Improved attitude among Hogs breeds hope for improvement

Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis

A closed scrimmage last Saturday left the media and fans parsing post-practice comments from Arkansas head coach Chad Morris and his top two assistants in an attempt to figure out just where the Razorbacks stand at this juncture of preseason camp.

The overall what was said sounded good, but Morris’ answers were fairly general, and his offensive coordinator Joe Craddock and his defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis weren’t dealing in too many specifics either.

Morris did say that starting quarterback candidates Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel each threw two touchdown passes and that Starkel had an interception, but he added there was no movement in the battle for the starting job. Very little was said about bell-cow running backs Devwah Whaley and Rakeem Boyd, either.

Third-team quarterback John Stephen Jones and transfer running back Trelon Smith, who has to sit out this season, got more pub than the ones who are actually going to be a factor on Saturdays this season.

The overwhelming sentiment, though, is that this Razorback team bears little to no resemblance to last year’s 2-10 squad other than the Hogs on their helmet.

Morris doesn’t even like to address questions about last year. When the 2018 season comes up with the media, Morris politely tells the inquisitor that he and the team have moved forward and are well beyond grieving over last year.

I like that attitude. It is a new season, and there is no benefit carrying around the weight of last year’s failures. It’s over and done, and only has meaning for this Razorback team if the staff and players allow it. That is the proper, positive attitude for the Razorbacks moving forward.

How much better are the Razorbacks today than a year ago?

Maybe, Chavis told us the most when he stopped just short of labeling it a “night and day” difference.

Morris also said the Razorbacks worked with about 30 percent of his offensive playbook last season, but that the Hogs were at 65 to 75 percent at this point. That’s good information.

It doesn’t give us a win total for season. Nothing can do that, but it should make Razorback fans more hopeful.

However, it’s going to take more positive vibes than that to get Arkansas fans over the hump and back on the bandwagon. It takes a lot of mental discipline for fans to let go of a season like last year and several others in recent memory.

Having seen nothing of this team other than a few out-of-context clips on YouTube and the news, the ghosts of last season still haunt some of us.

It’s hard to shake how poorly the Hogs played and how ill-prepared they were in the early losses to Colorado State and North Texas. I do remember some progress during the middle portion of the season, but ultimately the squad could never get it together. To use a favored word of Morris’ and his offensive assistants, the Hogs had no consistency.

It appeared the Razorbacks might take a step forward early against Ole Miss, but when the Rebels drove nearly the entire length of the field for a late, game-winning touchdown in a 37-33 victory at War Memorial Stadium, it sucked most of the life out of the season.

The SEC Network actually replayed that game last Sunday. Rewatching parts of it confirmed my belief that if any one of Whaley, Boyd or Ty Storey — all who were injured in the game — could have played until the end, the Hogs would have won.

But, there was no such luck for the Razorbacks.

Yeah, the Hogs beat Tulsa and played a disinterested LSU squad within a touchdown, but blowout losses to Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Missouri were brutal, a true low ebb for the Razorback football program, which according to a recent internet article still ranks as the 19th-best college football program in history, despite the futility of recent years.

At the moment, Hog fans are sitting on the fence hoping for something good to happen this year. And by good, I mean a six-win regular season, which is the very definition of mediocrity.

Tell someone you expect the Razorbacks to win seven or eight games, and they would think you are either stupid, crazy, or God forbid, a homer.

Hog fans are too downhearted to have any faith in their team going into this season.

That’s how disenfranchised and disappointed a great many Razorback fans are today. Less than three weeks until the Aug. 31 kickoff against Portland State, and many won’t even dare to dream of — not a great season — but just a good one. They are afraid to aim that high because they’ve been disappointed too many times since Bobby Petrino drove the program into a ditch, figuratively and literally.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Opening practice for media or the fans isn’t going to do it, although it would allow for the public to gain some gauge on the progress of the team.

While I’m sure many fans will enjoy the carnival-type atmosphere the UA is attempting to create with the HogTown Street Festival, that’s not the answer. Neither is beer sales. Amenities are never the answer to fan apathy — although another parking deck or two, closer to the stadium would be nice.

The answer, of course, is winning. Winning is the cure-all. Nothing replaces it.

Anything that helps winning on the field should be promoted. Anything that doesn’t is window dressing that doesn’t matter.

While I understand attendance is taking a dip across the board in college football even with the most successful programs, if the Razorbacks make a bowl game this season, ticket sales will ignite next year.

Better yet watch how Hog fans respond if the Razorbacks beat Ole Miss at Oxford on the second playing date of the season. Tickets for the home SEC games will dry up fast.

Arkansas fans are just waiting for a true positive sign to invest again in this program with their hearts and their wallets.

In looking back over what the coaches said following the scrimmage, maybe, the most telling tidbit was when Morris said that defensive tackle McTelvin “Sosa” Agim and linebacker De’Jon “Scoota” Harris were disruptive when they were scrimmaging.

The two seniors are proven, high-level SEC performers. They are the types of players who would get playing time at every school in the SEC.

It’s good to hear that we can expect them to be effective once again in SEC play, but knowing that they make that much of a difference — disruptive is a strong word in football terms — makes me wonder about the level of play of the rest of the defense.

It also leads to questions about the offensive front, which is going to have to deal with defenders like Sosa and Scoota on down-by-down basis this fall.

Arkansas’ line will benefit from working against players like Agim and Harris on a regular basis. The competition will help them improve.

In conjunction with Morris’ compliment about their play, Sosa and Scoota drew praise from Chavis, too. He said they are growing into two of the best leaders he’s been around. That’s high praise, and no doubt that leadership will make a difference with Arkansas’ defense this year.

I have to admit last season still nags at me as a fan, but there seems to be a much better attitude among the players and coaches this season, and that’s making me even more eager for the coming season.