FAYETTEVILLE -- Many SEC observers predicted the University of Arkansas would struggle in the Razorbacks' first season under Coach Chad Morris.
Yet few expected the Razorbacks to be 1-5 at the midway point and riding a five-game losing streak entering the second half. From a historical perspective, no edition of the Razorbacks has started with a worse record since legendary coach Frank Broyles' debut team opened 0-6 in 1958. On the plus side, Broyles' notable turnaround shows there doesn't have to be long-term gloom for Arkansas football.
A bowl berth this season? It would take a 5-1 finish to earn those critical bonus practices. Morris and the Razorbacks are much more focused on what it will take to break the losing streak first, starting Saturday in Little Rock against Ole Miss.
The Razorbacks will enter Saturday's game having gone 342 days since beating an FBS team, 349 days since their last victory over a Power 5 program -- 38-37 at Ole Miss on Oct. 28 -- and 41 days since tasting any kind of victory.
Morris has to hope the late collapse at Colorado State, in which the Hogs blew a 27-9 lead in a 34-27 loss, and the disastrous 44-17 home loss to North Texas in back-to-back games mark the lowest point of his tenure.
The coaches apparently have kept the locker room from splintering since those confounding outcomes, which Morris described as a storm, and it's evident the Razorbacks still have some fight in their system based on their performances against SEC West heavyweights Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama the past three weeks.
"I think you can ... break it down by quarter if you wanted to," Morris said. "You've got the first three games and the last three games. I think that we've seen progress in a lot of areas.
"Obviously, we haven't gotten to where we want as far as the win column, but we're going to continue to focus on getting ourselves better and that's what I would say."
The run of injuries on the offensive line; the indecision at quarterback the first three games; lingering injuries for veteran defenders Randy Ramsey, Dre Greenlaw and Kevin Richardson; and catastrophic special-teams showings have conspired to make winning difficult.
Through the troubles, defensive coordinator John Chavis and his staff schemed up solid plans for most of the first five games before being shredded by the elite Alabama offense.
On the other side of the ball, the quarterback carousel, offensive line issues and a lot of misfires marked the opening few weeks. To their credit, Morris and coordinator Joe Craddock showed their chops by coming up with a heady plan to move the ball against Alabama for a unit that could have been intimidated by the Crimson Tide.
Here's an analysis of the Razorbacks at the midway point of the season.
Overall: Credit the Razorbacks for sticking to the grindstone, trying new schemes and showing improvement in the face of adversity. The coaching staff hasn't cried publicly over the major run of injuries on the offensive front or the loss of key skill position talent for various amounts of time through the first half. The current iteration of the offense likely would smoke Game Two opponent Colorado State, which upset the Hogs.
Quarterback: Simply put, the duo of Ty Storey and Cole Kelley -- with minor contributions from Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones -- played losing football from Games 2 through 4. Storey showed signs of improvement in the road loss to Auburn, then really took strides in the losses to Texas A&M and Alabama. If he continues with the confident style he showed against Alabama -- looking unfazed against the pass rush, maneuvering in the pocket and making on-target throws on the move -- the Razorbacks can win games. The Cole Kelley short-yardage packages have been a good way to keep the big guy engaged and productive.
Running back: Perhaps the deepest area on the team, this group has been productive in both the run and pass games and has been solid in pass protection. Devwah Whaley's likely return this week and pairing with fast-rising Rakeem Boyd will give the Hogs two strong lead backs, with Chase Hayden not far behind. T.J. Hammonds needs more touches on the edges, not the third and 1 on which he hesitated vs. Texas A&M. Maleek Williams' future looks bright. If the blocking holds up in the second half, this group should surge.
