HOGS need all units to be special vs. A&M
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas head coach Chad Morris has addressed the special teams’ special problems all week, vexing his Razorbacks already perceived at a disadvantage against Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks (1-3 overall, 0-1 in the SEC) are 20-point underdogs against the Aggies (2-2, 0-1) of new coach Jimbo Fisher in today’s 11 a.m. ESPN-televised game at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
Given A&M has won all six of its SEC West games with Arkansas since joining the league in 2012, three of the past four were decided in overtime. Arkansas would not be such a big underdog if not for its prodigious problems on special teams.
Inabilities to punt, protect the punter, cover punts, cover kickoffs and consistently make field goals were manifested last week in Arkansas’ 34-3 loss to then ninth-ranked Auburn. The same issues plagued the Razorbacks in their 44-17 loss to North Texas the preceding Saturday in Fayetteville.
Auburn returned a kickoff for a touchdown, broke three long punt returns, blocked one punt, partially blocked another and would have blocked another but for the rusher breaking through so fast he overran the punter.
And while Christian Kirk (and his 100-yard kickoff return and two TDs last year against Arkansas) now plies his trade in the NFL as a second-round draft choice, the always fast Aggies can exploit if the Hogs don’t especially improve their special teams. A&M ranks No. 7 nationally in total offense (545.5 yards per game) despite going up against Clemson and Alabama defenses stocked with future NFL players.
“They have probably six or seven receivers who could play anywhere in the country,” said Arkansas defensive coordinator John Chavis, A&M’s defensive coordinator from 2015-2017 under former Aggies Coach Kevin Sumlin.
Morris will keep trying punters Reid Bauer, Blake Johnson and Matthew Phillips until one of them proves himself as Ty Storey has at quarterback.
But Morris can, though it risks tiring his offense and defense in the fourth quarter, surround his kickers with better support by employing more starting position players on the punt and kickoff teams than he normally would prefer.
“We have made several (special teams) personnel changes,” Morris said. “Just trying to create the depth we need.”
The Hogs need all the depth they can find. They have lost three consecutive games, two as favorites at Colorado State and at home vs. North Texas before falling by 31 at Auburn. The Aggies’ losses are 45-23 to No. 1 Alabama and 28-26 to No. 3 Clemson with blowout victories over Northwestern (La.) State and Louisiana-Monroe.
Even against Alabama, A&M’s defense has been tough on third down, while Arkansas converted just three of 17 third downs at Auburn.
“We’ve got to stay out of third and long,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. “Third-and-seven plus kinda get us in a bind. A&M is again the same thing we saw last week (from Auburn’ highly touted defense). They move around, bring pressure."
A&M might be behind Auburn’s defensive caliber but likely just a shade.
Offensively, the Aggies are ahead of an Auburn team the Razorbacks defended well and would have defended even better if not cast in a field position bind by the special teams breakdowns.
A&M sophomore QB Kellen Mond, 10 carries for 109 yards and 14 of 27 passes for 216 yards and two TDs against Arkansas last year, and running back Trayveon Williams (17 carries for 72 yards and a TD vs. Arkansas last year and 12 carries for 153 yards and two TDs when vs. Arkansas in 2016) have been more than the Hogs can handle.
Mond could be harder to handle, growing into his position as a sophomore, Arkansas junior defensive end Sosa Agim said.
“He’s gotten a lot smarter and and he’s gotten a lot faster and more decisive in run and pass,” Agim said.
However, the Arkansas defense is feeling better with senior mainstays Dre Greenlaw at weakside linebacker, and defensive end Randy Ramsey finally healed from early-season injuries and asserting themselves at Auburn along with Agim, middle linebacker Scoota Harris and tackles Armon Watts and T.J. Smith.
Offensively, despite only scoring three points and constantly backed up because of Arkansas’ struggling special teams, Arkansas out-gained Auburn in total offense. At times its offensive line won the line of scrimmage over an Auburn front seven that Morris called “as good as I’ve seen.”