Over the next two weeks, a lot will be written about Chad Walker’s coaching tree. The branches stem from Nick Saban and Will Muschamp, head coaches at Alabama and South Carolina, respectively.
Walker is in his first year as outside linebackers coach at Arkansas. Bret Bielema plucked him off the Atlanta Falcons’ staff, where he was an assistant secondary coach.
The Hogs play at South Carolina this week. Mus-champ learned under Saban at LSU, where Walker was first a student assistant and later a graduate assistant. Walker followed Saban and Muschamp to the Miami Dolphins.
“I worked late nights side by side with Will at Miami,” Walker said. “I learned a lot of football. He’s extremely smart. I also learned to coach with great energy and enthusiasm.”
Walker learned Wednesday that he’s also in the Frank Broyles coaching tree.
Muschamp’s mentor is Richard Bell. Muschamp played safety when Bell was defensive coordinator at Georgia.
Bell joined Billy Michael as captains on the first Frank Broyles team at Arkansas in 1958. He would later serve one season as head coach at South Carolina in 1982, but was fired after a 4-7 season when athletics director Bob Marcum asked him to replace most of his staff and Bell refused. Bell had worked as defensive coordinator for the Gamecocks from 1975-81. Bell played for Wilson Matthews at Little Rock Central.
Matthews, a longtime Broyles assistant, coached with fire and enthusiasm. It’s similar to the way Muschamp and Walker work their players.
Walker shaves his head. Otherwise, you might say that he coaches like his hair is on fire. Intense is the word used by players. He’s an encourager, too. He said he got that from Muschamp. Maybe Muschamp got that from Bell, now out of retirement and coaching the defense at Prince Avenue Christian School in the Athens, Ga., suburb of Bogart.
“I just know that it’s the right way to coach young people,” Walker said.
Told a little bit about the relationship between Bell and Muschamp, and the background with Broyles and Matthews, Walker just smiled before stating the obvious.
“It’s always about Arkansas no matter where you go,” said Walker, who said he learned a lot about Broyles in the last couple of months. “It comes all the way back to Coach Broyles, doesn’t it? Isn’t college football a small world?”
Walker’s outside linebackers will be on center stage against the Gamecocks. Dwayne Eugene, the Hog linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, will be matched against USC’s Hayden Hurst, a junior tight end with 73 career catches. Hurst (6-5, 250 pounds) has 17 catches this season and clearly has been the go-to man since the Gamecocks lost Deebo Samuel in the third game.
“He’s a great player,” Eugene said. “They have several good tight ends, but he’s a lot like what we’ve had here in Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle. He’s a big target.”
Eugene has already filled a notebook in his scouting of Hurst. But that’s not unusual. Eugene fills a notebook about every two weeks. He’s a prolific note-taker and has been filling notebooks soon after he learned to read at age 4.
“My dad taught me to take notes,” Eugene said. “He told me to value everything. Knowledge is power.”
Eugene has most of his notebooks, three-subject spirals. There was some confusion when the UA staff changed to two linebackers coaches and the meeting room was remodeled last winter.
“I think I lost a few,” he said. “I’ve got a couple saved at home. I know my mom has some from my early years.”
Walker said Eugene’s note-taking produces a style of play that doesn’t produce repeat mistakes. So when you correct Eugene, he’s going to write it down and learn from it.
“Dwayne reminds me of myself,” Walker said. “That’s how I learned.”
There have been a few funny lines about Eugene’s note-taking.
“I’ve told him a few times, ‘You don’t need to write this down,’ but he usually does,” Walker said. “It’s pretty cool. He can repeat what you’ve told him word for word.
“I’ve seen players like him before. There were quite a few I saw taking notes the way he does in the NFL.”
Here are my notes on the keys to Arkansas’ game against South Carolina:
THE BLITZ — Eugene is part of the Arkansas blitz package that could be turned up a couple of notches against South Carolina.
How Eugene plays might be one of the big keys to how the Hogs do at Williams-Brice Stadium. He’ll be going against a rebuilt offensive line that has fought through three injuries to starters. The Gamecocks have reshuffled their offensive line several times this season, struggling to protect quarterback Jake Bentley.
Can the Hogs put some pressure on Bentley from the outside? Eugene has a couple of sacks and might be an edge rusher in some blitz combinations. That might leave Hurst free. So it’s a tough decision on where to bring the blitzes. Good tight end play will cause you to rethink some blitzes.
“I love sacks,” Eugene said. “We’ve worked hard on my pass rush, coming off the edge.”
Walker said that’s the area where Eugene has improved the most.
