FAYETTEVILLE — A trio of returning starters for the Arkansas Razorbacks believe the team’s offense under new coordinator Kendal Briles will be on the move in 2020.
Literally on the move.
“I like to play fast. The faster the better, so this offense is right in my style,” said senior tailback Rakeem Boyd, the University of Arkansas’ most productive player in 2019 with 1,133 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
“We’re definitely going to play fast — very fast,” added sophomore receiver Trey Knox, who had 385 receiving yards and three touchdowns. “But we’ve got to get in condition for that.
“We’re definitely going to take shots down the field and try to exploit what the defense gives to us and use that and beat them with their own scheme.”
Arkansas lacked in big-play passes in 2019. The Hogs were tied for 97th in the country with 14 pass plays of 30-plus yards.
Briles calls the plays from the sideline, usually without referencing his call sheet between snaps to more quickly relay signals to the quarterback. The goal is to keep the defense off-balance, create communication difficulties and take advantage of matchup edges.
“It’s a little up-tempo,” senior center Ty Clary said. “That’s pretty common in football today. Every offense takes things from other offenses and makes them their own and adds their own little style. We’re going to do us and run our offense as good as we can.”
Knox said virtual playbook lessons with Briles and position coach Justin Stepp have featured clips from many different programs.
“Florida State, FAU, Baylor, really everywhere he’s been really,” Knox said.
Being able to synchronize the offensive system to allow the Razorbacks to practice fast in the shortest amount of time will be critical when action resumes.
“Our offense is based on playing fast, so if we can’t play fast then the defense has the ability to check and get into the schemes they want to fit against us,” Knox said. “Going fast is the most important thing about this offense.”
Boyd has known of Briles and tracked his work for years.
“He recruited me [when Briles was] at Baylor,” Boyd said. “It’s the pistol, read-option stuff, so it’s all good.”
Briles had the Baylor offense racking up huge numbers during his stint there as receivers coach, passing game coordinator and eventually offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2008-2016.
Since then he’s bounced around to four programs in as many years: Florida Atlantic, Houston, Florida State and Arkansas.
Briles doesn’t have a “name” for his offensive style. Asked on a recent teleconference for what to call it, Briles replied, “Hopefully productive.
“I really don’t care what you call the offense. I’ve been called probably a lot worse. I just want us to be productive. Hopefully we’re multiple, we’re tempo, we’re spread and we want to run the football.
“At the end of the day, it’s our job to not coin an offense and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I think our job as coaches is to take your best people and find what they do best and put them in high-percentage situations so they can be successful and not ask guys who maybe can’t do something as well to do that.”
The Razorbacks will be making their second run at launching an up-tempo spread offense under Briles whenever the all clear is given to start preparations for the 2020 season.
The first try was mostly a crash landing.
The transition from the pro-style offense preferred by coach Bret Bielema under coordinators Jim Chaney and Dan Enos to the Chad Morris spread attack was rugged to say the least.
The Razorbacks ranked near the bottom of the SEC and the FBS in most offensive categories in Morris’ debut in 2018, such as tied for 113th in scoring (21.7 points per game) and 117th in total offense (335.7 yards per game). Arkansas dropped a fraction in scoring (110th at 21.4 points per game) and was up marginally in total offense (111th at 340.1) in Morris’ final season in 2019.
The product wasn’t pretty either season, as Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock struggled to find an answer at quarterback and build a productive unit around that player.
In-house quarterbacks Ty Storey, Cole Kelley and Connor Noland made all the starts in 2018, but none of the three returned to the Razorback football team the following year, even with eligibility remaining.
Transfers Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel got the longest looks in 2019 and the results were similar, including a repeat of the Hogs’ 2-10 record. Hicks and Starkel combined to start the first nine games, and the dysfunctional Razorbacks employed five different starters at quarterback in the last five games.
The Razorbacks threw 17 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions in 2018, then had 14 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions last season.
Being upside-down in touchdown-to-interception ratio is not a winning formula.
The Arkansas coaches appear headed toward using a combination of senior transfer Feleipe Franks and redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson with the top offensive unit when training camp starts. Behind them would be sophomore John Stephen Jones and senior Jack Lindsey, who made one start each — as did Jefferson — in the final three games of 2019. Incoming freshman Malik Hornsby is a signee who provides another well regarded dual threat.
Briles said honing in on the schemes and plays that best suit this edition of the offense will be critical due to the time constraints the Razorbacks might face. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Arkansas has not held one practice since the Pittman regime took over last December.
“One thing I do know about Coach Pittman is he’s going to take care of our football players, which I am fully on board with,” Briles said. “I agree with him 100 percent on his philosophy with not staying out there on the field forever and wearing them out. But if you’re going to be out there for two hours, what all can you get repped and get good at against a bunch of different looks that you could see?
“You’ve got to be mindful of the players and what they can execute and not try to put too much on them and you’ve got to be good at some things. That’s a balance that once you get into it, you trust your instincts and you trust your coaches because we’ve got such a tremendous coaching staff, not just the full-time guys, but the support staff, as well. You try to make the best decisions to give you a chance to be successful.”