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Catching Our Breath Post Open Date

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How do the Hogs look nine games into Chad Morris’ first season? Not good, thanks for asking.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Point of contention — and I frequently make this mistake myself — but it’s an “open date,” not a bye week. A bye is when you don’t have to play because you’ve already been advanced to the next round of a tournament. Anyway.

Arkansas’ open date would have been better a few weeks ago, but it’s here now. The Hogs are likely headed for a 2-10 season, the worst in school history. If that happens, Arkansas’ SEC record since that Cotton Bowl win to close the 2011 season will be 13-43, making this officially the worst stretch of Arkansas football in modern times.

On demanding changes

If Arkansas does in fact sink to 2-10, there will be a sizable segment of the Arkansas fan base that will demand noticeable changes, likely in the form of some staff turnover. Let me caution against this. This kind of thinking is a school of thought that in politics is known as Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something. It almost always leads to ill-advised changes that only delay future success.

Want to know why Arkansas hasn’t consistently had a good defense since joining the SEC in 1992? I’ll give you a reason: the Hogs’ longest-tenured defensive coordinator during that time was Willy Robinson at four years. Robinson, Dave Wommack, Reggie Herring, and Robb Smith are the only men during that time who have had the chance to coach juniors that they recruited. None have coached a fifth-year senior they recruited.

In fact, Arkansas hasn’t even made it five full seasons without changing base defenses since 1992! By my count, since 1992, Arkansas has run a 4-3 (92-94), a 3-3-5 (95), back to a 4-3 (96-97), a 4-2-5 (98-00), a 4-3/3-4 hybrid (01-04), a Miami 4-3 (05-07), a 4-3 Pro Under (08-11), a more generic 4-3 (12), a two-high 4-3 (13-16), a 3-4 (17), and a 4-3 Nickel (18). And now some people want to get rid of John Chavis and change again?

At some point you have to put your chips on the table and leave them there, or put your money in the market and leave it there, or whatever analogy you prefer. Staff turnover was a huge part of the reason Bret Bielema didn’t make it at Arkansas: he had three defensive coordinators and two offensive coordinators in five years. It sank Gene Chizik at Auburn and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M.

Kentucky is ranked 9th in the country and played Georgia for the SEC East title on Saturday. Mark Stoops was hired the same year as Bielema, and through the 2015 season, he was 4-20 in SEC play. But the Cats didn’t fire him. He’s gone 13-9 in the conference since, and has finally built one of the nation’s best defenses. It is no coincidence that he’s had the same offensive and defensive coordinators during that time.

So no, nobody should be calling for staff changes. In fact, everyone should be demanding that all assistants stay. It’s really hard to tell if assistant coaches are under-performing at this point. Recruiting is going well, and it’s already known that this team has a general dearth of talent, compared to its SEC counterparts.

A look at the numbers

We’ll do more for the LSU preview on Thursday, but here’s a quick overview of the advanced stats.

Offense

  • Efficiency: 92nd
  • Explosiveness: 81st
  • Average Starting Field Position: 118th
  • Finishing Drives: 36th
  • Turnover Margin: 108th

These are some dreary offensive numbers. A good placekicker and a good goalline offense (thanks, Connor Limpert and Cole Kelley) mean that the Hogs are above-average at getting points on good drives... but the Hogs don’t get enough good drives. Any hope that Chad Morris was going to come in and immediately starting working some guru magic is now out the window. Don’t lose hope, but he’s going to have to rebuild the old-fashioned way, and it’s going to require patience.

Running Game

  • Standard Downs Run Rate: 65.7% (27th)
  • Rushing Efficiency: 53rd
  • Rushing Explosiveness: 99th
  • Rakeem Boyd: 94 rushes, 615 yards, 6.5 yards per carry, -2.3% marginal efficiency
  • Devwah Whaley: 65 rushes, 298 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, +5.9% marginal efficiency
  • Chase Hayden: 55 rushes, 252 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, +2.4% marginal efficiency

No seniors among the top three backs. Boyd has been the biggest find of the season out of junior college. He’s a decisive runner who can find the hole, break tackles, and generate big plays. He’s not very efficient (about half of his carries go for basically no gain), but he’s one of the few explosive weapons on this offense. Whaley and Hayden are solid compliments: neither is very explosiveness, but both almost always get a yard or two.

