Keys To Victory

GRAY UNIFORMS, POOR PLAY HAVE ALUM SEEING RED

Posted: October 28, 2017 at 1 a.m.

The email came Monday morning. There have been a few like it of late. It’s what happens when Arkansas is on a losing streak. It’s called venting.

An alum from far away had watched parts of the Arkansas loss to Auburn on TV. Not all. He said he turned it off in the first half, disgusted.

I knew of many who left in the third quarter as Auburn rolled to four quick touchdowns en route to a 52-20 rout.

No, this grad from 1969 had turned off his big screen much earlier when the game was still within doubt.

But his thoughts on the merits of the game hinged not on the play on the field, but the uniforms being worn by his alma mater.

“There was no Razorback on the helmet,” the email read. “Disgraceful. Disgusting.”

That was only partially true. Those gray helmets — called anthracite — sported a big chrome Razorback on either side. But chrome only pops against the sunlight, and there isn’t much of that for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff in October.

The helmets looked good at the start of the game and bad at the end — kind of like the team.

There were a couple more emails in which I tried to explain it. Finally, I just sent him a photo. “Oh, never mind,” came the response. “I’m good.”

Well, it’s not good in the Ozarks these days. It doesn’t take much to set off a fan looking for blood. It could be that Bret Bielema is the target. He’s struggling, no doubt. Since Arkansas’ last trip to Mississippi last November, the record is 2-7. Even if you just look at this season’s 2-5, that’s enough to set off many.

It also could be that Jeff Long is the target. This is the athletics director that supposedly stumbled into Bobby Petrino, just a lucky stroke of the Atlanta coach asking into the search at the last minute. And then, the naysayers say, Long fired him for no good reason.

I don’t agree, but that’s another column.

They say Long didn’t have anything to do with hiring a good basketball coach. Mike Anderson was destined to be back at Arkansas. Anyone could have pulled that off.

I don’t agree, but that’s still another column.

I don’t worry too much about the uniforms, or the hiring history of Long. I probably couldn’t do it any better. Bielema fit the criteria I’d look for if I was hiring a coach. Anderson might not have been interested in coming home if I’d called him. Long pulled it off and should get the credit.

The buyouts are interesting. How Arkansas would be able to pay Bielema several millions in buyout, I’ve got no clue.

It is interesting that Petrino is the culprit on the buyouts. I learned that this week when Tommy Tuberville spoke to the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. Coaches had no buyouts until Petrino agreed to secretly meet with Auburn when Tuberville was a sitting head coach.

Jimmy Sexton, Tuberville’s agent, then wrote a contract that Auburn signed giving the coach the first major buyout. It’s been like that across the major conferences ever since. And they are rising at a crazy pace. USA Today’s database for head coach salaries was released this week and nine coaches have buyouts in excess of $20 million. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney leads them all with a $40 million buyout.

OK, back to the Razorbacks on the helmets. They were tough to see on the anthracite helmets, but what’s tougher to see — and my major concern — is any major progress on either side of the ball as far as line play.

That’s what Bielema has to improve, not the uniforms. By the way, I think Bielema is a traditionalist as far as uniforms. He’d play in the throwbacks worn by the 1964 national champs if he had it his way.

I just want him to get it his way on the line of scrimmage. I’ve heard this week that he has yet to learn the way of the SEC, that he doesn’t understand the style of ball and that the way his Wisconsin teams played won’t work in this league.

That’s a bunch of cheese. The problem with Bielema is that he and his staff haven’t recruited enough SEC linemen. The ones he had in Wisconsin like Joe Thomas, Travis Frederick and J.J. Watt would be fine in the SEC, if there were enough of them. If they can play in the NFL — and Bielema has them scattered across pro football — they could play in the SEC.

Tuberville explained it right at the TD Club this week: recruiting is the king in the SEC. It’s more important than anyplace else. He also pointed to where Arkansas should focus recruiting, east Texas. Every school is different in where it should go to recruit and that’s what Bielema perhaps fails to understand.

I suspect Arkansas will wear their traditional all-white road uniforms at Ole Miss this weekend. They will have on a red helmet with an easy to see white Razorback. That’s not to say anything else is wrong, but at least this team will look like Razorbacks on the big screen.

Can they run the ball? Can they stop the run? It’s what SEC football is all about. That was something else Tuberville said this week. You better find a way to run it and play defense.

I’ll cover that in the keys to victory. They may sound like a broken record, because they never change. Tuberville would say as much.

THE OLE MISS RUN-NING GAME — It’s not a secret that the best players on the Ole Miss football team are at wide receiver. A.J. Brown, Van Jefferson, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf are terrific. All have caught at least 26 passes. Jonathan Nance, the top UA receiver, has 27, but the next closest receiver for the Razorbacks has 17.

But it’s the way the Rebels run the ball that might be scariest for the Hogs. There is so much focus on stopping the pass that defenses are spread too thinly to stop the run. Line splits are massive. There are huge running lanes and ways to isolate defenders in space.

