It’s about recruiting all day, every day for the Chad Morris staff at Arkansas. That is what will turn the program and what you are seeing now is the tip of the iceberg.
The first-year Arkansas football coach works tirelessly in recruiting and makes sure that every person on his staff does, too.
I’m not surprised that Morris and his staff have 22 commitments, many with four-star ratings by national recruiting services. That list is knocking at the door to be ranked in the top 10 in national rankings, something that I don’t think has ever been done at Arkansas.
I’m not surprised because it’s exactly where Morris said the emphasis was placed when he hired his staff. And, recruiting isn’t limited to just the 10 full-time assistants Morris picked. He doubled the behind-the-scenes staff that are dedicated to recruiting only tasks on a daily basis.
It was apparent in the spring that something new was happening at Arkansas. I couldn’t find a clear angle at the first scrimmage of the spring because the practice field was ringed by almost 500 high school players. I’m told they hailed from six states that Saturday.
The parking lots around the practice field were full of school buses. There had never been anything like it at Arkansas.
Morris told me long ago if there is someone who does not work and work well at recruiting, they won’t be with him long. I believe it.
Stories are trickling out of the football building about what it’s like on a recruiting weekend at Arkansas. It’s an unbelievable sight. Morris dazzles. He’s in his element as he follows through on the promise of building and maintaining relationships.
Morris confirmed on his weekly radio show Wednesday that it was a great recruiting weekend for the Alabama game. Asked if it hit goals in all areas, Morris beamed.
“Yes we did, it was a huge weekend,” Morris said. “We had well over 150 recruits and 10 official visitors. Our goal is to be the best at what we do and it started with a great Friday night at The Catfish Hole, then we transitioned to the game and then we had a great event at my home Saturday night.”
Morris said he wanted families to see how he went about his life and that’s why they were invited to his home for the post-game event Saturday night.
“They need to find out exactly how I do things with my family,” he said. “I want them to see me and understand everything about me and my family.”
Recruiting is non-stop for Morris. I’m convinced that almost every decision that he makes during a week is with an eye toward squeezing in another phone call, text or tweet to a recruit. He said he likes to send as many as three to every player each day.
“It’s not a secret now,” he said. “You reach them in their hand, their phone. So that’s what we do.”
Morris said a recent Tuesday included 40 phone calls to recruits. Recruits keep saying one of the things that amazes them is how much attention they get from the Arkansas head coach compared to other schools.
I have heard this from the start of the Morris era. I was reminded again from a friend on Sunday how much detail and effort Morris and his staff put into recruiting. There is a video board in the front lobby of the Smith Center. Recruits — and their schools — are welcomed on the board in a continuous loop during recruiting time. It’s almost always recruiting time in that building.
Morris spends so much time on the phone with recruits and their families that when they arrive on campus they are already close. He knows everything about them and they realize that quickly when they get to Fayetteville. It’s called effort.
Someone who is in the room when recruits and their families arrive on campus gave me the detail from this past weekend. This is someone who has been around the process for several years and notices a huge change.
Recruiting is about relationships and effort. You get out of it what you put in. This key observer told me Sunday that Morris and every member of his staff is incredible in the way they work a room and give attention to every person in it.
This staff delights in showing off the facilities and telling stories about why they love Fayetteville, their new home. They stick with the recruit and don’t pass them off to the lower level staffers that have been handling a lot of the tour process in the past. They spend the time and do it over and over.
Every single person gets huge amounts of attention — from grandmothers to nephews, nieces, etc. They leave feeling they have a new friend for life.
I will not say who this person that told me this does or is, but they think this staff is something special in how they relate to parents, players and families. They dive into the process and put everything they’ve got into it. It starts at the top, but it’s like that in all of the layers — and there are many layers now — to the recruiting process at Arkansas.
It’s not an accident to see the recruiting list of top prospects grow. This person said when they saw the effort last winter (when it was too late to impact with relationships) that they knew this would be a good class this year — and the next and the next and the next.
