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Chad Morris is bringing an up-tempo pace and smashmouth spread philosophy to the formerly slow and steady Razorbacks.

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NCAA Football: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

So the Bret Bielema era at Arkansas has ended and his replacement has been found in former Clemson OC and SMU head man Chad Morris. The Bielema experiment in Arkansas was always up against it, for the simple reason that he wanted to try and replicate what worked in Wisconsin in Arkansas.

Whereas the state of Wisconsin always provides the Badgers plenty of beef which which to build out massive OL that can plow a road for their backs, the state of Arkansas had significantly less to offer Bielema either in terms of pro-caliber OL or even to fill out classes in general.

Bielema’s tenure

Year Class ranking AR share of class Offensive S&P+
Year Class ranking AR share of class Offensive S&P+
2017 27th nationally, 10th in SEC 5/24 45th
2016 23rd nationally, 9th in SEC 4/22 39th
2015 22nd nationally, 11th in SEC 12/25 4th
2014 29th nationally, 11th in SEC 5/26 22nd
2013 23rd nationally, 9th in SEC 9/25 67th

The goal was to build around the run game and defense, much like the rest of the Sabanized SEC, and somehow to do it better than Alabama or the other programs which all enjoyed recruiting advantages over the Hogs. You’ll notice that Bielema’s recruiting classes have consistently been pretty well regarded by the 247 service rankings in comparison to the national average, but with marginal disadvantages against the rest of the SEC West.

His offenses never really gave them a boost against the rest of the league save for in 2015 when the Hogs still managed to go only 8-5 due to a defensive collapse that was never rectified in subsequent seasons by the defensive-minded Bielema. There’s some question of how Wisconsin would fare if they played against the SEC West every week but there’s little question of how that was likely to play out for Arkansas trying to be Wisconsin.

With Chad Morris, Arkansas has a chance to level the playing field vis a vis the rest of the SEC West in two important ways. First with an offensive scheme that could allow them to punch above their weight, secondly with greater access to needed recruiting turf in Texas.

Chad Morris recruiting

If you haven’t heard Morris’ story before, he really got going while coaching at Stephenville HS, which was four years removed from being coached by one Art Briles. Stephenville was struggling on offense and he determined to learn from Gus Malzahn how the scheme might be improved. From the explosive results that followed Morris took a job at Lake Travis high school where he built the juggernaut that later produced QBs Todd Reesing (Kansas), Garrett Gilbert (Texas, SMU, NFL), future Heisman Baker Mayfield (OU), and Baylor freshman phenom Charlie Brewer.

From there he headed into the college ranks by taking offensive coordinator jobs with Tulsa and then Clemson, Morris left Clemson just before the Deshaun Watson breakout in order to be the head coach at SMU.

His resume at SMU hasn’t been amazing yet, perhaps because he inherited a 1-11 team playing the tough AAC where every program is either in a peak year with a future P5 head coach or rebuilding from such a coach’s departure. This season he was able to get the Mustangs up to 7-5 with a homegrown, redshirt sophomore QB named Ben Hicks. Here’s what he’s been up to the last three years in Dallas.

Chad Morris at SMU

Year Class ranking TX share of class Offensive S&P+
Year Class ranking TX share of class Offensive S&P+
2017 80th nationally, 7th in AAC 16/18 8th
2016 75th nationally, 7th in AAC 24/25 72nd
2015 80th nationally, 7th in AAC 16/18 63rd

Morris wasn’t recruiting lights out at SMU relative to the rest of the AAC, which would be difficult given SMU’s academic structure, but with an offense featuring multiple starters either recruited by Morris or coached under him for all three seasons they were realizing offensive breakthrough in 2017.

Because Morris is well known and respected amongst Texas high school coaches and runs the quintessential Texas HS offense, he can help Arkansas expand their recruiting reach back into the Lone Star state which they need in order to be competitive.

The Chad Morris offense

The Morris playbook is a variant of the smashmouth spread, not totally lacking in familiarity from the spread-I heavy Air Raid systems of Mike Gundy or Dana Holgorsen. He’s used it with and without dual-threat QBs as the consistent ethos of the system is still “run the ball with two-back concepts, then throw it over the top” regardless of whether the QB does any of the running himself.

