’s time to be faster.

“We want [tempo] to be a lifestyle, how you live your life,” Morris said. “The decisions you make affect so many people. It’s a brand. That’s the biggest thing we want our guys to understand. This is far more than just a saying.”

Everything about Morris’ SMU was based on tempo and speed. Everything featured the #PonyUpTempo hashtag. The Mustangs were going to operate at, at worst, an above-average tempo. They were going to create space and force you to make one-on-one tackles. They were going to pass a lot. They were going to try to wear you out before their own defense did.

Now it’s #HammerDown. He tweeted it a couple dozen times in July.

The identity worked. He inherited a 1-11 team from June Jones, and after a 2-10 Year Zero, he won five games, then seven. (The next good defense he has will be his first, but maybe that would have come along, had he stayed for more than three years.)

Morris’ identity is probably even stronger than Bielema’s. And if he can teach it, he’ll do well in Fayetteville.

Offense

2017 Arkansas offensive radar

The transition from meaty to speedy might not be as awkward as one would guess.

To be sure, the offensive footprint is going to change drastically.

Arkansas’ identity vs. SMU’s

Category (FBS rank in parentheses) 2017 Arkansas 2017 SMU
Category (FBS rank in parentheses) 2017 Arkansas 2017 SMU
Standard downs run rate 67.1% (27th) 55.5% (84th)
Passing downs run rate 26.0% (113th) 21.9% (125th)
Adjusted pace +2.1 seconds/play (108th) -1.5 seconds/play (32nd)
% of solo tackles generated 69.9% (98th) 85.4% (third)

Arkansas played at a plodding pace, created as many gang tackles as possible, and tried to establish the run on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer). SMU basically did the opposite.

Passing downs are a tell, though. The Hogs gave up on identity and chucked the ball in obvious-pass situations ... and they were pretty good at it. They ranked 12th in Passing Downs S&P+, giving up quite a few sacks but catching back up to the chains quite a bit.

This was especially true for Cole Kelley, 2017’s backup who saw the field when senior starter Austin Allen was hurt. He completed 16 of 31 passes with a 129.9 passer rating on third-and-7 or more. Adjust for opponent (45 percent of his passes came against Alabama and Auburn), and that’s awfully impressive.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Louisiana State
Cole Kelley
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The massive Kelley, who’s listed at 6’7, 258 pounds, got an extended audition last year. He and 2016 backup Ty Storey, a four-star small-school Arkansas product, will continue to fight it out. Morris is also bringing in three true freshmen to join the battle.

Whoever wins gets every receiver back, and then some. Last year’s leading WRs (Deon Stewart, Jonathan Nance, and Jordan Jones) return, as do the top three tight ends (Cheyenne O’Grady, Jeremy Patton, and Austin Cantrell) and a pair of wildcards in 2016 big-play threat Jared Cornelius (who missed last year with injury) and Kansas transfer Chase Harrell.

Nance, Cornelius, and Jones are major big-play threats, and Nance led the receiving corps in marginal efficiency.

Throw in some speedy young sophomores (Jarrod Barnes and De’Vion Warren), a career reserve who had a nice spring (La’Michael Pettway), and a couple of highly regarded freshmen (redshirt Kolian Jackson and true freshman Michael Woods), and you’ve got one of the league’s best receiving corps. You think Morris and coordinator Joe Craddock IV (Morris’ OC at SMU) might know how to utilize such a thing?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas
Jared Cornelius (1)
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Bielema left Morris a couple of interesting QBs, a loaded receiving corps, and both of last year’s starting tackles (Brian Wallace and Colton Jackson, plus senior guard/tackle Johnny Gibson Jr.). Injuries are already a problem on the line, though: Jackson’s out for about the first half of the season, among a couple of longer-term injuries that will hurt depth.

Gibson and All-SEC guard Hjalte Froholdt (who average 6’5, 330) are back to man the interior line, and two of last year’s three primary backs (Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden) return. But the big run plays were minimal, and despite the girthy reputation, the Hogs were bad in short-yardage situations (91st in power success rate).

The line really was a contradiction of sorts. Frank Ragnow was an All-American, and Froholdt was well-regarded, too, but Arkansas’ worst stats last year were the line-based ones — not only power success, but also stuff rate (67th) and Adj. Sack Rate (89th). The Hogs return a solid 76 career starts up front, but can the line improve and adapt to different splits and responsibilities?

Defense

2017 Arkansas defensive radar

I’m going to assume that Morris and Craddock figure things out offensively.

But between Arkansas’ recent defensive collapse and Morris’ record on that side of the ball (his three SMU defenses ranked 119th, 91st, and 119th in Def. S&P+), one should assume it’s going to take a while there.

