Pandemic writers’ block is a real thing, y’all. Or it was for me, and no one will ever accuse me of being bereft of words. Ever. Evereverever.*
The past six months have taught us hopefully more than we’re presently willing to let on, but one of my moments of self-discovery hit very quickly. There it was, mid-March, and Arkansas’s spirited, overachieving little basketball team, under Eric Musselman’s watch, ended its season with a win in front of a vacated arena at the SEC tourney. We all had this impending sense of … something, and as major events and public places disappeared off the calendar and Mom-n-Pops started shuttering, I realized that 2020 truly was going to be one wildass year. After all, if there is any athletic program in the country that can end a season for one of its bellcow sports with a postseason victory, and have it not mean a damn thing, it would belong to the University of Arkansas, right?
In all earnestness, we’ve had a rough spring and summer, all of us, and the balm of live college sports is more meaningful now even if cutting the path to an actual college football season in 2020 was terribly haphazard. Politics are grotesque and this god-awful shroud of disease and discord over us is so oppressive that Arkansas fans are about to likely have some kind of psychosexual fit on Saturday even though the Georgia Bulldogs are a four-touchdown and national championship favorite with an obscenely loaded array of skill players and defensive monsters as per custom.
Yeah, football season is back. As it were. And even if this little, fledgling group of Sam Pittman’s isn’t close to being ready for prime time by all the ostensible metrics, why shouldn’t it be entertaining as hell? Quarterback Feleipe Franks is going to take some real shots in what is presumed to be his only season running this new, Kendal Briles-engineered offense, which will of course be predicated on Franks being able to find safety valves and scramble out of trouble often. This offensive line that the angular, strong-armed erstwhile Florida starter will be working behind is not one of the present strengths of the team by any means. Obviously, however, early recruiting returns and Pittman’s intrinsic value as a recruiter and developer of this unit does make for this writer’s expectation: At least one Hog OL will be a surprise all-conference participant this fall, and expect one or two more to be on an SEC newcomer squad of some mention.
Franks’ height and fairly sturdy frame are only as valuable as the guys creating and moving the pocket, and center Ricky Stromberg went through some growing pains last year but will be a good centerpiece with Myron Cunningham, Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer all getting a dose of necessary abuse of their own last year. (Long-term bonus: Latham and Limmer were able to play some meaningful snaps but still keep their redshirt intact.) Expect Rakeem Boyd, who really is the glue that can keep this rickety-seeming thing on some semblance of a schedule, to be the primary beneficiary of Franks’ game experience and the line’s expected struggles. The third-year starter at tailback is coming off one of the best seasons for a Hog rusher by a lot of standards, but keeping him healthy is an unqualified must for this 2020 team to make any kind of surprise charge. And while Boyd would do remotely well to maintain his near-6.2 yards per carry clip, the consensus belief is that he is too talented of a receiver to be limited to the modest numbers (42 total catches and zero receiving scores in two years) amassed to date in that area.
Boyd will be complemented nicely on the edges by an excellent group of receivers that might help the departed Chad Morris find some kind of legacy to lean on after the smoke clears from the debris fire he made and then poked around on for two years. Treylon Burks and Trey Knox are the highly touted sophomore returnees who were hoped to have given the Morris/Joe Craddock engine some kind of combustion last year, but it was junior Mike Woods who scored more receiving TDs than Knox and Burks lodged total, and he ended up being the most consistent wideout of the bunch. It goes without saying, but here I am stressing the hell out of it, that this team can’t get by with this trio grabbing fewer than 15 scores and lodging under 2,000 yards collectively. That might sound like a lot of pressure to impart upon these guys, but, well, there it is.
But when you consider that Hudson Henry and Blayne Toll, though skilled in their own respective rights, also don’t bring a wealth of season to the tight end position, the production of the wideouts becomes that much more important. Henry and Toll, for what it’s worth, should both love the opportunities that will await them — they’ll be called upon for ample additional support for Franks, who will be under siege this weekend for certain and then generally harassed for the ensuing weeks ahead.
