Sports

How Arkansas Revived Its Program

Arkansas was in dire straits when it fired Chad Morris in November 2019. Over almost two seasons, Morris had coached 22 games and won four. The last straw was a 45-19 home loss to Western Kentucky, quarterbacked by a player who had transferred out of Arkansas’s program under Morris. But the biggest problem was that Arkansas could not compete in the SEC. Morris went 0-14 against the conference, and Arkansas added two more losses after his firing. 

To right the ship, the Hogs hired Sam Pittman, a longtime offensive line coach who worked at Arkansas under Bret Bielema and most recently led the line at Georgia. Pittman knew the ways of the SEC, having coached in the conference since joining Tennessee’s staff in 2012. More than that, he seemed genuinely excited to be taking over the worst team in the conference as a 58-year-old first-time head coach. The Washington Post recently reported that Pittman and his wife “broke down in tears” when Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek offered him the gig. He seems to genuinely enjoy calling the hogs. He wants to make Arkansas a program people will talk about at church or Waffle House. 

The Hogs took noticeable steps forward in a 3-7 campaign in 2020, and they’ve only built atop them in 2021. A third of the way into his second season, Pittman is the toast of the SEC. Arkansas woke up on Monday ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25, with a 4-0 record and a chance to have its best season since Bobby Petrino took Arkansas to a Cotton Bowl and a No. 5 final ranking in 2011. A win over then-No. 7 Texas A&M was one of the biggest blockbusters of Week 4, and Saturday’s visit to No. 2 Georgia will get the College GameDay treatment. 

The on-field story of Arkansas’s revival is multifaceted, but we don’t have to overcomplicate it: Yurachek hired a big, beefy line coach who understands what it takes to beat people up in the SEC. One season and a quarter of another into his tenure, Arkansas is playing like a team coached by a big, beefy line coach who knows exactly how to maul you. At the same time, Arkansas has cut back on the mistakes that so often doomed it under Morris.

Morris came up as an offensive coach, serving as Clemson’s offensive coordinator before taking the head coaching job at SMU. But he never could field effective scoring machines at Arkansas. The Hogs’ expected points added per offensive play, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group,  dipped into the negatives in Morris’s first season and didn’t recover. The driving factor behind Arkansas’s offensive incompetence was the lack of a functioning pass game. In the Morris years, Arkansas averaged an SEC-worst -0.17 EPA per pass play, nearly three times worse than the next-worst team in the SEC, Vanderbilt (and 127th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams overall in those years). 

The pass game improved in 2020 and has done so again in 2021. A few things seem to be going on. For one thing, Arkansas QBs are doing a better job avoiding interceptions. In 2018, quarterback Ty Storey was picked off on 4 percent of his passes, and in 2019, Nick Starkel threw an INT on 5.6 percent of his. Feleipe Franks cut that to 1.7 percent in 2020, and KJ Jefferson has so far been picked off on 2.6 percent of his attempts, still a much lower rate than his Morris-era predecessors. Combined with some gains in the run game, Arkansas has posted 0.15 offensive EPA per play, 40th-best in the FBS.

Jefferson’s line seems to have made strides. Defenses have sent the house after him, blitzing on 36.4 percent of his dropbacks after Arkansas’s starters the prior three years faced blitzes on 26 to 34 percent of their dropbacks. But they all faced pressure on between 33 and 47 percent of their dropbacks, while Jefferson has only seen it on 29.5 percent of his own. The translation: Defenses are sending more heat after Jefferson, but his Hogs up front are picking it up. That has left Jefferson with fewer defenders to throw against, and he’s averaged 10.8 yards per throw. 

That offensive line is also doing a nice job road-grading in the run game for Jefferson and running backs Trelon Smith and Raheim Sanders. From 2018 to 2020, Arkansas ball-carriers averaged 2.49 yards per carry before contact, which was 52nd in FBS. In 2021, that figure is 2.99 yards before contact, which ranks 28th. The Hogs are also finishing their runs with more authority, getting 2.83 yards after contact, compared with 2.45 yards over the prior three years.1 It helps that all five offensive linemen returned with starting experience. The improved support system for Jefferson and the backs has come together for a team average of 5.55 yards per run, up from 4.13 in 2018-20.

Arkansas’s bread is mostly buttered on defense, though. Morris’s biggest problem, as well as Bielema’s before him, was his team’s inability to stop anyone. Arkansas allowed opposing offenses to generate gaudy EPA figures every year from 2015 (0.11) to 2019 (0.17), when the Hogs’ defense bottomed out as Morris was getting fired. Things got a little better in 2020 but have changed completely in 2021, as Arkansas opponents are losing 0.18 EPA per snap. In defensive EPA per play, Arkansas is eighth in FBS.

The foundation is in the front seven. Arkansas has gotten much harder to run on since Morris’s last year, with opponents’ yards per carry going from 5.98 to 5.03 to 4.16. The Hogs are meeting opposing runners more quickly, allowing 2.30 yards before contact per run, as opposed to a 2.50-yard average the previous three years. They’re also hauling them down more quickly after contact, in a mirror image of Arkansas’s running backs dragging defenders along for more yards.

You can also see the front’s influence in Arkansas’s improved pass defense. The Hogs have blitzed on 7.4 percent of opponent dropbacks, a steep drop from 18.4 percent in 2020, which itself was a steep drop from 35.3 percent in 2019. But despite Arkansas blitzing less, the Hogs are creating more pressure. Opposing QBs have been under pressure on 36.9 percent of their dropbacks, up from 18.4 percent last year. They’ve been sacked on 7.6 percent of them, more than twice the 3.5 percent rate last year.2 Getting home with fewer pass rushers means Arkansas’s secondary has a lighter coverage load. It has come together in the form of an ugly 24.5 adjusted QBR for Arkansas opponents. That’s down from 69.1 in 2019 and 40.2 in 2020. 

It also helps to make fewer avoidable errors. The lower interception rate is a key element of that, and the Hogs’ ball-carriers are fumbling on just 0.5 percent of their carries –– down from 2.2 percent over the previous three years. The defining play of the Morris era arguably came in 2018, when the Razorbacks let a North Texas punt returner con them with a fake fair catch that led to a 90-yard touchdown return. This year’s team has not lost focus in such obvious ways, although Pittman will want to clean up what’s been an onslaught of penalties. The Hogs’ great start has come despite taking nine of those for 79 yards per game, their worst figures since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking them in detail in 2004. 

Pittman’s team is not a finished product. The Hogs might not be for real in the way people tend to discuss such things in college football. Georgia, possessor of the country’s best defense by EPA per play and points allowed per game, could mess with Jefferson to an alarming extent. But whether the Hogs have joined the SEC’s elite –– they probably haven’t –– should not be the point. Under Pittman, Arkansas has two things it didn’t under Morris: competence and an identity, as a big, wompin’ football machine. For now, that is more than enough. 


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