Morris made a very SEC hire in bringing aboard coordinator John Chavis, a South Carolina native and Tennessee grad who has spent the last 23 seasons as DC at Tennessee (14 years), LSU (six), and Texas A&M (three). In that time, he has produced 10 top-10 (per Def. S&P+) defenses and 19 top-30s. But he struggled to maintain traction at A&M, falling from 27th to 36th to 71st.

A No. 71 ranking would represent massive improvement in Fayetteville.

2017 Arkansas defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Here’s a list of things the Arkansas defense was decent at in 2017:

  • They rushed the passer well on passing downs (36th in PD sack rate).
  • The linebackers made some plays (54th in LB havoc rate).
  • They weren’t terrible on first downs (61st in 1st Down S&P+).
  • They didn’t give up massive runs (66th in Rushing IsoPPP).

For everything else, the Hogs ranked somewhere between bad and awful. They were dead last in FBS in power success rate and second-to-last in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). They may not have given up huge runs, but you could gain five yards on them any time you wanted (114th in rushing success rate). And if they didn’t sack your QB on passing downs, you were converting (118th in passing downs success rate).

Arkansas headed into 2017 with a rebuilt line — former blue-chipper McTelvin Agim was the only of the line’s top six tacklers returning — and it showed.

At least inexperience won’t be an issue this time. Of the 10 front-seven players who made at least 10 tackles last year, eight are back, including those who made the most havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles): Agim (12.5 havoc plays), end Randy Ramsey (10.5), and inside linebacker De’Jon Harris (10.5).

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas
Randy Ramsey (10)
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t know much about the depth because there weren’t many injuries — the 10 players referenced above missed a combined one game, and beyond these 10, only three other front-seven defenders made even three tackles).

Injuries did rough up the secondary, as starting cornerback Ryan Pulley (15 passes defensed in 2016) was lost for the season with a pectoral injury in the second quarter of the first game. That, combined with struggles and experimentation, led to nine DBs (including two freshmen) making at least eight tackles each.

Pulley’s return will help to ease the loss of Henre’ Toliver (11 PDs), and senior safety Santos Ramirez (14 havoc plays, most on the team) will give the Hogs a couple of play-makers in the back.

Still, even with experience, this unit has so much to prove. It’s hard to fall from seventh to 112th in Def. S&P+ in just three years, and it’s even harder to move back up, especially when your offense is moving at mach speed.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas
Santos Ramirez
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

In De’Vion Warren, Arkansas boasts a serious weapon. He averaged 26.4 yards per kick return, with a touchdown, and the Razorbacks ranked a solid 33rd in kick return efficiency. Unfortunately, you don’t really want your kick returner carrying too much of a load because you don’t want opponents kicking off too much.

The return of both Warren and place-kicker Connor Limpert (8-for-9 on FGs) is a plus no matter what, though. Punter Blake Johnson (108th in punt efficiency) could stand to improve, but hey, that’s only an issue if you have to punt, right?

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Eastern Illinois NR 36.0 98%
8-Sep at Colorado State 95 7.2 66%
15-Sep North Texas 86 9.9 72%
22-Sep at Auburn 5 -21.2 11%
29-Sep vs. Texas A&M 24 -7.3 34%
6-Oct Alabama 2 -20.7 12%
13-Oct Ole Miss 25 -4.7 39%
20-Oct Tulsa 108 15.4 81%
27-Oct Vanderbilt 75 7.2 66%
10-Nov LSU 16 -7.8 33%
17-Nov at Mississippi State 14 -14.5 20%
24-Nov at Missouri 30 -7.7 33%
Projected S&P+ Rk 52
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 27 / 89
Projected wins 5.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.9 (31)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 41 / 32
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -0.1
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (76%, 66%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.7 (-0.7)

Despite a culture change, it’s not hard to see Arkansas quickly improving offensively. The defense might be hopeless, but S&P+ projections (which ignore coaching changes and look only at recent performance, recent recruiting, and returning production) give the Hogs a chance at fielding a top-30 offense and a nearly top-50 team overall.

That creates a narrow path to six wins and a bowl. The Hogs are projected favorites in five games and are one-possession underdogs in four more.

Avoid an early stumble against Colorado State on the road and North Texas at home — easier said than done, if the offense is only in second or third gear — and Arkansas will carry bowl hopes into November. Considering how far the Hogs fell last year (and had been falling for a while), that should be considered a resounding success.

Even if this year ends up a struggle, Morris needed a year to get situated at SMU, too. And only his offensive line and maybe the secondary are particularly senior-heavy this year. I’m not sure what the ceiling is — eight wins? 10? more? — but I’m confident in Morris’ ability to get close to it soon.

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