Razorback practices offer telling glimpses

Posted: August 11, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Through one week of practices, there have been a few 20-minute windows for the media to observe what Chad Morris’ first football team at Arkansas might look like this fall. There were a few more glimpses in the spring, including invitations to watch all the scrimmages.

But, there have been huge windows for high school coaches and former players to see practices. Come one, come all. The parking lot outside the Fred Smith Center has usually been full of visitors. The license plates are about half Texas, half Arkansas.

I’ve seen two 11-on-11 periods this week and a few individual training periods. It’s been fun and educational. It’s all there to see, the spread and the blitzes. That’s the eye candy that will delight fans.

Is there other value in seeing a few minutes of a practice here and there? Maybe.

I can see who’s getting turns at quarterback and who is still able to practice in a thin group of offensive linemen. I can see that there is more bounce in the steps of players after eight months with strength and conditioning coach Trumain Carroll.

This team is conditioned to a higher level. It reminds me of what the great Floyd Sagely told me when Morris was hired. The conversation started with Sagely’s ties to the late Clyde Scott, but quickly switched to Morris. Sagely urged Morris to get the Razorbacks in condition.

But to know what’s really happening, I had to talk to some old friends. Without giving away any true secrets, some agreed to talk about what they see of this new Arkansas coaching staff.

After another 20-minute glimpse Thursday morning, I spent the rest of the day tracking down some trusted eyes who have been in and out of several Arkansas practices both this fall and last spring. Only a coach would do.

“I’ve seen several practices from start to finish and I really love it,” said one trusted source.

I needed more than that. Details, please.

“If you go back to the old days when I was a player and then a coach, what I remember the good ones doing was the attention to fundamentals and technique,” he said. “Those two things never change.

“I don’t care if it was Frank Broyles or Bear Bryant, they coached — or their staffs did — fundamentals and technique.”

Specifically, that coach studied what defensive coordinator John Chavis had his staff coach as far as fundamentals and technique.

“There are drills that break down segments and areas and interlink the different positions and teach coverages,” he said. “It’s specific for how they are going to hand off coverages. It’s going to enable them to make adjustments. I loved the drills.”

But that’s not what the old coach loved the most.

“It was attention to detail in technique,” he said.

Everyone focuses on new plays or new blitzes when new coaches arrive. There are lots of coaches in the stands who could dial up plays on video games.

Run the inside trap more. Call more draws. More screens. Give me that tight end drag. How about a crossing pattern? I want T. J. Hammonds in space!

The same goes for the defense. Everyone recognizes press coverage. They see the safety blitz. They know when the linebackers walk into the gaps that something new is about to happen.

It’s not about the play call. No, it’s about technique.

Technique is the steps, hand placement and actual execution of the steps.

Broyles preached that the first step either made a player right or wrong in technique. I sat with Broyles at practice and he’d cringe when a defensive back stepped wrong. I didn’t see it. I didn’t know it. But he knew the player was wrong and was not going to be able to recover one second past the snap.

There are few sitting in the stands (or in the press box) who know about technique. They might know weak side from strong. They may know flanker from split end. They may know the difference between a mike and will linebacker. Few can distinguish proper technique from bad.

There are different ways of doing things, but mostly fundamentals and technique stay the same. There are proper stances and then there is sandlot. Elite coaches see the difference.

Most coaches at the SEC level know proper technique. They know proper stance. They can show it, but only the best get it on a consistent basis. It falls by the wayside when a poorly conditioned player hits the fourth quarter. That’s when you know if technique holds up.

I listened to middle linebacker Scoota Harris talk about some of the coaching critiques he’d gotten from Chavis over the last few months. Harris said, “Chief says I stand up when I get tired. I’ve gotten into Yoga to increase stamina and flexibility. That’s to help me stay in my technique.”

Two current area high school coaches marvel at the attention to detail in the new UA staff. Detail and technique win at the high school level. But, it’s also the key in the SEC. Yes, you must recruit elite players, but it’s still about technique.

“Do you think Alabama coaches insist on proper technique?” a high school coached asked. “I know Nick Saban does that. You better be doing the same thing.”

That’s the only way Morris knows to coach. It worked at Lake Travis High School. It worked at Tulsa, Clemson and SMU in Division I.

That’s what Bobby Petrino stressed. No, that’s what he demanded. It was proper technique.

I remember getting a call from George Bequette, Jake Bequette’s grandfather. He told me that Jake had just left Petrino’s office. He was told to stick to Steve Caldwell’s technique or hit the highway. Grandfather backed the coaches.

Of course, Caldwell is a proven recruiter. He’s helped the Hogs land commitments from nine defensive linemen in the current class. But as good as Caldwell is at recruiting, he’s just as good as a teacher of defensive end technique.

You can ask Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Bequette about what they learned under Caldwell. I expect the defensive ends Caldwell has now to improve over how they played last year. They are going to get the proper technique for the blitzing scheme run by Chavis.

The way Morris runs a practice is novel to some of the old-timers. They’ve never seen segments linked together in such a way to encourage constant motion.

“I was trying to figure out the length of periods,” one coach said. “I finally discovered there was no set length. Coach Morris was determining the length when he decided that the players had absorbed what was trying to be taught. If they didn’t get it, the period lasted until they did. I liked that.

“You get what’s emphasized. He’s emphasizing proper technique and fundamentals. I know that everyone is going to be focused on the plays that are being called on offense and whether they see a blitz on defense.

“I understand that’s what most think Coach Morris is going to change that will help the fortunes of the team. Better play calling. It’s not. It’s whether or not they are running those plays or those defensive calls with the proper technique and timing. That’s coaching. It’s the most important part of coaching. I see him and his staff coaching technique and fundamentals.”

There is a firm nature to the coaching. It’s done with a toughness and a demand for perfection.

But it’s done with a steady hand and lots of encouragement. And there is no mistaking the enthusiasm of the coaches. Players know their coaches are not going to leave them behind. I loved it when Morris talked about the mental state of the newcomers six days into practice.

A struggling freshman was told, “We are going to pull you through the knot hole.” In other words, it’s tough right now, but you are going to make it.

The speed of the practice and the attention to detail will gobble up a newbie, but they will get there eventually. And make no mistake, it’s fast.

The good news for the newcomers, even the veterans, are not too far ahead. They’ve had a winter of meetings, 15 practices in the spring that the first-year players missed, but mostly they are all in this boat together with new systems on both sides of the ball.

The eye candy is real. It’s fun and what fans have ached to see. It will be the rage in September when the scoreboard judges the Chad Morris era. I’m not sure if there will be more wins or losses, but I know the wins will come eventually as his staff continues to demand technique and fundamentals.

As they say, nothing ever changes in football. It’s the same today as it was before any of these current coaches were born. It’s blocking and tackling — and if you do it with proper technique.

Clay Henry can be reached at chenry@ nwadg.com .