There is no secret to it. It’s just relationship and effort. It’s what is going on at the top schools in the national ranking right now, effort to recruiting at Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and a few others.
Without question what this person told me they see over and over is impressive defensive linemen. That’s the recipe at Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, to whip you on the defensive front. And, a few of those can be sprinkled over (top athletes who are also linemen) to play offense, too. Just keep signing defensive linemen and most of those were and are two-way players in high school.
The Arkansas commitment list includes eight defensive linemen. Don’t be surprised if there are more defensive linemen added. Morris said it’s fine to over sign in that area because some might convert to the offensive line. Talent and speed in the trenches is what the SEC is all about. Many star defensive linemen also play both ways as superb offensive tackles.
Get them to campus for a visit and then love on them. That’s what is happening now. It never gets old.
In between all of that, Morris is figuring out what makes the 2018 Razorbacks tick. He said it takes time to learn the talents and the play-making ability. He’s slowly done that. Now it’s time to cement that 2019 class with some victories.
It might happen this week against Ole Miss in Little Rock. Game time is 6:30 p.m. Here are the keys that will help the Razorbacks make that happen.
- The Weather —
During a week that a hurricane rolled through the heart of the South, weather has dominated thoughts throughout the SEC. It appears storms are headed to Central Arkansas at some point Saturday.
Morris has planned for it. He’s had wet ball drills during the week. I recall several practices during the spring when the new coach kept his players on the field in a moderate rain event. He emphasized that he “loved it” and wished for more.
Morris had games like Saturday in mind when he did that. The football will likely be wet for the Ole Miss game.
The Rebels have played in the rain already. They lost a 45-16 decision to LSU when it seemed like the winners handled the wet ball well and the losers did not.
- Defense — That’s not what everyone will be talking about as they tailgate on the golf course — under tents, of course — Saturday afternoon. They’ll be debating who is going to score the most.
But it will be defense that decides the outcome. Arkansas was a step slow against Alabama’s awesome speed. Ole Miss is not quite that athletic, but it does have big, strong athletic receivers, just not so jet like as the Crimson Tide.
The Hogs have to do a better job of matching up on defense this week, more like the previous two weeks when they were in step with Auburn and Texas A&M.
- Corner Coverage — It isn’t just about the corners, but Arkansas must get better play at cornerback this week. Ryan Pulley and Jarques Mc-Clellion could not run with Alabama’s wideouts.
They’ll get turns against the Ole Miss trio of A. J. Brown, D. K. Metcalf and DeMarkus Lodge.
Just remember as you watch this wonderful collection of wideouts, Morris is working to assemble a similar contingent. The four wideouts on the current UA commit list average 3.5 stars and feature more size than is on the current roster.
- Rakeem Boyd — There may be some help for Rakeem Boyd this week with the likely return of Devwah Whaley, out the last two weeks with a concussion. Boyd leads an improving Arkansas ground game with 294 yards. Whaley is next at 231, with 165 against Colorado State.
Boyd has always made plays in the passing game. He’s nifty after the catch on screens and swing routes. Boyd should start, but Whaley will play, too.
If it’s a wet night and the passing game isn’t clicking, this could be a situation that fits Boyd’s abilities. The Arkansas offensive line seems to be creating holes and Boyd has displayed patience in letting them open.
- Turnovers — That’s always a key with weather issues. Who can hold onto the ball?
That’s how Arkansas orchestrated a big comeback last year in Oxford, catching fire after Josh Liddell’s pass interception in the second quarter. The Hogs had seemed lifeless until Liddell’s big play. And, they still might have been in dire straits until Kevin Richardson’s scoop and score with 6:01 to play.
Ole Miss is plus-five in turnover margin, while Arkansas minus-four. The Hogs did not have a takeaway last week against Alabama and did not force a punt, but that probably wasn’t a surprise. The Tide didn’t punt the previous week, either.
- The Punt — This may seem like a silly key on a night when both teams are expected to roll on offense.
