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John Stephen Jones Makes His Case to Be Starting Quarterback

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Nick Starkel struggled, but JSJ ran the option well for the Hogs.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Alabama Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

(NOTE: Due to a technical issue, there is no Box Score Breakdown this week.)

Chad Morris’ two-year tenure at Arkansas is in danger of being undone by a number of things, but quarterback woes are among them.

In fairness, a struggling offensive line and very young (though talented) receivers aren’t making this any easier on Arkansas’ four multi-game starters during the Morris era: Cole Kelley, Ty Storey, Ben Hicks, and Nick Starkel. But one of the other problems appears to be bad offensive design. One of the recurring things you hear from college football analysts is that it’s not clear what Arkansas’ offense is even trying to do. Is it a creative, run-heavy attack heavy on misdirection, like Gus Malzahn’s? Or is it supposed to feature a vertical passing game, like Bobby Petrino’s?

As it stands, the Hogs can’t run the ball (98th in Rushing PAN), so they are very pass-heavy (113th in standard downs run rate). That was fine when Starkel was throwing for 300+ yards against Colorado State and San José State, but the passing game has since collapsed. Over his last three starts, Starkel is 24 of 55 for 208 yards with zero touchdowns and four interceptions. Since returning from injury, he’s 12 of 38 for 99 yards and three picks. Hicks was fine in relief (20 of 35 for 269 yards and a touchdown against Texas A&M and Kentucky) but has been dismal in both starts and during his time at quarterback, has offense has not scored more than 10 points in any half.

So now John Stephen Jones enters the scene. The redshirt freshman was 6 of 7 for 49 yards and a touchdown through the air and added 14 rushing yards on six carries. He led an eight-minute touchdown drive in the second half that proved to be Arkansas’ only points in a 48-7 loss to Alabama. It’s hard to get too hyped because he didn’t get anything down the field (zero completions to actual wide receivers) and Alabama was played pretty soft, but the Tide still had mostly starters in for the touchdown pass, as they were trying to preserve a shutout.

Arkansas’ Option Game

I’m going to be honest: Arkansas’ run game when JSJ was in the game looked like what I thought Chad Morris’ offense was going to look like when he was first hired. The Hogs stretched Alabama sideline-to-sideline and created one-on-one matchups for their best players. It was pretty similar to what Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden did to the Hogs.

Let’s walk through some what the Hogs did.

Concept #1 - Inverted Veer

Malzahn didn’t invent the inverted veer — TCU was running it with Andy Dalton in the late 2000s — but it became well-known when Cam Newton was running it at Auburn in 2010. It’s an “inverted” version of the basic veer (read) option, where the quarterback reads the end man (circled). If he crashes, JSJ gives the ball to Rakeem Boyd. If he sets the end, JSJ keeps the ball and run straight up the middle.

The challenge with this play is that you have to have a quarterback who can run between the tackles. Hicks and Starkel can’t really do that, but JSJ apparently can. He can also make the right read, as we’ll see constantly in these replays.

One of the things that makes this play so dangerous for Arkansas is that Boyd’s best run play this year has been the sweep. You can mix this call in with some called sweeps that are blocked slightly differently. If the linebackers think the option is coming, they can’t flow as aggressively to edge, so holes open up.

One of the big keys to misdirection/option football is make the defenders think about everything they have to account for. That causes them to play slower and with less confidence.

Concept #2 - Split Zone

Split zone is one of the most common spread run concepts. The Hogs run it a lot, but Starkel and Hicks aren’t a threat to actually keep the ball, so the “option” part doesn’t really work. It’s zone-blocked and the wing tight end creates the “split” by coming across the backside to kick out the defensive end.

For this play, the Hogs have added some extra eye candy by having a receiver come in rocket motion to the backside. That helps set up a future play where the Hogs throw a swing pass to the rocket receiver.

One of the things that makes the split zone dangerous is that, like the inverted veer, it creates some indecision by the linebackers who risk being fooled by the kick out block from the tight end.

If a linebacker (or safety) plays the run when he sees that movement, then the offense is a play-fake away from an open receiver:

While a vertical passing game will probably be necessary against a quality defense across a whole game, making the defense defend the entire field horizontally creates all kinds of ways to move the ball without needing a great downfield attack.

Concept #3 - Swing/Shovel

A simple swing pass is a great way to utilize a great running back when you don’t have a great line:

We’ve seen some swing passes with other quarterbacks, but not as often as we saw with JSJ. His only first half attempt was a swing pass, and he hit both Boyd and Devwah Whaley on swing passes during the third quarter.

Like other horizontal stretch plays, the swing pass can be paired with a play designed to take advantage of defensive over-pursuit:

This is the same formation as the split zone. For this one, we start with the same swing motion, but now Cheyenne O’Grady is coming underneath for a shovel pass.

I don’t actually know if this is an option play or not: does JSJ have a choice between swing and shovel, or is this shovel all the way?

It doesn’t work, but it’s still a good play. That will work more often than not, especially since it was set up so well by the swing passes.

Concept #4 - Toss Read

This is a big-time spread-em-out play. The Hogs have run a lot of these toss reads this year, but the quarterback tosses every single time. The “toss” look is to the left, where two receivers are ready to set up blocks. JSJ is looking at the circled defensive end: if he crashes, JSJ is tossing. If he sets the edge, JSJ is keeping and following his tight end and right guard to the right.

Look at how wide an area the linebackers have to defend: if they flow to their right, then they’ll have to contend with pulling blockers on the right when they recover. If they don’t flow enough to the right, then they won’t be able to stop Boyd from getting to the edge.

Watch all four of Alabama’s linebackers get caught up in this traffic jam, allowing the Hogs to get the edge and forcing an Alabama safety to come up and make the tackle:

JSJ is hardly Matt Jones — even if he wears the same number — but that run is worth more than just six yards. It’s worth making Alabama linebackers think twice before committing to the toss.

So... Should JSJ Start?

Whatever Arkansas’ offensive staff is trying to do isn’t working. The Hogs don’t have the sophisticated passing attack they obviously want, and I’m not sure stubbornly trying to throw 40 times a game is the way to make this work. If the Hogs keep trying with Starkel and Hicks and end up 2-10 again, I’m not sure Morris survives to see a Year 3. The Hogs probably need to try something different, especially with three winnable games left on the schedule.

Kentucky beat Arkansas by putting a wide receiver at quarterback and stretching the Hogs’ defense out with a pretty simple option game. That strategy also worked again Saturday when Kentucky knocked off Missouri. The Hogs would obviously have to throw it more than Kentucky does, but going to that kind of Auburn-lite offense might be enough to generate some offense for this team. They’ll have to get more creative, especially to keep the very talented Treylon Burks and Trey Knox involved. And they’ll have to throw downfield. And the defense will have to play well enough to keep the offense from starting deep in its own territory every drive. But what do have to lose at this point?

Poll

Who should start at quarterback against Mississippi State?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Nick Starkel
    (11 votes)
  • 1%
    Ben Hicks
    (10 votes)
  • 96%
    John Stephen Jones
    (518 votes)
539 votes total Vote Now