Receivers/tight ends: The Razorbacks are far from achieving a full-blown dose of the Chad Morris offense, when receivers get more targets and downfield shots. The deep balls have been limited since the ill-fated efforts vs. North Texas' man coverage. La'Michael Pettway, Jordan Jones, Deon Stewart, Mike Woods and others are capable. The presence of the tight ends is growing by the week and starting to equal what was expected from the group led now by Austin Cantrell and Cheyenne O'Grady. More consistency at getting open and better blocking are needed throughout. The slot, with Jared Cornelius, De'Vion Warren and sometimes Chase Harrell, needs to be more productive.
Line: No question this group suffered through the first few games with lack of continuity due to the rash of injuries, and it affected the entire offensive operation. Things have looked much better the past two weeks with what coaches believe are the top five of Colton Jackson, Hjalte Froholdt, Ty Clary, Johnny Gibson and Brian Wallace. Noah Gatlin acquitted himself well early in the year and joins a promising group that includes Austin Capps, Dalton Wagner, Kirby Adcock and Shane Clenin.
Overall: The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette predicted major strides on this side of the ball, based on the presence of veterans on all levels and the schemes of invigorated defensive coordinator John Chavis, and that call was on target for the most part. When defensive lineman Randy Ramsey, linebacker Dre Greenlaw and defensive back Kevin Richardson got healthy, the unit picked up its performance for several weeks. The Alabama game last week was a step backward.
Line: This group had been getting consistent pressure on the quarterback and solid gap control in the run game until the torrid Alabama offense showed up. Still, Armon Watts is one of the SEC's breakout players, while McTelvin Agim and Ramsey have been very good. T.J. Smith isn't as flashy, but he's been consistent. Tying up blockers for the linebackers to run, fill and scrape has been huge. The depth took a shot with the loss of Briston Guidry to arthroscopic knee surgery, but he should be back soon.
Linebackers: When Greenlaw and De'Jon Harris have gotten protection from the front four, they have been wildly productive with not near as many missteps or getting caught up in traffic like last year. The third linebacker hasn't seen much action, and production has been spotty when they are involved. Perhaps Chavis can give his stalwarts a little more in-game rest during the second half of the season to see who else can rise up and contribute.
Secondary: Junior Ryan Pulley has made a solid return from his pectoral injury as Arkansas' top cover corner, though Texas A&M and Alabama had some success against him. The other cornerback spot has been picked on, but redshirt freshman Jarques McClellion has shown promise. Many SEC corners will get beaten by Alabama's Jerry Jeudy. The depth issue at cornerback, including two-game starter Chevin Calloway's departure, has come into play in a few games. Kamren Curl's move to strong safety looks very smart. He and free safety Santos Ramirez have been hurt by bad angles only a few times, and Ramirez got severely trucked once against North Texas.
Special teams: Catastrophe is probably the most appropriate word to describe the kicking units against FBS opponents after the opening kickoff against Texas A&M. Since then, things have settled somewhat against some of the SEC's best. Kicker Connor Limpert has a career-best 54-yard field goal on his ledger, tied for second longest in the SEC, but he missed a couple of makeable kicks and is 8 of 11. The punt team has gotten stronger since major malfunctions against North Texas and Auburn. De'Vion Warren showed last week what he can do with just a crack in the return game. Deon Stewart has broken a few punts.
Coaching: The staff could have helped the team more in losses to Colorado State and North Texas. Morris elected not to try a fourth and 1 at Colorado State that, in retrospect, despite pinning the Rams inside their 5 with a punt, proved to be a bad decision. The offensive staff did not adjust well versus North Texas when the plan to burn the Mean Green's man coverage on the outside did not work out. Morris and the offensive staff showed they are not out of their league last week with a good plan against Alabama. Defensively, the Hogs looked close to maximizing their talent in most of the games until running into the Tide. As a new coach in the SEC, Morris hasn't pushed back publicly against some of the suspect calls or no-calls that have gone against his team in each of the three SEC losses. Perhaps that isn't his style. But at some point, he and his team are going to have to fight the status quo to shake things up.
OLE MISS AT ARKANSAS
WHEN 6:30 p.m.
WHERE War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock
TV SEC Network
Sports on 10/11/2018
Print Headline: Course correction