Pearls has embodied a particular approach to preseason Razorback football coverage in the past, and this year will be no exception. Before we get into the meat of the 2019 schedule and assess whether Chad Morris’ second season on the sideline will be demonstrably better than his forgettable first one, we deal with the usual array of burning questions about the program as it tries to once again rescue itself from the dregs of the SEC.
1. What impact will a ballyhooed recruiting class have? This is essentially the threshold question for the upcoming campaign, and it’s obviously part of the overall calculus of this team’s success. A 2-10, 0-8 season replete with ugly losses ensured that Morris would have to fight to reclaim the soul of this tortured program. It was readily evident in 2018 that holdover talent from the Bret Bielema era was remarkably ill-fitting in Morris’ tempo-heavy scheme.
The issues afflicting last season’s woeful squad should immediately be discarded. Much as Bielema’s first team in 2013 was a haphazard combination of inexperience at the skill positions and veteran talent still trying to feel its way out after the Bobby Petrino/John L. Smith experiment was abandoned. Morris hit the recruiting trail in a fierce way and managed to sign one of the better classes, not just from the somewhat dubious rankings standpoint but also from a positional analysis, that this program has enjoyed in its first quarter-century-plus in this conference.
The general feeling about this class is that it will have some impact on arrival. Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock struggled with square pegs and round holes all last fall, particularly and obviously at quarterback, but this team was lacking speed and size on the perimeter. The arrivals of highly-touted and physically sound prospects like Trey Knox, Shamar Nash, Treylon Burks and T.Q. Jackson means that this will be one of the most dynamic position groups on the team after it had been sorely lacking in skilled receivers last year. For a relevant recent comparison, recall that Bobby Petrino secured Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs and Chris Gragg when he took the reins in 2008, but for as gifted as that group was, only Childs and Gragg were of considerable height and strength— Wright and Adams were lightning quick and effective, but on the small side.
That isn’t the case for the incoming quartet cited above. All of them stand 6 feet 3 inches or taller, and Nash is listed as the lightest of the four at a still-healthy 195 pounds. It seems that SMU transfer Ben Hicks will have a bit of an inside track on the quarterback job (more on that below), but regardless of who ends up slinging it, he’ll indisputably fare better than Ty Storey, Cole Kelley and Connor Noland did in 2018. None of those three competitors is on this year’s roster, so it’s essentially a fresh pitch-and-catch battery for the most part.
2. Newcomers aside, what inherited players will make strides in 2019? For as much raw physical talent as the staff brought onboard at the receiver position, a couple of returnees — namely Jordan Jones and Deon Stewart — still vest that corps with good downfield speed. In Dan Enos’ offense, Jones and Stewart were quite productive in 2017 but struggled to adapt last fall. With more time under their respective belts now, both should reemerge stronger this fall.
This may also be the year where Chase Hayden’s skill set finally pays dividends. The junior tailback has had injury issues and has accordingly been more of a third-down back and change of pace player behind the usual bellcows, Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley. But Hayden’s production in limited duty has been nothing to casually dismiss. He’s averaged close to five yards per carry and shown glimpses of being a capable receiving option out of the backfield.
On the defensive side, McTelvin Agim heads into his senior season with perhaps a little less fanfare and pressure to perform, and that should translate well into the former five-star product closing out his Hog career in style. Agim remains a wondrously talented end, but his production thus far has been scattershot. With the defense being very much a work in progress, Agim can and should flourish as a leader on a fairly strong line.
3. Hicks, Starkel, or … ? As noted earlier, the three quarterbacks who bravely soldiered through last year’s misery have all departed (Storey and Kelley were quick, predictable entries into the transfer portal after the season ended, and Noland’s strong freshman season on the pitcher’s mound essentially cemented his long-term standing as a promising baseball prospect first and foremost.)
Hicks obviously arrives with the pedigree and applicable chops — he became SMU’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns last year and sought to reunite with Morris and company for one final bow. He’s not an exceptionally big quarterback but he has mobility and accuracy, and he’s faced some fairly heady competition over the years as the Mustangs slowly but steadily embodied a more aggressive attack.
Hicks’ history with Morris and his need to find a place to spend a year as a graduate transfer made his arrival somewhat predictable. Nick Starkel, late of Texas A&M, was a more unexpected surprise. The former starting QB for the Aggies essentially lost his job in College Station by way of unhappy accident: after starting five games in ’17, Starkel was displaced by Kellen Mond, who offered a lot more electricity with his legs. But Starkel’s size (6 feet 3 inches, 215 pounds) is appealing as is his production (15 career TD passes and a strong 62 percent completion percentage) in sporadic duty. He was redshirted in 2016 at A&M, so he arrives with two years of eligibility and a desire to compete for time immediately.
It’s likely that the staff wants to keep highly touted Mississippi high school product K.J. Jefferson on the sidelines in 2019 if it can. Hicks and Starkel both represent upgrades over the Hogs’ prior quarterbacks, but if they struggle, Jefferson’s incredible athleticism may be difficult to restrain.
4. Special teams = special attention? Arkansas was notably bad in multiple areas last year but the Razorbacks’ special teams performance was indisputably problematic. Connor Limpert did emerge as a solid placekicker, nailing 19 of 24 field goal attempts and hitting all 29 of his PATs. But beyond that, coverage on returns was shaky, and the Hogs’ punting performance was a league-worst. Reid Bauer’s struggles as a first-year punter were notable, so Bauer may see time on placekicking and other situational spots while another punter on the roster gets a shot. The best news about this facet of the team is that DeVion Warren and Deon Stewart are both reasonably experienced and capable in the return game, but clearly Arkansas needs this entire unit to tighten up and to at least be less of a liability in 2019 than it was the prior season.
5. Does Craddock reclaim some lost confidence designing and calling plays? It’s been conclusively established that not much went right for the Hogs last year, but Craddock in particular had to be disappointed with the production he was able to coax from the offensive unit. The defense definitely has to excel, too, but there’s a unique degree of pressure on the offensive playcaller after Arkansas averaged barely over 21 points per outing last year, and that included a 55-point opener against Eastern Illinois that was far and away the highest scoring game of the year.
Craddock is a celebrated young coach who clearly wants to get considerably more firepower out of the weapons he has at hand. The tools at his disposal will certainly be more numerous and future-oriented than the stopgap roster that existed a year ago at this time. He’s the type of guy who clearly has designs on being a head coach later, so it’s critical for his own career arc that this season be light-years beyond the modest and mostly punchless offense he helmed in 2018.