Passing Game

  • Passing Efficiency: 102nd
  • Passing Explosiveness: 40th
  • Ty Storey: 58.4% completions, 1,224 yards, 9 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 6.2 yards per attempt
  • Cole Kelley: 53.0% completions, 455 yards, 5 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 6.5 yards per attempt
  • Connor Noland: 60.9% completions, 149 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions, 4.4 yards per attempt

The coaching staff has done a lot to make the pass game work, but the personnel just isn’t there yet. A lot of guys that are struggling right now will be fine in a year or two, but the guys running this thing just haven’t mastered it yet. Three four-star receivers and the nation’s top tight end are on the way. If the Hogs manage to land Kelly Bryant, improvement could come quickly. Bryant is not an elite passer, but he’s more experienced and decisive with his arm, and a much bigger threat with his legs.

  • La’Michael Pettway: 42 targets, 358 yards, 50.0% catch rate, 8.5 yards per target
  • Cheyenne O’Grady (TE): 30 targets, 284 yards, 70.0% catch rate, 9.5 yards per target
  • Michael Woods: 27 targets, 177 yards, 51.9% catch rate, 6.6 yards per target
  • Jordan Jones: 25 targets, 191 yards, 56.0% catch rate, 7.6 yards per target.

Zero seniors on this list, as well. Woods is just a true freshman, while Pettway had just seven career receptions entering the year.

The offensive line will lose three seniors: LG Hjalte Froholdt, RG Johnny Gibson, and RT Brian Wallace. The line has improved tremendously over the course of the year, so these three losses figure to be the biggest offensive setback. Froholdt is the best player on this unit, but Gibson and Wallace have mostly struggled. Recruiting, good at most other spots, has been lacking here. Next year, Colton Jackson figures to be a solid left tackle, and Ty Clary is a solid run-blocking center, as especially when he pulls on power runs. Dalton Wagner, Shane Clenin, Noah Gatlin, and Austin Capps have all played extensively this year as the line has shuffled almost every game. All of them will return.

Defense

  • Efficiency: 106th
  • Explosiveness: 70th
  • Average Starting Field Position: 116th
  • Finishing Drives: 54th
  • Turnover Margin: 108th

Solid on third down, John Chavis’ first defense in Fayetteville has otherwise been pretty bad. That’s to be expected: Arkansas’ 2016 and 2017 defenses were the worst in the SEC and the worst in school history. A mixture of recruiting busts and coordinator/scheme changes have wrecked a unit that has been historically bad since Willy Robinson was run out of town in 2011. Chavis has lined up an excellent recruiting class, which is the main reason to keep believing in him. But can he make it all work?

Run Defense

  • Standard Downs Run Rate: 55.7% (97th)
  • Rushing Efficiency: 107th
  • Rushing Explosiveness: 56th

New year, same result. In 2017 the Hogs ranked 114th and 66th in these two categories, despite a different head coach, different defensive coordinator, and different scheme. In 2016, it was 83rd and 125th. That got Robb Smith fired — he’s since been fired at Minnesota — and since then Paul Rhoads and Chavis have only moderately improved those numbers.

Pass Defense

  • Passing Efficiency: 81st
  • Passing Explosiveness: 108th
  • Sack Rate: 50th

The big concern with Chavis is that his old-school 4-3 is outdated in a spread-to-run offensive world. It’s hard to say that these numbers bear that out, since Arkansas was 104th, 110th, and 86th in these categories last year. If the Hogs’ pass defense still looks this bad in 2020, then maybe we can talk.

  • DE McTelvin Agim: 24.5 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, -18.1% marginal efficiency
  • DT Armon Watts: 23.5 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks, -29.1% marginal efficiency
  • DE Randy Ramsey: 21.0 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, -24.1% marginal efficiency
  • DT T.J. Smith: 12.5 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, -19.8% marginal efficiency

Here, “marginal efficiency” refers to the efficiency of the offensive play in which that player made the tackle. So, obviously, when a defensive lineman makes the tackle, the play probably didn’t do too well, hence the negative numbers.

