Better or worse? Previewing Arkansas' offense in 2020 and the impact Feleipe Franks will make
Editor’s note: This is the 2nd in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Next: Auburn.
After a whirlwind past 2 seasons, Arkansas is looking for any modicum of improvement it can find.
The Razorbacks’ offense was dismal during the Chad Morris era and finished ranked 111th this past season. The Hogs averaged just 21.4 points per game — 13th in the SEC — after averaging 21.7 in 2018. Problems were everywhere with an ongoing quarterback controversy, a struggling line, and skill players trying to hold it all together.
Arkansas fired Morris with 2 games left in the season and hired Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman as his successor in the offseason. Before taking over as the Bulldogs’ OL coach, Pittman coached the Razorbacks’ line from 2013-15 and has spent every season since he entered the D-I ranks in 1994 coaching the position.
His history with the program and respect for it, along with his expertise coaching players up front were cited as two of the primary reasons for his hiring. There is plenty of room for improvement after last year, but the good news for Pittman is people seem to understand this rebuild will take time. This year will be primarily about establishing a culture and making small changes.
Pittman did a great job of convincing a lot of the key cogs on his team to stick through the coaching change. As a result, he’ll have plenty to work with on offense this season. The addition of grad transfer QB Feleipe Franks alone brings optimism the team will at least be slightly better than last season because *knocks on wood* it can’t get any worse, right?
Key Losses: Cheyenne O’Grady, TE; Austin Capps, OT
Key Returnees: Rakeem Boyd, RB; Treylon Burks, WR; Trey Knox, WR; Mike Woods, WR; Ricky Stromberg, OT
Potential Breakout Players: Hudson Henry, TE; Feleipe Franks, QB
With the COVID-19 pandemic canceling spring practice, Pittman is nearly 6 months into his inaugural year without working with his squad on the field. While not ideal, at least film from 2019 will reveal plenty to him about his offensive talent. The Razorbacks return 8 starters – including 4 of 5 offensive linemen. Tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, who led Arkansas with 53.1 receiving yards per game, is the biggest piece to replace.
Passing Offense: Better
Arkansas’ quarterback situation in 2019 was, in a word, messy.
Ben Hicks began the season as the starter, though that lasted only 2 games. After Nick Starkel came in to outperform Hicks in the second half of Week 2 against Ole Miss, Morris opted for Starkel the following week. But he couldn’t do enough the secure the job either. The situation eventually devolved into a guessing game, with Morris declining to even name a starter ahead of a Week 8 game against Auburn. By the end of the year, Starkel had 5 starts to Hicks’ 4. Neither started in the final 3 games, with Arkansas rolling out a new starter each time.
The good news? It’s going to be incredibly difficult to do worse than that.
In fact, Arkansas has the opportunity to be a lot better. It signed Florida grad transfer Feleipe Franks this offseason, who is the clear favorite to start in the fall. His only competitors are KJ Jefferson and John Stephen Jones, both of whom have 1 start from last season.
But Franks has proven he can perform as an SEC starter. In his sophomore season at Florida, he threw for 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns. He was on pace to best that last year before an ankle injury in Week 4 ended his season.
He will be the biggest key to success for the Razorbacks’ offense this season. If he comes back from the injury fresh, learns the playbook quickly once practice resumes and meshes with the rest of the team, the offense could make big strides. Arkansas returns all of its starting receivers from a year ago, so Franks won’t lack for weapons. Treylon Burks and Trey Knox are poised to improve in their sophomore season after combining for 860 yards on 57 catches a year ago. Mike Woods, who led the team with 4 touchdown catches, is back for his junior year.
Tight end is the largest looming question mark, but there is confidence in redshirt freshman Hudson Henry. The No. 4 tight end in the class of 2019, Henry played in just 3 games last season and finished with a mere 3 catches for 15 yards. With the departure of O’Grady, Henry will likely be thrust into a starting role this season. The transition from high school to college is jarring for a lot of players and a redshirt season often eases that. Arkansas hopes that will be the case with Henry. He clearly has potential and should get the opportunity to realize some of it this year. The only other tight end is senior Blake Kern, who played 10 games last year.
Pittman should also do plenty to improve an offensive line that returns 80 percent. Keep in mind, Arkansas ranked 103rd in passing yards per game this past season. And it was the only SEC team that threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14).
So it would be pretty shocking if the Hogs couldn’t improve a little bit this season.
Rushing Offense: Better
Rakeem Boyd is without a doubt the most important player Pittman convinced to stay this offseason.
The former Last Chance U star rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns, the most productive player in an otherwise dismal year for the Hogs. He could have opted for the NFL Draft but chose to stay. He later stated on Twitter a desire to improve his draft stock.
That’s why I came back… https://t.co/AM6D6ME5QM
— Rakeem boyd ™ (@boyd_rakeem) May 1, 2020
He comes back as not only one of the top running backs in the SEC but also the country. He is among the top 25 leading returning rushers. With a clear motive for this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Boyd take another leap.
It helps that Pittman’s style of offense seems to favor running the ball. Since 2013, Pittman-coached offensive lines have led the way for at least a top 50 finish in rushing each season. Three seasons during that time period the team ranked among the top 25 rushing offenses.
Boyd won’t be the only option on the ground for Arkansas, though. Franks has shown he is a threat there as well, rushing for 350 yards and 7 touchdowns his sophomore year at Florida. If the ankle injury doesn’t affect his mobility, Arkansas could find ways to implement him in the running game to take some pressure off Boyd.
The real battle will be for backup running back. Chase Hayden and T.J. Hammonds offer the most experience as seniors but haven’t seen much playing time. Redshirt freshman A’Montae Spivey or true freshman Dominique Johnson could both push them for the spot.
Regardless of what happens with the backup role, the return of a driven Boyd coupled with the improvements Pittman will implement to the offensive line should make the running game better.
Special Teams: Even
Arkansas must replace kicker Connor Limpert, who nailed 14 of his 19 field-goal attempts last season. The Razorbacks brought in Duke grad transfer AJ Reed and also added touted Vito Calvaruso out of Jefferson City, Missouri, as a walk-on. Reed will likely take Limpert’s spot after going 15-of-18 on his field-goal attempts last season for the Blue Devils, including a 51-yarder against Syracuse.
De’Vion Warren and Treylon Burks handled kick and punt return duties last year. Both are back this season, so the special teams should at least stay where it was in that regard.
Arkansas should be better nearly everywhere on offense this season.
But better in this scenario doesn’t necessarily mean even a winning record. With the way the past 2 seasons unfolded, Arkansas fans should look at progress in small steps. Franks and Boyd will be the stars that buoy this offense, but the development of the receiving corps and Henry will be a critical barometer for success this year.
Additionally, how the offensive line responds to Pittman’s coaching will determine how successful this offense can be not only this season but later on. Ricky Stromberg, who plays right guard, was named to the Pro Football Offensive Focus All-Freshman team last season. His growth is another factor to monitor.
Arkansas has talent on offense. The shortened practice period is a concern with a new coaching staff, but once the team gets rolling, it has the players to compete in a few SEC games in 2020. If it can do that, the future is looking up in Fayetteville.