Jordan Wilkins, who is probable after injuring his ankle last week against LSU, leads the Rebels with 468 yards on 84 carries. He averages 5.6 yards per carry. There seem to be big plays each week in the running game. He knows how to hit the creases in those wide splits, following left tackle Greg Little (6-6, 325 pounds).

Arkansas defensive line coach John Scott knows the game will hinge on stopping the Ole Miss running game. Those line splits are a concern.

“I was talking to one of my friends who coaches in the NFL last night,” Scott said. “He asked me what is different from being back in college after coaching in the NFL the last couple of years. That’s what I told him, these line splits like we will see this week.

“They make you go with them, and then they bunch those wide receivers two or three together as far to the sideline as you can imagine. So they create lots of space for their running game. It’s tough.

“Yeah, they throw it, but they also are creating space and get big plays in the running game. We’ve got to stop that.”

THE ARKANSAS RUN-NING GAME — It’s been tough to find, but maybe this is the week the Hogs show up with a running game. It hurts that Chase Hayden is done with a broken lower leg. But this might be the week that more running room can be found. Ole Miss will blitz, sometimes allowing for big plays in the run.

The Ole Miss defense has given up 365, 326, 188 and 393 yards in its last four games against Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt and LSU, respectively.

Does that mean an Arkansas offense should be able to run on the Rebels on Saturday in Oxford? That wasn’t something UA offensive line coach Kurt Anderson was taking for granted.

“Obviously, it doesn’t matter what the numbers say,” Anderson said after practice Tuesday. “It’s about toughness, grit and getting off the ball. As a 2-5 team, I do not think we are licking our chops about anyone.”

Anderson sees the same kind of tough assignments lurking on the Ole Miss defensive line. It never gets easy in the SEC. Tackle Josiah Coatney (6-4, 302) has 36 tackles. End Breeland Speaks (6-3, 285) has 35.

“They have a couple of war daddies up front,” Anderson said. “Those guys can change the game. It’s not going to be any different each week. Everyone in the SEC has players like that.”

BATTLE OF THE BACKUP QBS — Ole Miss lost starter Shea Patterson for the season with a knee injury last week against LSU. Arkansas starter Austin Allen has missed the last two weeks with a shoulder injury. He’s doubtful again this week, but has practiced on a limited basis this week. He’s probably one week away.

So it comes down to Jordan Ta’amu for Ole Miss and Cole Kelley for Arkansas. Kelley has played more. That is good news and bad news for the Hogs. The bad news is that they don’t have much of a book on Ta’amu.

Scott said some of the UA preparation included looking at junior college tape. There was a nice slice of tape from last week when Ta’amu was 7 of 11 for 78 yards. He also ran for 20 yards.

“He’s a runner, light on his feet,” Scott said. “So we know that. He looks like he can run their offense. They didn’t change anything last week and I doubt they could change a lot in one week. They are probably going to run the things they’ve been running. Maybe they add a few more rollouts to make it easy for him.”

Kelley has showed flashes and also has some ability to run. He’s hardly light on his feet. He’s more of a downhill threat at 6-7, 268 pounds. What he has to improve is ball security. He had three official fumbles and another loose overturned by official review. He lost two fumbles, both of which led to Auburn scores.

Arkansas offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Enos said there has been a great focus on improving Kelley’s ball security in the pocket.

“It’s two hands on the ball when you are moving forward,” Enos said. “Eyes are down the field. If the eyes are not down the field, you are no longer a passer.”

THE POCKET — Which team can put pressure on the backup quarterback? Enos knows that it hardly ever is a perfect pocket. He revealed this week that his past research shows the specific numbers when it’s good and when it breaks down.

“I do a specific study on how often the pocket goes according to plans,” Enos said. “Over a five-year period, I can tell you that it’s about 48 percent of the time.”

This year might be an anomaly in that the pocket hasn’t been great for Allen and Kelley. But that’s not the point of the study as it relates to Kelley right now after suffering six sacks last week against Auburn.

What Enos was talking about was that he wants Kelley to handle the good with the bad in the pocket. That means adjusting with a slide forward, a slide to the right or even managing a throw when a follow-through motion isn’t practical.

“We practice all of those situations,” Enos said Monday when reviewing the 52-20 loss to Auburn.

Enos said he’s always felt it important to practice the pocket situations that aren’t as great because it’s hardly ever more than 50 percent that the quarterbacks are in a perfect world.

“So if it’s 48 percent that it’s not perfect, that means that more than half the time, they are having to move,” Enos said. “We work on drills to cover that. I make them slide forward, slide to the right. It’s hardly ever going to be perfect. So I want to practice what happens in a game.

“In my studies of my time at Central Michigan and one year here, it’s between 45 and 50 percent. So I want to practice throwing in all of those situations. We even practice not being able to follow through. When they get in a game and they face that, they will know how to respond when it’s not perfect.

“I think as a coach, you figure out all of the scenarios and then practice for them. You want to keep building the instincts of a young quarterback.”

ENERGY — Neither of these teams has sustained energy. Ole Miss (3-4) has lost four of five with the lone triumph against Vanderbilt. Arkansas (2-5) has given up lots of points all season, more than 40 in all of its SEC games.