Overall, the defensive line has been decent. That’s a huge upgrade from basically all of 2012-2017, where Arkansas’ defensive line was not disruptive at all. For instance: Arkansas’ top four defensive linemen have combined for 14 sacks. In all of 2017, the top four defensive linemen combined for 5.5 sacks. Heck, in 2016, when current NFL starter Deatrich Wise was leading the unit, the top four combined for 14.5 sacks. This line is on track to break that. Major credit to Chavis, John Scott, and Steve Caldwell for making this unit a factor again.

Looking ahead, the Hogs will lose Watts and Ramsey to graduation. They could also lose Agim to the draft, but I’m not convinced Agim wouldn’t benefit more from coming back and getting a second year in this system. The Hogs have commits from five defensive ends in this year’s class, including two consensus four-stars, as part of the transition back to the 4-3 after a lost year running a 3-4. Three defensive tackles, all three-stars, are also committed.

  • MLB De’Jon Harris: 68.5 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, -1.8% marginal efficiency
  • WLB Dre Greenlaw: 45.0 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, +13.2% marginal efficiency

Harris has been a workhorse for this defense. He’s second in the SEC in tackles, and it’s pretty impressive for the leading tackler on a bad defense to have a -1.8% marginal efficiency to his name. Greenlaw missed the final three quarters of the Eastern Illinois game and all of the Colorado State and North Texas debacles. He’s a senior, so that will be a tough loss, but his replacement, former four-star recruit Bumper Pool, already has two starts and plenty of experience (16.0 tackles, 2.5 TFLs). Pool and Harris will make a fine linebacker group, with Hayden Henry (8.5 tackles) as the third linebacker when the Hogs get to actually run a 4-3.

  • FS Santos Ramirez: 49.5 tackles, 0 interceptions, 0 PBUs, +41.7% marginal efficiency
  • SS Kamren Curl: 35.0 tackles, 0 interceptions, 4 PBUs, +34.7% marginal efficiency
  • CB Ryan Pulley: 27.5 tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 PBUs, +22.5% marginal efficiency
  • CB Jarques McClellion: 17.0 tackles, 0 interceptions, 6 PBUs, +48.2% marginal efficiency
  • NB/LB D’Vone McClure: 14.5 tackles, 0 interceptions, 3 PBUs, +2.2% marginal efficiency

The adventures of Santos Ramirez are almost over, and it’s been quite the journey. Ramirez has been at the center of the some of the best and worst of Arkansas defense over the last few years. Particularly memorable are his game-saving forced fumble against Chad Kelly and Ole Miss in 2016, his pick-six on the first play of the Florida game a few weeks later, and his violent strip of an Ole Miss ballcarrier to start the comeback in 2017. But far more prevalent are the hilarious missed tackles that highlight a lot of the big plays against Arkansas’ defense. He’s a safety who doesn’t have a single interception or pass break-up this season. Opponents average 11.9 yards per play on plays where he ends up making the tackle. But he’s always near the ball, and he’ll be missed next year if his replacement, likely true freshman Joe Foucha, struggles.

There is some good news here, and that’s that the other four guys on this list will likely return. Pulley is an SEC-caliber cornerback who will likely be playing on Sundays in a couple years. Theoretically, he could go pro after this season, but the Hogs better hope he doesn’t. The true freshman McClellion and the sophomore McClure are who defenses normally pick on the pass game. Backup cornerbacks Britto Tutt and Buster Brown are also set to return.

What are we looking for?

It’s entirely plausible that Arkansas could pull an upset in these final three. Both LSU and Mississippi State are coming off the Alabama game, and Missouri is ugggghh.... A RIVALRY GAME SO ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN (this edit is sponsored by Shelter Insurance).

I’d like to see some signs of life on both sides of the ball. Maybe the run defense steps up and gives LSU fits. Or the Hogs hit a few long passes and get into a shootout with Missouri. Bobby Petrino’s mostly-bad first season ended with some fireworks and something to build on. That’s all anyone’s asking for at this point.