He guided Garrett Gilbert to an undefeated season in high school. He groomed Tajh Boyd from a rough prospect into a great college quarterback at Clemson. He recruited Deshaun Watson— one of the best college quarterbacks of this decade to Clemson. He coached Ben Hicks to a school record shattering performance at SMU. So why can’t Chad Morris figure out the quarterback situation at Arkansas? For a man who has succeeded at every step working on quarterbacks, why is it giving him fits at Arkansas?
Let’s examine the talent he has had at his disposal so far. When Morris first arrived at Arkansas, his options at quarterback were Cole Kelley, Ty Storey, and Connor Noland. Kelley was a 6’6” gunslinger, Storey was a tough as nails gamer, and Connor Noland was a touted freshman with an outside shot at the job. None were extraordinary talents, but each had a chance, especially with a new coach coming in with a new system.
Morris began the season with Kelley, opting for the biggest arm. Kelley didn’t impress early on, and was replaced by Storey, who proceeded to ball out— against Eastern Illinois. Storey played the first half the next week against Colorado State, threw two interceptions, and was benched for Kelley in an infamous loss to the Rams. Kelley then drew the start against North Texas, which was a debacle, and he was replaced, this time by Connor Noland. Noland struggled, but the game was a lost cause, so he could be forgiven. The next week, Ty Storey got the start in a 34-3 beat down by Auburn. Storey would remain the starter against A&M in a narrow loss, against Alabama in a blowout, and in the early stages of the game against Ole Miss in Little Rock. When trying to make a play, he got injured and Kelley came on in relief. He threw an interception that proved to be Arkansas’ last shot at an SEC win. Noland would start in a 23-0 shutout of Tulsa, and things flip flopped for the rest of the season. No one pulled ahead in the race to be QB1.
All of this likely sounds familiar because we’re in the same position a year later. The offseason saw Storey and Kelley transfer, and also saw Noland declare his intent to focus on baseball, but the transfers of Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel seemed promising. Hicks was Morris’ SMU disciple and Starkel was a gunslinger who had looked decent at A&M. Things seemed hopeful. Then the season began. Hicks struggled early, and was replaced by Starkel, who looked better. Then Starkel struggled and then got injured, so Hicks came in and looked better. Then Hicks struggled, so Starkel got the nod. Neither quarterback was able to pull forward, and now at 2-6, pressure is mounting for a change. John Stephen Jones played briefly against Alabama and looked decent, and KJ Jefferson was one of the most highly regarded recruits in the country. With the new redshirt rule, the young ones can get a chance for four games without burning their eligibility, leaving fans clambering for some semblance of hope.
This all leaves me with one question: Why? Why hasn’t anyone been able to pull forward and be the guy? Why does Morris struggle to coach up a quarterback when he hasn’t at any previous stop? Why are the freshmen being left out of the fray? Why are we here in year two?
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, so I’m going to make some educated guesses, and then make the case for who I think should be quarterback. I’ll start off by saying that I feel sorry for Ben Hicks. He’s a record-breaker at SMU, and left his school to work with a former coach. He simply hasn’t been good enough, and with no eligibility left, I’d be shocked if we see him again. I feel sorry for Starkel too. He lost the job to a mediocre quarterback in Kellen Mond, but has done little to reassure the Razorback faithful that Jimbo Fisher made a mistake. With only one year left, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Morris pivot toward the future. That leaves us with John Stephen Jones and KJ Jefferson.
John Stephen Jones is undersized (if he’s 5’11” as listed, then I’m 6’8”), but was a hell of a high school quarterback. He played in a similar system to Morris’ and had mild success against Alabama. KJ Jefferson is raw, but is a freak athlete with a big arm. There are positives to be taken away here. However, it seems as though Morris is out-thinking himself. During the Alabama game, John Stephen Jones had the offense averaging 8 yards per play when he was in at quarterback. Despite this, Morris pulled him to put Starkel back in, who promptly threw an interception. Why? That game was lost. The offense has struggled moving all year, and now it’s moving. Leave it alone!
It’s easy for me to say as an armchair coach, but in some instances, it just feels obvious— you don’t pull the hot hand. Football is weird, and college football is weirder. Sometimes guys who shouldn’t succeed end up being the most successful. Maybe John Stephen Jones isn’t a prototypical SEC quarterback, but when he had the ball, it was working.
KJ Jefferson is an interesting question as well. He seems to be the future at QB, and in my mind has the most potential talent out of anyone in the QB room. However, Morris and company have left him out in the cold this year. We don’t see all of practice, and maybe he struggles there, but at this point in the season, what do you have to lose? We’re not going to a bowl game, and we’re only favored in the Western Kentucky game (against Ty Storey...). Give someone a shot. Let the weirdness of college football play out. Doug Flutie was undersized, Drew Brees was undersized, Russell Wilson was undersized. Cam Newton was too raw as an athlete, Cardale Jones was too raw as an athlete, Kyler Murray was too raw of an athlete. I don’t mean to put John Stephen Jones or KJ Jefferson in that company, but the proof is in the pudding: sometimes weird stuff happens in college football.
Morris needs to figure out the quarterback situation in a hurry. You can’t win in the SEC without consistent quarterback play— we see that play out every week. I don’t know if I’m ready to fire Chad Morris yet, but I know that something needs to change. It’s time to take a risk at quarterback and let someone build a legend. If not, then it may be curtains for a man who seemed on his resume to be a quarterback guru.
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