The more we see from Chad Morris in his second season as the Arkansas Razorbacks head football coach, the more there is to like.
The latest example of that is his decision to go ahead with a third scrimmage this week during Wednesday’s practice instead of backing off the plan because of injuries.
While the Razorbacks haven’t had an inordinate amount of injuries during training camp, the injury bug has stung Arkansas, particularly with a number of injuries in the offensive line and at receiver.
Both positions have lost players to season-ending injuries. Sophomore offensive tackle Noah Gatlin suffered a knee injury on the first day of practice in non-contact work, and last Saturday senior expected starter Deon Stewart had his season ended with a knee injury in a scrimmage.
Several other Hogs like senior tight end C.J. O’Grady, senior receiver Jordan Jones, senior offensive guard Austin Capps, and freshman defensive tackle Eric Gregory have all missed time with injuries that required what is now considered mild surgery, but each are expected to return to practice in the near future, several of them this week.
In the past, some Razorback coaches would have shut down the live hitting at this point. Others didn’t even schedule a third albeit less extensive scrimmage, as described by the Hogs’ head coach. It would have been deemed too risky.
However, Morris is biting the bullet because he knows his young team needs more scrimmage time, more live reps, more live opportunities to block and tackle before the season starts.
Word out of the scrimmage is that Arkansas’ offensive front appears improved, but still not up to SEC snuff. The only way they can truly improve is with live work. Some for a young secondary group and their counterparts at receiver.
Last year Morris’ Razorbacks faced a toughness issue that was actually more mental than it was physical. Morris has been addressing that issue since January with strength and conditioning as well as leadership exercises. He’s been doing it in practice as well. The split fields not only gets players more reps, but it also creates an up-tempo atmosphere that no doubt strains and toughens his players.
Players are at risk in every practice whether the work is live or not, but Morris recognizes it doesn’t do any good to have everyone on the bus for the Aug. 31 season opener with Portland State if they are not ready to play physically and mentally.
At some point, Morris has to let up to freshen his team’s legs for the season opener. Usually it’s about 10 days before the first game. As the team begins to focus on Portland State, the workouts won’t be any less demanding, but they might not go quite as long leading into next week’s game preparation
The physical nature of Arkansas’ practices will payoff during the season. How much is hard to say, but we should see a more physical Razorback team this year with more stamina. That might be what allows the Hogs to get over the hump in games like Ole Miss on Sept. 7.
Who’s the quarterback?
Morris played coy with the media about who is leading in the competition to be the starting quarterback last Saturday after the scrimmage.
It’s difficult to get a read on the situation from just what Morris has said. Talk out of the scrimmage is that junior transfer from Texas A&M Nick Starkel was impressive. But everyone who has seen Starkel throw has been impressed with the way he spins it.
Morris called Ben Hicks on the carpet in the press conference for throwing a ball up for grabs in the red zone, but the senior transfer from SMU, who played quarterback for three years there for Morris, evidently had several strong practices just prior to the scrimmage.
Assuming the praise for freshman John Stephen Jones from Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock is more deflection than anything, it seem Hicks is the more prudent call. He understands the ins and outs of the offense and has been described as a good decision-maker for the most part.
Starkel, it seems, is a bit more of a risk-taker, who looks more for the big play than always taking what the defense gives. Maybe his confidence in his arm overtakes his judgment at times? That’s the type of attitude that can pay off big one play but sink a team on another.
Morris has said the Hogs are going to need all of their quarterbacks to be successful this season.That’s another general statement that’s difficult to parse. Does he really mean each of the quarterbacks will have a role on the field, or is he just saying something to reassure the entire quarterback group?
It’s hard to say how close the battle for starter really is. Morris may know exactly who he plans to start now, but just wants to keep the competition alive for any number of reasons.
Or it might really be a tit-for-tat battle that will extend into the season no matter who gets the nod against Portland State.
Personally, I hope it is the former rather than the latter. It’s a less combustible situation.
The SEC season opener at Ole Miss on Sept. 7 adds pressure to the situation. It’s a game the Razorbacks really need to win if they expect to go bowling this season.
It would be great if the coaches and players are all confidently aligned behind one quarterback for that game, but as fans we have to understand that might not be the case.
If the competition truly is close, the prudent call is to go with the quarterback the coaches know best, which would seem to be Hicks.
However an underdog — Arkansas is likely to be an underdog in every SEC game — sometimes can have better results with a gunslinger pulling the trigger.
We’ll just have to wait and see.
Morris said he will announce the starter for at least the first game at “the right time,” which he didn’t define.
Maybe it will be for Fan Day on Saturday? Maybe it’ll be at his Monday press conference, or the last practice on Aug. 29 before the opener? He could wait until the day of the game?
It’s Morris’ choice, but whoever it is, expect it to be questioned up and down and left and right before and after the first game.