With ticket sales lagging and social media filled with Razorback fans skeptical about the chances for a significant improvement over last year’s 2-10 season, second year Arkansas head football coach Chad Morris did his best at SEC Media Days to lay out a path to winning football by his staff and current players.
“Last season was hard,” Morris said to a roomful of hundreds of reporters. “We weren’t good enough. We made too many mistakes. But from day one of the 246 days that we had to start fixing the problem in the off-season, we responded.”
A game plan for reversing the disaster of a two-win season began with a simple statement Morris said he made to his players as they gathered to begin their winter conditioning program back in January: “Coming into year two if you’re not all in don’t waste your time.”
At that point a process had already begun of changing the roster. Some would call it a mass exodus. The three quarterbacks that started in various games would depart. Ty Storey and Cole Kelley transferred. Connor Noland would eventually decide play baseball only at Arkansas. Talented wide receivers Jonathan Nance and La’ Michael Pettway transferred out along with Jarrod Barnes, Alexy-Jean Baptist, Derrick Munson, Kyrei Fisher, Courtrey Alexander and Derrick Munson. But a major influx of offensive and defensive linemen, some arriving in time for spring football, added depth that didn’t exist in year one for Morris.
With those roster changes in place a transition began from a “coach led team to a player led culture,” according to Morris. To do that “there is a process you follow,” Morris emphasized. “We opened our doors to former players. We wanted our current players to feel a connection with the heritage of our past. We pushed an ‘everything’ concept. Everything matters. Everything counts. Every one of those 246 days count.”
Morris freely admitted that the 2019 Razorback roster will be loaded with youth, quoting these numbers: “Fifty-two freshmen, twenty-eight sophomores and just sixteen seniors.” He predicted that a lot of the newcomers will push existing players for starting positions.
Morris also said he challenged his small senior class to lead the way for that youth. “I said to our seniors back on day one, ‘You’ve got 121 days from the start of camp to the end of the season to leave your legacy. What’s it gonna be?”
“At this point I’m excited about where we are,” Morris declared.
So where is this team with preseason practices looming a few weeks down the road?
“I learned that the SEC is a line of scrimmage league, ” Morris explained. “Last year we had eight scholarship offensive linemen available. We will have 17 when fall camp begins. That gives us more options. There will be less cross training. We’ve already got a good idea who our top five or six guys are right now. Last year we didn’t.”
“We went out and recruited seven defensive linemen,” Morris continued. “We have more depth with a solid opportunity to play for many of those guys.”
Morris also stressed the depth this team brings into the season at several other positions starting at quarterback where two grad transfers are expected to battle it out for the starting job. Former SMU signal caller Ben Hicks has an early leg up on Nick Starkel who transferred in this summer from Texas A&M. A senior in eligibility, Hicks was able to spend the entire spring working with offense including a baptism under fire in the Red-White game where he faced heavy blitzing from the number one defense in the first half. In addition Hicks played extensively for Morris at SMU before his head coach took the Arkansas job.
Starkel started as a true freshman at Texas A&M before an injury sidelined him. He was never able to fully win the job back from current starter Kellen Mond. “We know he’s won in this league,” Morris said of Starkel. “Our players say this summer he’s commanded a certain respect. Commanded leadership. Obviously the ball is electric when it comes out of his hands. To be able to bring him in with two years left to play will only intensify the battle in our quarterback room.”
Mindful of the long process Morris needed to name a starting quarterback in his first season on the Hill, the head Hog was asked how quickly he anticipated naming the number one guy once camp begins on August 2nd. “I would like to have a starter named as soon as we can,” Morris answered. “Early in camp if it presents itself. We want a clear cut winner to come out of this thing. A guy that our team can rally around.”
The offense appears to be stacked at running back, returning a pair of players that have already been named to the Doak Walker pre-season watch list. Senior Devwah Whaley started four games last season season. Junior Rakeem Boyd started the other eight. They are joined by junior Chase Hayden and senior T.J. Hammonds. The four combined for almost 1,500 yard rushing last season.
True freshman A’ Montae Spivey was added to the group this summer and Morris said he would not be surprised to see Spivey get playing time this fall. “He’s done a good job of fitting in and grasping as much of the offense as he can,” Morris said noted. “I’m really excited about our running back room.”
Arkansas loaded up on four-star receivers in the 2019 class and Morris announced yet another possibility at that position with talented but little used sophomore quarterback Daulton Hyatt making a position change this season. Hyatt is 6-4 with good speed. He is also expected to be added to the special teams unit that struggled at times last season. “I said to him, ‘Find your nitch. Do what you can to help this team,’ ” Morris noted. “He came to me. We had a tremendous buy in. We are team that is player driven.”
Defensively Morris said, “The pieces are in place. We recruited extremely well.”
So well in fact that a true freshman safety could end up helping coordinator John Chavis solve a critical issue at linebacker. On signing day Morris called four-star Mansfield, Texas defensive back Jalen Catalon, “One of the best high school players I’ve seen. ” At media days he acknowledged that the versatile D-Back could possibly end up playing the hybrid D-Back/outside linebacker “nickel back” position filled by junior D’Vone McClure last season. McClure is likely to be moved to the Sam linebacker this season. “Chief (Chavis) is excited about that,” Morris noted.
As for the rest of the secondary Morris told the Media Days gathering, “We played a lot of young guys there last year and mistakes happened. But we gained valuable experience that will pay off this year.”
The head coach used the transfer portal to hopefully solve one of the biggest problem his team had in 2018. “Punting’s been an issue for us,” Morris admitted. “We felt like we had to go out and bring in a veteran guy.”
That veteran guy is former Vanderbilt punter Sam Loy who transferred to Colorado where he sat out a season before deciding to come to Arkansas. He has immediate eligibility. Loy was an All SEC freshman averaging 41.6 yards a punt in 2016. In two seasons with the Commodores he landed 36 kicks inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.
At Media Days ESPN projected the Razorbacks to win 5 games or less in 2019. Morris avoided making any such predictions but he did say that his players definitely have a bowl game as their goal for the coming season. “We’re not just trying to become a winning team,” Morris concluded. “We want to be a winning program. To have consistent success. You don’t do that overnight. But I’m confident that our fans will begin to see success from our football program this season.”