So who can muster some defensive energy? Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads could definitely provide the point in last week’s game when the balloon popped on his side of the ball.

The Tigers drove 75 yards in 10 plays to open the second half to take a 24-6 lead. The Hogs visibly deflated after quarterback Jarrett Stidham scrambled for 22 yards to erase a third-and-5 to start that possession. Rhoads noticed the slump after that play.

“That opening drive, we had a chance to get off the field,” Rhoads said recalling the play in which he called an all-out blitz.

“We gave up the quarterback run and we played at a different energy level after that. Our energy dropped.”

TACKLING — It probably will come down to UA inside linebackers De’Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw in space. They’ll have to guard against the slicing Ole Miss runs and also provide help against the wide receivers over the middle.

Harris leads the team with 66 tackles. Greenlaw is next with 57. Safety Santos Ramirez is next with 38. Do the two inside linebackers track those numbers? Is it a race to see who leads the team in stops?

“I think we know,” Green-law said, “but that’s not really our focus.”

Harris agreed.

“I think what our focus is about is the grade we get from our coach,” Harris said.

Inside linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves gives his players a target of 85 percent.

“If we can hit that, then we did our jobs,” Harris said. “I want to strive to hit that 85 number. Tackles don’t tell the story. I think there are times that plays are not coming your way.

“The key is to keep running to the ball. Maintain your energy. I see that with Dre. There are plays that go way down the field or on the sideline away from him and he gets there because he’s running so hard. That’s what I try to get to, too.”

Both linebackers have drawn praise, but Rhoads said he may have forgotten to give Harris his due.

“Scoota probably isn’t recognized as he should be,” Rhoads said. “I haven’t said as much about him. He’s not flashy, but he has been playing really well for this team.”

CENTER VOID — Both teams may be without their ace center, two of the best in the SEC. It could be a big part of the game.

Arkansas center Frank Ragnow is out for the season after suffering a severe high ankle sprain, which will require surgery and 12 weeks of rehab. Zach Rogers, who started for the first time at Alabama, will be the Arkansas center this week and possibly the rest of the year.

Ragnow might have been headed to winning the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s top center. He was considered the best in the SEC. According to Pro Football Focus, Ragnow graded out the highest of any center in the nation last week, despite playing on one foot, so to speak, after he was injured midway through the first quarter.

“It’s the guttiest performance I’ve ever seen from a player,” Anderson said. “It was an incredible effort. To play like that for three-and-a-half quarters on one leg, well, he’s a warrior and an inspiration to all of us.”

Ole Miss center Sean Rawlings, also on the Rimington watch list, is doubtful because of a concussion he suffered against LSU. Jordan Sims, a junior, is expected to start in his place.

LEADERSHIP — Where will it come from for Arkansas? The offensive captains are Ragnow and Allen. Anderson asked Hjalte Froholdt to step up in the offensive line meeting room this week. Froholdt did just that.

Froholdt issued a challenge to the rest of the group to double their efforts in tape study and preparation to cover for a fallen teammate. So far, it’s gotten a positive response.

“That’s what I’ve seen,” Anderson said. “The guys were all over early yesterday. They have hit it hard. I’m pretty sure it was because of what Hjalte said to them. They studied very late last night. They were over early today and they had good questions about what they had seen.

“Hjalte’s talk on Sunday was an unbelievable talk. It was a great, great message. He inspired all of us. It was all due to what had happened to Frank.”

OUT IN THE COLD — With an 11 a.m. kickoff and overnight lows near freezing in Oxford on Friday, it will be a cold start.

It should be in the low 40s for much of the game and won’t hit the Saturday high until after the game is finished.

Could the first cold game for both teams create some ball security problems? Neither team has put the ball on the ground a bunch. In fact, Ole Miss has lost only one fumble. But there haven’t been any weather problems to worry about. This will be different.

Except for Kelley, the Hogs have not had fumble problems. The two Kelley lost against Auburn leads the team. None of the Arkansas running backs are credited with a lost fumble. Receivers Deon Stewart and Cheyenne O’Grady have each lost one fumble.

THE SECOND HALF— There is little doubt where Arkansas has struggled over the last couple of seasons; the second half. Opponents have outscored the Hogs 66-38 in the third quarter this year. The opposition wins the fourth quarter, 78-61. Of course, they lost the overtime against Texas A&M, 7-0.

Ole Miss wins the third quarter 77-60, but loses the fourth quarter 65-45.

The Hogs have tried different things to stress playing better in the second half. They have restarted practice, taken breaks and skipped breaks to produce fatigue. They’ve done it all.

“We’ve evaluated everything you can evaluate,” said Scott, speaking from a defensive perspective.

“We have made that a talking point since last spring. So we’ve tried to address it. We continue to evaluate everything there is out there.”

It can’t be the helmets. The Hogs have worn three different helmets this season. None have led to any breakthroughs in the second half.

Clay Henry can be reached at chenry@nwadg.com . To subscribe to Hawgs Illustrated, call 800 757-6277.