PASS PROTECTION — It’s a key every week. Both teams have struggled to protect their quarterback. Arkansas did better last week against blitz-happy New Mexico State. Austin Allen wasn’t sacked. He got the ball off quicker, utilizing tight ends for screens and there were also more short passes to wide receivers and tight ends.
Allen had been sacked 11 times through the first three games. Bentley has been sacked 15 times.
Conversely, the Arkansas defense has produced just seven sacks, but defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads has been reluctant to call blitzes against an every-week lineup of running quarterbacks with the read option as a staple. The Gamecocks have just eight sacks.
INJURIES — The injury report is better for Arkansas than South Carolina. Both teams have lost key wide receivers. Samuel is out for the Gamecocks and Jared Cornelius is out for Arkansas. That might be a decent trade for the Razorbacks. Samuel is an electric kick returner as well as receiver. He scored three touchdowns against North Carolina State in South Carolina’s 35-28 victory in the season opener.
The Gamecocks have struggled to find healthy offensive line starters. They’ve used four different starting combinations in five games. The tough position has been right tackle where a rash of ankle injuries have plagued the position.
Arkansas has no injury problems in the offensive line, but has rotated players at tackle with senior Paul Ramirez subbing for Johnny Gibson on the right side and Colton Jackson on the left. It’s enabled Gibson to slide to right guard to rest true freshman Ty Clary.
Arkansas offensive line coach Kurt Anderson said others could see playing time this week. Zach Rogers is making progress at guard and Brian Wallace has had his best practices at right tackle.
One of the assets is versatility in Gibson. He’s able to play several positions with no loss in productivity. Anderson said it’s easy because of the way the line practices, both in the spring and in the fall.
“I don’t see that as unusual,” Anderson said. “Johnny cross-trained there last year. He even has played on the left side. I think he’s ambidextrous with his technique.”
Some have suggested that’s a difficult transition, but Anderson doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think the terminology between guard and tackle is that different,” Anderson said. “It’s not like one position is Mandarin Chinese and the other is French. It’s the same language.
“I’ve always thought you need to cross train. We do that in the normal course of practice. I did that in the NFL.”
— Allen was hit only twice against New Mexico State. He stayed down for a few counts on a fourth-down pass, but said he was unhurt.
“You are going to get hit a few times no matter what,” he said. “You know you are going to take some hits, but it wasn’t as much this past week.”
The injured Allen was his father, Bobby, director of football operations for Bielema. Bobby Allen had back surgery last week and was home on the couch to watch the New Mexico State game. He had disc surgery to relieve nerve pain in his legs.
“It got to the point to where I wasn’t sleeping,” Bobby Allen said. “I’m a lot better now.”
Bobby Allen missed his son’s best game of the year, as far as the passing numbers go. Austin completed 19 of 26 passes for 264 yards.
“He told me watching it on TV was actually pretty good,” Austin Allen said. “I can’t remember him missing one of my games.
“He’s getting around pretty good now. But he was looking like an old, old man a few days ago. He’s a lot better.”
THIRD DOWN — Arkansas is tops in the SEC in third down efficiency on offense at 50 percent. South Carolina’s defense is among the nation’s worst on third down. The Gamecocks are 114th out of 130 FBS teams, allowing a 45.6 percent conversion rate. The Hogs converted 9 of 13 last week.
Allen said the focus in every meeting and every practice is about third-down plays.
“That’s what we’ve talked about every single practice, every single workout since we started spring drills — third-down conversion,” Allen said. “We have worked hard on that. Our goal is 45 percent, so we are ahead by a little bit.
“We’ll work on it again in our Thursday practice, along with red zone plays.”
TIGHT ENDS — How Arkansas covers Hurst is a big part of the game plan, but South Carolina has to track the Arkansas tight ends, too.
It’s becoming apparent that Allen has found some trust for those critical plays. Most have latched onto his bond with newcomer Jonathan Nance in the wide receiver group. Nance leads the team with 15 catches and has long touchdown receptions each of the past three games. The next man on the receptions list is tight end C.J. O’Grady with nine.
“C.J. Is a big matchup nightmare,” Allen said. “He’s got size and speed. He runs great routes. He can do things after the catch. He isn’t going down. He’s going to look for more yards and can do some really athletic things. He may jump over guys.
“I see him maturing more each day. He’s taking another step up. If he keeps doing that, he’s going to be like a Hunter Henry or a D.J. Williams. He has that kind of ability.”
O’Grady has asked to be called by Cheyenne, his first name.
“I think he goes back and forth between C.J., then Cheyenne,” Allen said. “He’s a different sort of cat.