The overall system is all about hurry up tempo and indeed Morris was one of the big influencers within the state of Texas to move towards up-tempo pacing.

This season at SMU they were led by Ben Hicks, who’s more of a pocket passer and who threw for 3448 yards at 7.3 ypa with 32 TDs and nine INTs. The Mustangs very impressively surrounded him with playmakers including a 1k yard back in Xavier Jones, two 1k yard receivers in Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton (12 TD receptions apiece) as well as a 800-yard receiver in James Proche. The tempo helps allow so many different skill players to get so many chances to get yards and scores.

This is a massive departure from the Bielema style in which the Hogs were huddling, shortening the game, and looking to wear down opponents with a bruising run game.

SMU OL vs Arkansas OL

Left tackle Left guard Center Right guard Right tackle
Left tackle Left guard Center Right guard Right tackle
Chad Pursley 6-4, 277 Hayden Howerton 6-4, 270 Evan Brown 6-3, 307 Will Hopkins 6-7, 290 Bryce Wilds 6-7, 299
Colton Jackson 6-6, 302 Hjalte Froholdt 6-4, 309 Frank Ragnow 6-5, 300 Johnny Gibson 6-4, 344 Brian Wallace 6-6, 337

The Mustangs were rather small on the offensive line and that was only partly due to being an AAC school as opposed to an SEC program. Another factor was the pace and style they employed which involved wearing opponents down over the course of the game. The Mustang’s double teams, spread formations, and the pacing all compound on a defensive line as they are asked to repeatedly battle blocks, pursue the ball across the field, and then line up quickly and do it again.

They run a lot of downhill concepts like split zone...

or power...

You’ll notice that they tend to take pretty deliberate steps and look to get fit on DL with even these downhill plays featuring the back taking some time to help set up the blocks to hit the LBs before he makes his cut.

Morris’ offenses run the ball extensively, but they really run the ball primarily because that’s the best way to create opportunities to throw the ball down the field, which is ultimately what he’s all about. The goal isn’t to control the ball, it’s to score as much and as quickly as possible. They’ll use multiple formations and route fakes, as well as the beloved wheel route, to try and create one-on-one matchups down the field and leverage to win those matchups.

Going up against the TCU Horned Frogs the Mustangs had multiple precision calls meant to set up specific offensive players to get into favorable matchups down the field against the Frog defense.

The common assumption is that the SEC defenses will be able to figure all of this out, but that’s never held up on Saturdays. When spread teams that are good at creating matchups for talented skill players have gone up against even the best SEC defenses, the results have typically been that the skill players will tear them apart.

This is also a simpler system for a QB to use in attacking the defense as there are limited calls and often he’s going through simple progressions or fakes before throwing receivers open rather than trying to step through multiple progressions and then having deliver a perfect ball within the narrow window of time and space when the right read presents itself.

Once Morris has this team conditioned and up to speed in the new tempo and philosophy, and as he starts to bring in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas players that grew up playing in the spread and have the right skill sets to dominate playing in this system, then they can start to stress test SEC defenses. As we saw with Joe Moorhead at Penn State, if you regularly take deep shots down the field and you execute them then you can dictate the tempo and flow of the game to the defense.

SEC teams are often like the basketball squad that wants to feed the post to an elite big man down low and get their points with post-ups. Well that can get you into trouble if you face an opponent that will double your big man and force the ball outside while racing down the court to shoot as many threes as they can on the other end of the floor. If they can hit those threes then at some point you won’t able to keep up, the higher value from their deep shots will negate your ability to dictate a slower tempo as the margin of difference increases over the course of the game.

It’s going to be a paradigm shift for opponents that want to withstand #RazorbackFAST. Defensive coaches will have to learn to stop the pass first and then look to trade body blows against the Arkansas run game, which runs counter to everything they’ve ever been taught about coaching the game of football. That should provide Arkansas with the extra competitive edge that Bielema’s physical but classic brand of football failed to offer.

This kind of gunslinging could transform the division into the Wild, Wild West and make for interesting times.