The defensive side of the field is where Hog fans have to be patient. Arkansas is not likely to stop many teams this fall. I’m sorry for my always-discourteous, ever-startling conclusion here. I know it’s hard to conceptualize, but follow me for a bit.
After a string of Hindenburgs-in-headsets among whom WILLY ROBINSON was the most accomplished, John Chavis somehow ended up being a worse hire than Morris, dollar-per-dollar being the least effective defensive coordinator in the entire country and making me feel foolish for thinking that his hiring was a sensible one. Yeah, his A&M teams were getting gashed, but I just felt he wasn’t a fit in College Station, and that the fire in his gut still burned. Apparently, it was gastric distress from, I dunno, vodka and deer chili, but it certainly wasn’t from work-related stress.
Morris arguably found and retained just enough offensive skill talent here that he might end up having earned the detached garage on his former, obscene suburban ranch. Chavis, best I can tell, is both arsonist and larcenist; he gave no perceptible effort or instruction in a tortured, terrible fit of a tenure. And I hate that for the guys who are lining up there in 2020 because, with only a couple of noteworthy exceptions, this is an entirely overhauled and repopulated grouping altogether, yet again. And that means only one prediction: pain.
Bumper Pool is an impressive, stout linebacker who presumably will need to remind us all of Billy Ray Smith Jr., or hell, even Caleb Miller or Mark Smith, if this squadron can get a few stops and play above its grade. He’s as athletic and tough as any prospect, and he’s going to have to range farther and wider now with Barry Odom implementing a 4-2-5 scheme. By the way, that last part is encouraging: If this program has ever been historically short on quality depth within any position grouping, decade to decade, it’s the LB corps. Odom is accordingly asking for Pool and Grant Morgan to be adept in space but giving them help up front; when Paul Rhoads tried a 3-4 scheme in a forgettable 2017 season, we saw a team failing to contain athletic quarterbacks and lacking sideline to sideline speed getting predictably thumped, making its defensive backs look bad, too. When the whole machine falters, every cog looks rusted.
Trying out this new framework should help the down linemen like Dorian Gerald, whose return from an injury-truncated 2019 is much welcomed, and Jonathan Marshall. Mataio Soli, like Henry and Morgan, is a legacy player who belongs in the fold, and he’ll get competition and learning on the job by way of transfers Xavier Kelly and Julius Coates. I’ve bypassed all delusions that I will ever see the damnable “consistent pass rush” again in my lifetime, so let’s settle for not giving up quarter-acres of downfield progress on early downs, how about that?
The defensive backfield should be improved right from the jump. There are some really stout athletes coming back, namely Jalen Catalon and Joe Foucha, but Myles Slusher is the one prospect that Pittman inked in the early signing period that piqued my interest. First of all, he was swayed here from an Oregon commitment as an Oklahoma product, so that convinced me immediately that Pittman’s recruiting chops were in our favor. But he’s also a prototype NFL safety, capable of dealing out damage from a modest frame because he’s compact, but also fleet enough to cover. If there’s a defensive star to build around for the next couple of seasons, this is the guy. Arkansas will get good production from Greg Brooks Jr. and Montaric Brown, two competent returnees, and hopefully a boost from Arkansas State transfer Jerry Jacobs.
Special teams production, largely negated by all the rule changes in recent years, has been down across the sport but De’Vion Warren is one of the rare proven assets in that area in this wonky college football season. He’s been electric with his touches in the past and Scott Fountain is fortunate to take on his coordinator role here with a weapon like that to keep opposing teams honest. Burks projects as the punt returner and can be dynamic there, but clearly there will be some concern about preserving his health and value as a wideout, so expect some shuffling around throughout the campaign. The kicking game is a present unknown but Saturday should allow us to see if AJ Reed’s big leg transferred from Duke.
I’ll be posting a Georgia-specific preview later. For now, it’s good to be back. Sorry if anyone in Chavis’ family reads this.