If Arkansas is going to be an unlikely world-beater this fall, or even a better than average bunch, the onus rests upon ball, and by extension, clock control. That’s something we’ll observe in this space throughout the course of the season.
The irony of Bret Bielema and Auburn honcho Gus Malzahn having a rather notorious philosophical dispute about high-speed offense is that Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can and should cull some basics from the Auburn archetype. Malzahn took over a program in seeming ruin last year and did what he always does: power-run the hell out of it, keep the defense winded and chuck it only when the opportunity avails itself. The method to Malzahn’s madness is generating the most plays possible within 60 minutes of game clock and Chaney isn’t about to adopt that modus operandi, but Auburn covered a lot of its deficiencies last fall by simply leaving them on the sidelines. Nick Marshall is a pretty average thrower, but Tre Mason was an exceptional workhorse back and he had ample support. It all clicked, and their luck was pretty damned unfathomable, too, as has been documented.
There’s a sporting chance that Marshall’s recent scrape with the law keeps him shelved for the opener against the Hogs in late August. If that happens it primarily deprives the Tigers of their field general and the guy who makes the machine run, far more than it robs them of a gunslinger. He can throw it OK and Sammie Coates is a fine top target, but both succeeded because of the element of surprise. Coates has the physical traits of a potential NFL star, but Marshall’s professional makeup is arguable at this point.
Lest anyone confuse Brandon Allen (or whomever ends up starting under center for the Razorbacks) with Marshall, the Hogs are so thin defensively and so robust in the backfield that it makes perfect sense for Chaney to eyeball a five- to seven-minute edge in time of possession every week. The quick-strike Petrino brand was fine getting off the field in a hurry: Skill people were in abundance, pacing and timing were the focus and six was six, regardless of whether it took 10 seconds or 10 minutes to get it.
Neither Alex Collins nor Jonathan Williams had the appearance of a Mason-like bellcow last year despite their gaudy numbers, but it wasn’t entirely their fault. There wasn’t any consistency to the Hog attack through the nine-game losing streak and that was a function of numerous ailments. Bad blocking, dropped passes and killer turnovers were the only things you could genuinely count on in 2013. These backs, along with dynamo Korliss Marshall and veteran Kody Walker, do present the proverbial advantage on paper, so exploiting it is critical.
And though it might well be a stretch to think Arkansas can replicate Auburn’s success of a year ago, consider that the Tigers were 3-9 and 0-8 in 2012, just like Arkansas was last season. And everyone under the sun projected Malzahn’s first team to be only marginally better than that because of the major question marks that seemed to exist. Could the inexperienced Marshall take the reins in a passable manner? Could Mason be durable enough to pound away for 300 carries or so? Would a decent defensive line adequately mask a rather pedestrian secondary? The answer to those questions ended up being in the affirmative, emphatically and shockingly.
The “why not us?” mentality that likely pervaded the Auburn locker room last year has to be on the tip of the coaching staff’s collective tongue this season. Play the card full tilt and draw from that recent history. Give Allen chances to thrive instead of saddling him with bad odds on third and long. Make Collins and/or Williams, and Marshall, too, a downhill monster. Invest confidence in a sizable and once highly touted slew of offensive linemen and lean on your pass rushers.
As Pearls goes into a full-tilt season prediction mode in the coming weeks, be mindful of the fact that Arkansas did mature somewhat late last year as the previous column noted, and that there’s positive precedent for a quick turnaround. Hope always springs eternal in August, right?