But if and when there is a punt, can either team pin the other deep? This has been a weakness for both teams most of the season, with the lone exception Arkansas against Texas A&M when freshman Reid Bauer hit his stride.
Ole Miss is 117th in the nation in net punting at 32.6 yards. Of course, Arkansas is worse. The Hogs average 31.4 in net punting and that’s 125th in the country.
Here’s the surprise stat of the week: Arkansas leads the SEC in punt returns with a 19.6 average. That’s 11th nationally. Ole Miss is at 1.6 per return, 123rd in the country.
- Historical Significance — Is that a key? Probably not, but I like to go there at times. Arkansas and Ole Miss have not played in Little Rock much of late, but when they have, it’s been best for the Rebels.
Mississippi has won the last three games played in Little Rock, in 2012, 1992 and 1990. You have to go back to 1988 when the SWC champion Hogs beat the Rebels in Little Rock to find something good in the series in the Rock.
The good news is that the Hogs have an edge in the series. They lead 36-27-1 and have won every meeting since 2014.
- Keeping the Hot Hand — Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock had the hot hand with his play calling last week against Alabama. The Hogs amassed 22 first downs and moved the ball all day. Three turnovers kept the Hogs from scoring more than 31, the most Alabama has given up this season.
It’s been steady improvement on offense as quarterback Ty Storey becomes more comfortable, but I think it’s about Craddock getting more comfortable, too. He’s had to figure out who can make plays. It’s helped that C.J. O’Grady has settled in at tight end after starting the season in the doghouse.
It’s also clear that Morris continues to work closely with Craddock. It’s no coincidence that the O-line has improved with the return of Colton Jackson at left tackle.
O-line coach Dustin Fry has helped Craddock, too. Fry started the year on the field, but moved to the press box after a couple of games. Fry and Craddock worked in the press box together as graduate assistants at Clemson and see the game in different ways. They make a good team sitting side by side.
Morris explained some of the Alabama game plan on his weekly radio show.
“We took what their defense does really well and used it against them,” Morris said, noting Alabama’s quickness and speed. “We used their pursuit and got underneath them.”
- Hold On — Yes, that could be what everyone is doing in the closing minutes. The team with the ball last might have the best angle on a victory.
But, here’s a prediction that there will be a few holding penalties called one week after everyone in Arkansas knows Alabama’s offensive line was holding from start to finish. There were obvious missed holding calls by referee John McDaid and his SEC crew. Both McTelvin Agim and Randy Ramsey were grabbed from behind as they closed in on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
It’s been my experience that a week after seeing few flags thrown, the next week will be a week of yellow everywhere. The league office gets the word out, but it can work against you as well as for you.
Alabama had five penalties called for 31 yards against the Hogs. Arkansas had just two penalties for
Arkansas is fifth in the league in fewest penalties; Ole Miss is last. The Rebels have been flagged 20 more times than the Hogs.
- Memories — It’s a night game in Little Rock so the memories return in a flood. And, with rain in the forecast, there’s no better night time memory of War Memorial Stadium on Oct. 16, 1971 against Texas. Let’s just call this my key memory of the week.
Yes, that was the night quarterback Joe Ferguson passed the No. 16 Longhorns silly in a 31-7 upset. It’s still one of my favorite memories of Arkansas football around 48 years later. The rain was like a monsoon at some points. It came down in sheets.
It was one of the first games that I worked in the press box, compiling stats for the Arkansas Gazette. I was a junior in high school and just past my 16th birthday. That was the date that you could draw a check from the paper.
It’s still one of my favorite games. Of course, I looked down from the press box and wondered how wet my mother was as she sat just below me in the stands. I’ll try not to do that as I scan the stadium Saturday night, but that 1971 memory is still fresh.
It may be a night to keep the windows shut tightly. I have infuriated my photographers before by sending a text reminding me I was dry in a heavy downpour. I’ll try to resist if and when the rains come this week.