Arkansas’ quarterback conundrum persists as season limps along

Ben Hicks / Courtesy,

If anything has been consistent about the Arkansas Razorbacks play at quarterback this season, it is that it has been inconsistent. That’s made for another tough season for the Razorbacks and their fans.

As if I had to remind you, the Hogs are 2-6 on the season and 0-5 in SEC. Entering November, the Razorbacks have lost five consecutive games this season and 13 consecutive SEC games under head coach Chad Morris. Since Bret Bielema lost the final three SEC games he coached at Arkansas, the Hogs are on a 16-game SEC losing streak. Monday was the two-year anniversary of the Razorbacks last’ SEC win against Ole Miss.

All of that misery doesn’t fall on the back of one position. Football is an ultimate team game. Much of the Razorbacks’ problems offensively can be traced back to ineffective offensive line play both in Bielema’s final two seasons and in both of Morris’. Receivers have had drops, backs have missed the hole, and both of groups could have blocked better in a number of situations.

Arkansas’ defense has been left in difficult situations because of turnovers and the offense’s inconsistency in moving the football and taking advantage of scoring opportunities in the red zone. Arkansas is last in the SEC in turnover margin (-5) and red zone offense (68 percent).

However, the defense has had its own issues with breakdowns and mistakes. Arkansas is last in the SEC in stopping opponents on third down, 13th in pass efficiency defense, 13th in scoring defense, 13th in rushing defense, ninth in passing defense, and 13th in overall defense. Just a reminder, there are only 14 teams in the SEC.

To put it bluntly, the defense hasn’t delivered stops when they were needed most. In the three games that Arkansas has lost by a touchdown or less, Arkansas’ opponents — San Jose State (31-24), Texas A&M (31-27), and Kentucky (24-20) — have scored last in each game.

Quarterback play is the most obvious issue to fans. It’s the one position where a single player can make the most difference for a team for good and ill.

It says a lot about the state of Arkansas’ program that it is not obvious who should start behind center going into the ninth game of the season.

For the third week in a row, Morris deflected the question about who will start at quarterback. Certainly, that has as much to do with gamesmanship as it does uncertainty on the part of the Hogs’ head coach. I absolutely believe Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock know who is going to start on Saturday, barring injury this week in practice. They likely see it as a competitive advantage to keep it a mystery from Mississippi State’s staff prior to their 3 p.m. meeting Saturday at Razorback Stadium.

However, to some among the fans base, the perception is incompetence for a coach with a 4-16 record to pass over the question by saying the quarterback who gives us the best chance to win is going to start.

So far this season, Ben Hicks, a senior grad transfer from SMU, has started three games against Portland State, Ole Miss, and Auburn. Nick Starkel, junior grad transfer from Texas A&M, has gotten the call in the other five against Colorado State, San Jose State, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Alabama.

Had Hicks been healthy last week, he likely would have started against Alabama, but a shoulder injury kept him out. Morris said Hicks would be able to practice this week, and I’m guessing he will be the starter against the Bulldogs, despite how well red-shirt freshman John Stephen Jones played in relief of Starkel in the second half of the Alabama game.

Though the game was already well out of hand at 48-0, Jones led the Hogs on a 13-play, 85-yard scoring drive against Alabama’s first-string defense that melted 7:34 off the clock. It was impressive.

Morris said Monday that Jones’ decisions on the zone-read option play were perfect, and to my eyes, it was the best Arkansas’ rushing offense has looked all season.

Though Jones wasn’t asked to throw down field, he did complete 6 of 7 passes for 49 yards and a touchdown to tight end C.J. O’Grady of Fayetteville. It was O’Grady’s 12th TD catch, giving him the most among tight ends in Arkansas history.

The play-action on the 12-yard touchdown pass in which O’Grady snuck out the back against the play flow worked so well and was so easy because of how well Jones had been reading the option. It’s one of the few times this year where Arkansas set up a play with their offense and the next step actually worked. It was all because of the execution on that possession, which began with Jones’ on-the-mark reads and solid ball-handling.

Again my guess is Hicks will start Saturday, but I personally would like to see what Jones could do with a start, and if I didn’t start him, I’d definitely put him in the game when Arkansas reached the red zone, just to see if he could be as efficient as he was last Saturday.

It couldn’t hurt because what Arkansas has been doing so far this year inside the 20 hasn’t worked except for Connor Limpert’s field goals.

The concern about starting Jones is if Mississippi State practices intently against the zone read all week and shuts it down, where would the Hogs go from there. Conventional wisdom is that Jones’ arm strength isn’t enough to push the ball down field against the speedy defensive backs in the SEC.

It’s a fair point, but I also can see Treylon Burks or Trey Knox running open downfield for an easy over-the-top throw, if Jones’ option execution can stall a Bulldog safety just for a second of indecision.

Aside from who starts, the biggest question on Hog fans’ minds is will they see freshman quarterback K.J. Jefferson (6-3, 228) on the field. Since he has not played this year and there are only four games remaining, his red-shirt season is essentially over.

While Morris’ key concern is winning right now, getting that young man and other freshmen some experience over the next four games has to be a concern for the good of the program’s future.