Chad Morris' clear and present hurdle last week, upon being anointed as the Arkansas Razorbacks' sixth permanent head football coach in a quarter-century of occupancy in the Southeastern Conference, was to convince grumbling, listless fans that his credentials were something greater than the seemingly pedestrian 14-22 record in three seasons as the lead pony for the long-besieged SMU program.
He grasped the opportunity, approaching the challenge with atypical zeal for a guy with no prior connection to the state, much less the flagship university thereof. If you were a doubter when the hire was announced, as I freely admit that I was, your tune started getting a bit cheerier once Morris got to work.
And he did, in all conceivable ways. He stirred the defense in an early locker-room powwow with a bold proclamation that the best defensive coordinator in the country would be arriving (as of this moment, that hire hasn't been made but some formidable candidates have been bandied about). He gave a top-shelf interview during the Hogs' basketball game about his desire to take his high-speed, variable offensive philosophy to the SEC and maximize Arkansas's best returning talent while reassembling a Texas recruiting pipeline that has sputtered in recent years with Bret Bielema focusing on other states and regions to mine talent.
Morris is the Gus Malzahn we needed, not the Gus Malzahn many of us convinced ourselves we wanted. His ardent belief in having skill players with quickness and endurance and a quarterback to direct traffic calmly amid a frenzied attack is akin to the Auburn coach's hurry-up no-huddle, but only in an ancillary manner. Team speed will be at a premium, and creativity and deception won't necessarily be hallmarks. Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock believe in vertical threats and two-back sets, and pinpoint execution of a weighty tome of a playbook. It's a bit of a shame Austin Allen missed this boat by a year.
SMU improved dramatically over Morris' three-year stint, from two to five to seven wins, but the Mustangs also made some perceptible strides on defense despite giving up batches of points in their losses. Morris has made it clear that he won't neglect the defensive side, a departure from the way fellow play-calling specialist Bobby Petrino assumed this job a decade ago. Petrino convinced himself and the fans that his offensive acumen could easily outstrip the deficiencies on the other side, which is why his defensive coordinator for all four seasons, Willy Robinson, was left to languish in that role and hasn't found similar employment since.
Where Morris figures to score fastest, however, is in cutting trails across this state and his beloved state of Texas for talent. The Hogs weren't high in the running for mega-talent Gerry Bohanon, a four-star quarterbacking phenom from Earle, but that may now change. Bohanon has size and wheels that are coveted in this era and scheme, and Morris seems determined to entice him by luring high-caliber receiving talent to the Hill. He flipped SMU commit Mike Woods to his new destination quickly, and Woods was a prospective jewel of SMU's incoming class who had offers from larger and more prolific schools. Linemen wanting to be at the forefront of this downhill machine are taking interest.
It represents a refresh for a program that had gotten stale and uninteresting at an alarming pace. That may be the greatest boost that Morris provides, and it's a credit to those involved in his hiring that they saw the sorely needed stylistic shift. In the three campaigns out of the 26 where the Hogs reached double-digit win totals in the ruthless SEC, an offense that employed pace and innovation was the calling card. Morris knows this, and eschews anything that might be considered moderation.
It will accordingly be an offense that leans hard toward the aggressive. The expectation is that Morris' choice of a defensive guru will reflect the same mentality.
Hammer down? Don't mind if I do. Best of luck, Coach Morris — a success-starved program awaits your feeding it.