Spring football always represents such a fresh veneer, but especially when a new coaching regime has been installed.
It was hard to get jazzed about Bret Bielema's fifth, and ultimately final, season at the helm of Hog football. The 2016 team closed the year with two awful clunkers, and that altered the landscape for the erstwhile coach and his staff, an underperforming group that was as much his undoing as any other factor. Then Rawleigh Williams III, by far the Hogs' most viable returning source of offensive consistency and productivity, was shelved for good with another neck injury, and the rest of spring and summer had this lingering pall over it.
No such case in 2018. I'm excited, dammit, and you should be too. Y'all can't take me off this delusional cloud of mine — not today, Satan!
Seriously, Arkansas football is somewhat reborn with Chad Morris here, and that is not to besmirch Bielema for the many good things he did during a half-decade where wins and losses didn't quite tell the full tale of either his achievements or his downfall. This isn't blind optimism talking, mind you. Morris is a galvanizing sort, because of what he's accomplished but also what he represents: a change of pace, an air of swagger and a businesslike methodology to recruiting and program building. It's conventional to brand him as an "up-and-comer" but unlike some of the other possible candidates who were rumored to succeed Bielema, namely Memphis' Mike Norvell, he's veered past middle age and not just fueled by youthful exuberance.
At Clemson, Morris simply overhauled the offense entirely and the results have been rather obvious. Since his departure, the Tigers' production has ticked downward ever so slightly and the Brent Venables-led defense has gotten stingier. Over four years as Dabo Swinney's offensive coordinator, the Tigers were a robust 42-11, and even when Morris left to take the reins at SMU, the after-effects of his tutelage were obvious.
Clemson spent that four years not only being well-quarterbacked by the likes of Tahj Boyd, and then Cole Stoudt and a young phenom named DeShaun Watson, but their skill position depth was on par with the likes of Alabama. Wide receivers with size and speed were plentiful, and that's a philosophy that Morris carried down to Dallas in 2015 when he got the gig for the Mustangs. DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins became field-stretching superstars on the edge, parlaying that into NFL riches, and now there's a similarly equipped wideout named Courtland Sutton who is set to make a name for himself professionally after shining for SMU the past two seasons.
The common thread among this trio of Morris-coached wideouts is that they are physical specimens in every conceivable way, all a shade over 200 pounds, over six feet, and lightning-quick out of their cuts and precise running routes. Arkansas fans thought that Bobby Petrino was going to bring all-world receiving talent to Fayetteville, but of the foursome that starred over his four-year run as head coach, none ended up making waves in the NFL. Greg Childs had uncooperative knees, sadly, as he was by far the most physically gifted of the bunch, and while Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton have shown flashes of productivity in the pros, Joe Adams fizzled out quickly. The difference in the Petrino system is that it prized the so-called possession receiver. Morris' philosophy seems to be that if there's a guy who bears a faint physical resemblance to Julio Jones out there, he's going to pursue him, sign him, and make him the centerpiece playmaker in an offense that still deploys two running backs the vast majority of the time. Right now, the Arkansas receiving corps simply doesn't have that proven asset, but you can bet that guys like Jordan Jones, Brandon Martin and Jonathan Nance are going to get opportunities to excel immediately.
If you're going to head to War Memorial Stadium Saturday for the Red-White game to take a gander at this new system, focus on the flankers and ends for this reason. Arkansas will be vertically oriented in a way that it wasn't even under Petrino, and will also be reliant on the running backs in the passing game even more. While a lot of attention will be given to the John Chavis-led defense early on, there's only so much that can be done with the returning crop of players on that side of the ball in a matter of weeks. Morris and his offensive coordinator, Joe Craddock, should be able to get guys like Jared Cornelius and the aforementioned trio of returning pass-catchers to be more effective, much faster, and that is going to be where Arkansas's success in the offseason is best measured.