Arkansas Football: Extreme makeover

Arkansas fan

The show “Hard Knocks” shouldn’t focus on the Arkansas Razorbacks this season. With Bret Bielema no longer in Fayetteville, practice quotes and press conference quips won’t come as readily. Spats with other coaches, back-and-forths with other writers, and various additional colorful episodes won’t be as abundant with Bielema removed from the picture.

By Matt Zemek

No, this is not a “Hard Knocks” team in 2018. It won’t be a wild circus overflowing with personality. The show which better applies to Arkansas this season is “Extreme Makeover,” because the Razorbacks have sought an entirely new identity… and also endured a significant change in the administrative realm.

Last week, Jeff Long accepted the athletic director job at Kansas, replacing Sheahon Zenger. Long will very likely hire a new football coach this autumn, with David Beaty a dead man walking in Lawrence. Long spent last autumn exiting Arkansas. His successor at UA, Hunter Yurachek, went about the process of hiring Bielema’s replacement.

Chad Morris’s role in reshaping Clemson football might be overstated to a degree. It is true that after Dabo Swinney brought him aboard at the start of this decade, Clemson’s offense got better and the program steadily climbed the ladder in the ACC and national college football. However, the passage of time has shown that other offensive coordinators have been able to maximize the resources of the offensive roster. The past several years have also shown that defensive coordinator Brent Venables is central to the school’s gridiron success. Morris didn’t have everything to do with the rise of Clemson and Dabo, but he still was a significant catalyst for the Tigers. Morris used his very successful tenure at Clemson to land the SMU job a few years ago. The Mustangs were not excellent, but they did become dangerous, and they were good enough to earn a bowl bid last season.

This caught the attention of Yurachek, who had to pick a new coach at a time when other SEC West schools — Mississippi State (Joe Moorhead) and Texas A&M (Jimbo Fisher) — were also hiring coaches, and Ole Miss made the decision to retain interim coach Matt Luke. The flux and instability in the SEC West forced Arkansas to make a choice: After Bobby Petrino essentially fired himself, which took away an immensely skilled coach who might have led the Razorbacks to the promised land, the move to hire Bielema represented a clear pivot from passing-game artistry to smashmouth superiority. If Petrino was a supreme chalkboard tactician with a feel for how to draw up passing plays, Bielema was the baron of the big uglies, the sultan of slobberknockers whose Wisconsin background (and original emergence under Hayden Fry at Iowa) indicated that the Hogs would try to wrestle in the mud and overpower their opponents. If Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze, Kevin Sumlin and Dan Mullen represented attempts to move away from a Nick Saban style of play in the SEC West, Bielema joined Les Miles (later Ed Orgeron) as the coaches who would try to beat Saban not by countering him, but trying to outdo him at his own game.

That plan simply failed. Bielema never got Arkansas to play particularly physical football. The defense was soft, the offensive line rarely overwhelming, the basic attack often more pass-based than run based (not always, but often enough to notice). If Steve Spurrier ran the ball up the middle far too much for his liking in his failed tenure with the NFL’s Washington Redskins, Bielema found his team throwing the ball far too often during his failed stint in Fayetteville.

Yurachek had to decide if the Bielema approach was appropriate and simply needed a better field general to implement it, or if a course correction back to a more Petrino-style mold was necessary. Clearly, he took the latter path and shunned the former one. Now Arkansas is back to throwing the ball as its primary method of offense. The coach might not be as colorful as his predecessor, but Morris hopes that the product on the field will be more lively in ways that count.

Morris’s background as a college and (formerly) high school coach in Texas is an impossible-to-ignore portion of his identity. At a time when Texas A&M’s move from the Big 12 to the SEC has given the conference more of a recruiting foothold in the state of Texas — one of the better and more noticeable benefits of SEC expansion — being able to compete for recruits in Texas is essential. Obviously, Arkansas won’t get the recruits at the very front of the line, but being able to get the next waves of recruits (the ones Texas A&M and Texas and LSU don’t get) will be Morris’s priority. As opposed to Bielema’s Midwestern heritage, Morris owns a better understanding of the terrain in the SEC. His time at Clemson exposed him to the process of recruiting in the main geographical competitor to the SEC, John Swofford’s Atlantic Coast Conference.

Here’s the kicker about Yurachek, the man who hired Long: Yuracheck not only worked at another school from the Southwest Conference, the league in which Arkansas once resided; Yurachek had been the athletic director at the University of Houston, smack-dab in the middle of Texas A&M’s recruiting backyard and the epicenter of a lot of recruiting battles in the SEC. An AD with Texas roots hired a coach with Texas roots. The connection is far more than pure coincidence. (Houston, where Yurachek worked, was an AAC competitor and rival of SMU, where Morris coached.)

In so many ways and on so many levels, Chad Morris represents a departure from — and an attempt to overhaul — the completely unfulfilled years in which Bret Bielema led Arkansas football to the middle of nowhere. Morris and Yurachek both represent a new era for a program which was riding in the fast lane until Petrino’s unforgettable motorcycle adventure… and all the misdeeds which accompanied it.

Can this program get back on the road and high on the Hogs? An Extreme Makeover will be required.

Maybe you CAN put lipstick on a pig after all… and maybe the fragrance will be much sweeter than the misery of Bielema’s exasperating tenure.

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