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Green jerseys and red herrings



EDITOR’S NOTE: For the second straight week we offer a regular Little Rocking weblog feature, a sports column from “J.R. and Henry,” to fill this week’s sports space and invite you to check them out twice a week on the Little Rocking blog on the Times homepage.

Sometimes it’s difficult to determine which is more remarkable: that Arkansas fans work themselves into a frenzy debating a spring scrimmage, or that the majority of the media rush to defend every Houston Nutt decision quicker than Old Yeller did for Travis. So when the talk following the University of Arkansas’s spring Red-White game centered around Nutt’s decisions to put green jerseys of protection on his star running backs and to run a basic offense that bared no mark of new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s reported magic touch, Hog fans had a topic of discussion for the summer.

Some complained that Nutt misled the public by hyping the game, causing Razorbackers to drive great distances to see a glorified practice. Luckily, the gaggle of Nutt yes-men in the media began spreading the party line. Arkansas can’t show too much to Southern Cal since the Sept. 2 opener is on ESPN. And, no need to risk injury to your best players on the last practice of the season. One columnist noted that Nutt had cleared his decision with Barry Switzer, Fred Akers, Ken Hatfield and Merv Johnson. Wow. What a relief. It’s great to know Merv Johnson (a former Frank Broyles line coach who’s been gone so long from the UA, most fans might be expected to say, “who?”) has as much say in Arkansas’s offense as Malzahn.

However, the Nutt apologists missed the point. Fans were not mad at Nutt’s spring game decisions. They were mad because Nutt told them one thing and did another, although after eight years of Nutt’s doublespeak, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be surprised.

But it’s equally hard to fault Arkansas fans for being disappointed in the lackluster offensive show at the Red-White game. They were caught up in the excitement of Malzahn’s hiring and the hope of a better day. It’s been a tough last 15 years for Hog fans. Zero Southeastern Conference titles has a way of doing that. Fans never considered Mississippi and Mississippi State as equals, but facts are facts and those are the two other Western Division teams with no SEC titles since expansion of the conference in 1991. Meanwhile, Alabama, Auburn and LSU each have multiple crowns. And after the promise shown in 1998, Nutt has the program steadily losing sight of those top teams.

Unfortunately, all the green jersey talk detracted from the big concern of spring. That is, whether Malzahn and his hurry-up offense will be accepted by a coaching staff that has preached ball control for the last six years. Human nature being what it is, it would be surprising that veteran college assistant coaches, some with Nutt since his Murray State days, would welcome as boss a coach a month removed from leading high schoolers. So when Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sports columnist Wally Hall mentioned the rumors swirling that there may be some resentment among the old hands at Gus’ newfangled approach, fans were rightfully concerned. But the columnists (including Hall) again stepped in and assured everyone that all was well.

Is that really true? After spring, Malzahn commented that while in the future Arkansas’s offense will look more like the offense he ran at Springdale, for now the running game was going to be the focus. “Obviously, in a perfect world, I like to throw it a lot. But we’re going to do what gives our team the best chance of being successful.” So is Malzahn changing Arkansas’s offense or is it changing him?

The fact is, Malzahn’s authority and offense will only be accepted if it’s accepted by Nutt. Nutt’s comments last year leave little doubt that hiring an offensive coordinator with play-calling duties was not his idea. In most SEC programs, back-to-back losing seasons in your seventh and eighth years on the job means a new head coach, not just a new offensive coordinator. So in that regard, Nutt should be thankful that he has a ninth chance to turn the tide. Which is why Malzahn deserves every opportunity to run his offense and it’s in Nutt’s interest to allow it. The chemistry of the coaching staff and the success of Arkansas’s season depends not on whether Malzahn can do the job, but on whether Malzahn has a chance to do his job.

That’s the story of the spring, and that’s the story of the fall, green jerseys and red herrings aside.

J.R. and Henry are a couple of sports fanatics who have tired of the same ol’ song and dance of the statewide sports columnists and are offering their opinions on the Little Rocking blog on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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