Better or worse? Previewing Arkansas’ offense for 2019
Editor’s note: After completing the SEC East, this is the second in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Coming Wednesday: Auburn.
The Arkansas Razorbacks had a rough 2018 season in Chad Morris’ first year as head coach, going 2-10 and struggling mightily on offense.
The Hogs finished 12th in the SEC in passing offense, amassing 192.3 yards per game. That ranked ahead of only Mississippi State and Kentucky, two teams that had run-heavy offenses.
The Razorbacks, however, didn’t necessarily fare any better on the ground last fall. They finished 13th in the SEC in rushing, amassing 143.4 yards per game.
Predictably, they finished last in scoring, averaging just 21.7 points per game.
However, there’s cause for optimism this fall, in part because things can’t get much worse. With a new quarterback, new weapons outside, a returning running back and more familiarity with Morris’ system, though, this could be an exciting offensive season in Fayetteville.
Here, we break down each aspect of the offense and determine whether it will be better or worse than it was in 2018:
Passing offense: Better
Ty Storey was Arkansas’s leading passer last season, finishing with a subpar 1,584 yards, 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Cole Kelley finished with 455 yards, 5 touchdowns and 5 picks. Freshman Connor Noland added 255 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.
None of those lines was particularly inspiring, and that prompted Morris to make some changes heading into this season. Storey and Kelley have transferred, and while Noland is still on the roster, he’s looking more like the quarterback of the future instead of the present.
That job seems to belong to Ben Hicks, who comes to Fayetteville as a graduate transfer from SMU. That’s right, the school Morris used to coach. Hicks threw for an impressive 3,569 yards, 33 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2017, which was Morris’ final year with the Mustangs.
His numbers took a hit in 2018 under first-year head coach Sonny Dykes (2,582 yards, 19 touchdowns, 7 picks), so he decided to reunite with Morris for his final year of eligibility.
As for the receiving corps, the Hogs are going to rely on some new names this fall. In are highly touted freshmen Trey Knox and Treylon Burks. Out are La’Michael Pettway, Jonathan Nance and Jared Cornelius.
At tight end, CJ O’Grady seems poised for a breakout season. In only 8 games last year, he had 30 catches for 400 yards and 6 touchdowns, including a big performance in a loss to Alabama.
Basically, the pieces are there. If Hicks is the real deal, and if the freshman receivers live up to expectations, this passing offense could be dangerous this fall.
Rushing offense: Better
Rakeem Boyd averaged 6 yards per carry last season. Somehow, he didn’t reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark, though, as he was only given 123 touches. He finished with 734 total yards and only 2 touchdowns.
However, that was mostly due to the Arkansas offensive struggles in general. If the passing game has more success this fall, Boyd should fare better, too. He’s a talented back who also makes contributions as a receiver (23 catches for 165 yards). If he doesn’t reach 1,000 yards this year (and score more touchdowns), it’ll be a major disappointment.
The Hogs will miss Hjalte Froholdt up front on the offensive line, but there is some returning talent in that unit. With another year behind them, Boyd’s stock should only go up. Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden provide solid backup options for Boyd, and Hayden got plenty of work this spring with the other two nursing injuries.
Again, the way football is played today, the passing game is often used to set up the run, as opposed to the other way around. With Hicks and the passing attack sure to take a step forward this season, the ground game should follow suit.
Special teams: Better
Connor Limpert is back at kicker after going a perfect 29-for-29 on extra points and knocking through 19-of-24 field-goal tries. With a year in the SEC, he should be even better this fall.
In the return game, it’s business as usual, as both primary return men are back. Deon Stewart figures to handle most of the punt returns, while De’Vion Warren should continue to serve as the top kickoff return man. Those guys have been in these roles for a couple of years, and have been solid. They likely won’t fare worse this year, so if they can be the same or better, that’s good news for the Hogs.
It’ll be interesting to see if Morris tries to use a guy like Hayden in any sort of return role to get him more touches. He’s explosive when he’s healthy, so the Hogs should try to get him the ball in space more often.
This is Year 2 in Morris’ system, and he clearly has a quarterback he trusts in place. That by itself is cause for optimism in Fayetteville.
Again, it’s important to temper that optimism, though. After all, things couldn’t get much worse for the Arkansas offense. Even with that said, though, the pieces are in place for this offense to not just take a small step forward, but to make significant progress in 2019.
It all hinges on Hicks. If he’s as advertised, this offense could be a middle-of-the-pack unit in the SEC. If he gets hurt, or struggles, it could be another long year for the Hogs.