Optimism, anxiety clash as Razorback football season approaches

Arkansas coach Chad Morris at SEC Media Days / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

With the start of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ preseason camp practically upon us, I have an optimistic feeling about the 2019 team.

I don’t know why, exactly.

It’s probably just the little 10-year-old fan in me who thinks the Razorbacks are great just because they are the Razorbacks and they’re my team.

That wide-eyed optimism allows you to ignore facts, logic, recent history, and all that analytical stuff the “experts” rely on so much today and just embrace the Hogs because they’re your team, and you’re bound and determined to enjoy this football season no matter what anyone says.

That’s the optimism that every new season brings. Old-time Razorbackers know that some of Arkansas’ most enjoyable if not best seasons have come when the media picks them low. So being picked last in the SEC is just a reason for the Hogs go out and prove them wrong. Playing with a chip on their shoulders might be just what the Razorbacks need.

Maybe this will be one of those years where the stars align, the team stays healthy, the breaks fall our way, the player leadership is strong, and the Hogs are hungry, opportunistic, and disciplined.

Maybe this is the season where the Razorbacks rise up and surprise one of those teams that are more competitive on the field than they appear to be on paper?

It could happen. It does every year in the college game to one team or another. This could be the Razorbacks’ year.

Arkansas senior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady was named to the 2019 John Mackey Award Preseason Watch List / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

If we listen to the experts, about the best fans can expect from the Razorbacks this season is average.

Unfortunately after last year, average would be a pretty large leap for the Hogs. The Chad Morris era of Razorback football started with a 2-10 thud.

Should the Razorbacks go 6-6 this season, play competitively against the bully boys of the SEC while working themselves into the bowl picture, Morris would likely find some support for SEC Coach of the Year. He wouldn’t get the vote with a 6-6 record, but his name would be rightly thrown out there.

It’s no fun just being average in the SEC, but it would be a solid move forward from last season when it was almost painful to watch the Razorbacks struggle to play the game.

If it wasn’t the first season under a new coach, the program could have aptly been described as being in disarray. The squad was clearly unprepared for the first third of the season. How else can loses to Colorado State and North Texas be explained?

The second third of the season the Hogs were overwhelmed by the talent and depth of the SEC and the toll it takes to play in such a physical and violent league week after week.

When the Razorbacks lost the Ole Miss game, 37-33, in the rain at War Memorial Stadium without the services of starting quarterback Ty Storey and their top two running backs Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley, it was the final kick that kept them down.

Though the Hogs did muster the fight to defeat hapless Tulsa, 23-0, and kept the game close against LSU, falling 24-17. That loss to Ole Miss all but strangled the life out of the season.

The Razorbacks barely showed up for the final two road games, a 52-6 loss at Mississippi State and a 38-0 loss to Missouri.

However, judging from the attitude displayed by Arkansas’ coaching staff Monday at a media golfing event, last season was buried long ago. I urge all Hog fans to seek out the interviews of Arkansas’ assistant coaches on YouTube or another online source. They are worth watching.

Arkansas senior defensive lineman T.J. Smith was named to the 2019 Wuerffel Trophy Watch List / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

You’ll see a collection of confident coaches who are eager and optimistic about the opportunity that awaits them and their players this season.

After last year, they all know how nightmarish the SEC can be for an ill-equipped and unprepared football team, but they are ready to put a more polished, competent, and competitive product on the field.

While most if not all the players have been on campus all summer, they officially report on Thursday, and the first practice will be held Friday evening.

Saturday is Media Day, which is somewhat of a waste because there is nothing Morris, his assistants, or the players can say about the team one day into practice that can’t be said right now. In the past when Media Day was held a week or so into practice, it was a more informative event.

For at least the first week of preseason drills, the Razorbacks will practice Monday through Saturday with Sunday off. August 7 will be the first day of full pads and Aug. 10 will be a major scrimmage. Practices and the scrimmage are closed to the public. The media will be allowed to watch the first 20 minutes of practice, but the scrimmage is closed to the media, too.

If that type of setup is maintained through fall camp, the Hogs will remain a mostly unknown quantity until the season kicks off on Aug. 31 against Portland State.

As astute and knowledgeable as members of the local media are, not a great deal can be gleaned from watching 20 minutes of practice. You can check the roster to make sure who is and isn’t practicing, check on position changes, and get a clue of the player pecking order, but that’s about it.

Don’t get me wrong, that 20 minutes is important to the media and by virtue to fans, but it isn’t going to show them much in terms of who is ahead in the battle for starting quarterback or left tackle.

It doesn’t tell you who is fighting through adversity or which players are as effective late in practice as they are early.

You don’t see the dropped passes or who has the best hands. Which players struggle to get separation or which ones can’t play press coverage.

You don’t know who fumbles or what kind of closing speed defenders have. That’s not information a coach is going to volunteer in a press conference.

Last year, the media did not know how bad the Razorbacks were until it became evident in the second and third weeks of the season in the losses to Colorado State and North Texas.

This year one hopes we will all be surprised by how much the Razorbacks have improved when we finally get to see them play.

I’m definitely excited and eager, but also a bit anxious.