“I can tell you this: I’m looking for him. There have been some plays where he wasn’t the first option, but I kinda skipped it and went straight to him. I like to get him the ball. He’s running routes that get him open.”
LINEBACKERS — It has quietly become a position of strength for the Hogs. New Mexico State coach Doug Martin raved about the UA linebackers last week.
Martin said the Aggies have seen other SEC linebacker groups, but this was a step up.
“We played A&M and Kentucky last year and LSU the year before that,” Martin said, “and I think that is the best group of linebackers that we have played against in all the times that we have played these SEC teams.
“I think their (inside) linebackers are exceptional. They are big, first of all, but they can run. They can cover from sideline to sideline. They are exceptional.”
The tackle charts don’t reveal a lot of stops for the inside linebackers, perhaps because the Aggies gave up attacking them early. De’Jon Harris had four tackles, Grant Morgan three and Dre Green-law a season-low one.
They were ready to pounce on Rose when there were chances. Rhoads praised that group.
“The linebackers are improving,” Rhoads said. “(Harris) just gets better and better. As he gets more knowledge, he’s going to continue to improve. You get more of an education on how teams are going to attack you and how to handle it as you play.
“Dre missed a lot of time (in the 3-4 installation) in the spring and in the fall. He’s just behind in repetitions. It shows that he missed reps. He’s still learning, but he has a high ceiling.
“Grant is playing well, but he has much more to give.”
STOPPING THE RUN
— Arkansas allowed just 11 yards on 14 runs last week. South Carolina isn’t a great running team with a per game average of 84.6. The Gamecocks have scored just four rushing touchdowns. Of note, there have been no rushing touchdowns by the quarterback, something that has crushed the Hogs over the last two seasons.
Arkansas averages 205.2 yards on the ground, relying on a three-headed attack at the running back position. Devwah Whaley (48 carries, 249 yards), Chase Hayden (41-246) and David Williams (43-203) are listed as co-starters.
Williams is the senior graduate transfer from South Carolina. He’s done no interviews this week ahead of his trip back to the Palmetto State. Bielema said he met with Williams on Sunday and they made the decision together to skip media opportunities, both on campus and with media in South Carolina.
Williams has been a top threat in passing situations, partly because of his smooth blitz pickup and his ability to catch passes. He averages 19 yards on his four catches, mostly screens.
Clearly, Williams has been a welcomed addition to the backfield after the loss of Rawleigh Williams after spring drills.
“He’s a good player and really smart,” Allen said. “But beyond that, he’s a good dude.
Everyone likes hanging out with him in the locker room. We all really respect him as a person.”
NOISE FACTOR — The Hogs have not played a true road game, but they did play in a loud environment in AT&T Stadium in a neutral game against Texas A&M.
“I know it wasn’t a true road game, but it was loud half the time,” Anderson said. “It’s just a loud, loud building. We noticed that in warmups.”
So the Hogs had to rely on verbal signals a lot against the Aggies, something that will be required at South Carolina. Arkansas practiced inside all week. Some thought it was because it rained on Tuesday and Wednesday, but Bielema had already indicated the plans were to work inside Walker Pavilion and play loud music.
“We know it’s going to be loud,” Allen said. “We will have to be on the same page with our signals.”
There is no question that noise is a factor in SEC road games. Mississippi State had six false starts last week in a game against Auburn.
Oddly, there aren’t a lot of penalties in South Carolina games. The Gamecocks are among the league’s least penalized with just 20 this season and opponents in those games have drawn just 24 flags. Arkansas has 19 penalties, but in one fewer game. UA foes have drawn 25 flags.
SPECIAL TEAMS — What’s really strange is that Arkansas is the only team in the nation without a made field goal. The Hogs have tried just two — both Cole Hedlund misses inside 23 yards against TCU. That’s something to consider when the betting line is less than a field goal. Arkansas was a slight favorite for most of the week.
South Carolina isn’t exactly nailing a bunch of kicks, either. The Gamecocks are 3 of 10 on field goals, with two kickers rotating. Alexander Woznick is 1 of 3 and Parker White 2 of 7.
Connor Limpert has been the Arkansas place-kicker the past two games. Limpert hasn’t gotten a chance with Bielema electing to go for it on fourth down on several kicking opportunities, citing analytics.
The Hogs have made some changes in their kickoff cover unit after allowing a 100-yard return against Texas A&M. Walk-on transfer Brenden Young and true freshman Derrick Munson are the latest additions to the cover unit. Both are physical hitters who earned their promotion with aggressive work on the defensive scout team.
Clay Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . To subscribe to Hawgs Illustrated, call 800 757-6277.
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