J.R. and Henry: Finding balance
Football season is almost here. Schedules are circulating, preseason polls are exploding on the Internet and the SEC Media Days began on Wednesday. We are only a few days from August, which means two-a-days and, hopefully, a better understanding of how the offense will look and who will be lined up under center when Arkansas takes on USC in Fayetteville on Sept. 2.
Unfortunately, we don’t yet have answers to either question right now, which is a tough way to go into a season. We went to Coach Charles Ripley’s tailgate party the other night at the magnificent Stephens Center on the UALR campus to listen to Arkansas quarterback’s coach Alex Wood. The man is impressive. He had a clear understanding of his message and where the strengths and weakness exist on offense. He’s articulate and funny and brightens the room when he speaks.
To go along with Wood’s NFL experience, he has bagged a couple of national championships while serving as an assistant with Miami in the '90s. Wood’s discussion of the Razorback offense, however, did nothing to better our understanding of what we can expect this season. “We need to find balance on offense,” was Wood’s central message. Something that has been said over and over again by all the coaches this offseason.
Arkansas, as we all know, has led the SEC in rushing three of the past four seasons. The Hogs, during that time, also saw Darren McFadden cross the 1,000 yard mark as a freshman, joining the ranks for Herschel Walker, Emmitt Smith and others, as only one of a few freshman to accomplish such a goal in the SEC. Another impressive back, Felix Jones, garnered an All-American accolade as a kick returner. But even with these two impressive backs (and an accomplished run blocking offensive line) the Hogs still finished a dismal and unacceptable 4-7 in 2005.
It was clear that if UA Coach Houston Nutt was not going to be fired at the end of last season, then the Razorbacks needed to find balance, because running the ball, no matter how successfully, did not translate into a winning season. Nutt’s conservative offense and ball control kept Arkansas in games, but never seemed to make the Hogs a threat to score when points were desperately needed.
Coach Wood repeated the phrase “finding balance” several times when talking about the Arkansas offense. While McFadden, Jones and redshirt freshman Michael Smith have not been void of praise, it seems that Wood, in reviewing tape from last season, has come to understand what should seem obvious but apparently hasn’t been to the coaching staff in recent years past: Arkansas has to be able to move the ball in the air to beat good teams.
No one is suggesting that Arkansas is going to implement five-wide receiver sets and toss it 65 times a game, Air Force Academy style per Wally Hall. Those offenses, while fun to watch, have yet to produce a serious BCS championship contender. Wood stated that “you can’t win without running the football.” He’s right, of course. But you can’t win without passing it either.
Most recently, it was good to hear Nutt’s comments at SEC Media Days about the play-calling on offense. Nutt stated “it will go down with Gus calling the plays.” Whew. After the spring game, we weren’t sure what was going to happen with this offense, particularly with the rumors swirling that Malzahn had quit. “To disrupt a play-caller I think is very damaging, where you hurt his rhythm, hurt his train of thought. We won't be trying to veto each play every time he calls a play, to answer your question,” Nutt stated.
But some other comments in the same interview still give us pause on how much the offense is going to be different from last year, or just “tweaked” as Houston is fond of saying and mentioned again at Media Days. Look, we get it that McFadden is a bad mofo. But his badness still only got us 4 wins in Houston’s system last year. Arkansas’s offense doesn’t need tweaking. It needs tossing. And then starting over.
Sadly, that isn’t likely to happen. When asked repeatedly at media days about who was going to be calling the plays, Houston stated over and over that Gus would be calling the plays. But that begs the question. Whose plays is he going to be calling? Nutt noted that the playbook for each game would be put together by the offensive staff at the beginning of the week. “Again, I'm going to go back, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday preparation is done of the first-and-10 calls, third-and-long calls, most of that is done. . . . Everything in line, everything in order as we study. There's not going to be that many surprises. That's the thing about playing-calling. I think sometimes it gets a little bit misconstrued. There's work that was done and preparation. You have an idea on third-and-eight, these are our top three. Third-and-three, these are our top three plays.”
So is Malzahn’s offensive genius going to be watered down to a three-play option given a particular down and distance?
Nothing is going to be fixed with this offense if the coaching staff just adds a few pass plays to the existing play book, and then proclaims triumphantly “We’ve achieved balance!” That’s not the way it works, guys. You can’t just run the ball twice, pass the ball twice, and think that’s going to solve all your problems.
In other words, balance is great, but we’d much prefer it if the Houston and Company would start focusing on variety and imagination in playcalling, something that has been completely missing for six years. That’s what we were hoping Gus would bring to the table, and what we know he would if allowed to run his offense, and not some “tweaked” version of Houston’s failed philosophy.
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column regularly on Little Rocking.