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Offense leading the way for Arkansas in 2021

by Tom Murphy | October 21, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE — The evolution of the University of Arkansas offense under second-year coordinator Kendal Briles has come sharply into focus through the first half of the season.

The Razorbacks this year have leaned more heavily on the first part of Briles’ up-tempo Run-Pass Option (RPO) offense with dual threat quarterback KJ Jefferson and backup Malik Hornsby at the controls.

Arkansas (4-3) will enter Saturday’s game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff ranked No. 8 in the nation with 243 rushing yards per game.

Last week, Arkansas was the only team in the FBS that had three players with 300-plus rushing yards in Trelon Smith (387), Raheim Sanders (324) and Jefferson (320).

“I think a lot of it has to do with KJ Jefferson, with the ability to run the ball,” Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman said of the run-game success. “My dad was an old coach and his big deal was ‘Where’s the football?’ If they don’t know where the football is you have a lot better chance of having success running it.

“And we’ve got a lot of that concept in our game. Where is it? Did the quarterback keep it? Are we going to throw it or are we going to hand it off?”

The Razorbacks lead the FBS with 64 runs of 10-plus yards, which is five more than second-place Tennessee and six more than third place Ole Miss.

There is a common thread among those three SEC teams. All rank in the top eight in the country in rushing and all are running up-tempo Spread attacks that branch from the offense Art Briles had running hot at Baylor a decade ago.

Ole Miss Coach Lane Kiffin said he was riveted by watching the 2011 Alamo Bowl, a 67-56 win for Briles’ Baylor Bears over a Washington team coached by his long-time colleague Steve Sarkisian. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy that season after accounting for 4,992 yards (4,293 passing and 699 rushing) and 47 touchdowns.

Speaking on the SEC teleconference on Oct. 13, Kiffin credited Art Briles, father of Kendal, with starting a sort of RPO revolution that remains on the cutting edge today.

“This tempo run system … it’s interesting when you see the stats: Perception vs. reality,” Kiffin said in advance of his team’s meeting with Tennessee and Coach Josh Heupel’s high-powered offense. “Perception, I bet you some people would say this team, this team and this team are great rushing teams. And maybe it’s because it’s … how tough their head coach is or something … or it’s because they go under center and huddle.

“But then you really look at the stats and you go, ‘Wow, outside of triple option teams, the top five rushing offenses in the entire country are Ole Miss, Tennessee and Arkansas.”

Indeed, the triple-option attacks at Air Force and Army rank 1-2 in rushing with 336 and 295 yards per game, respectively. Coastal Carolina is third, followed by Ole Miss (262.8), Florida (254.3), Tennessee (249.1), Michigan (246.5) and Arkansas.

“I think we put backside linebackers in a little bit of turmoil with the way we run our offense,” Pittman said. “I think that has a lot to do with it. KJ being a runner, and I think we’re just a better offensive line than we were last year. And we have certainly three runners that we really didn’t have last year and I’m counting Dominique [Johnson] in that because he really didn’t play much, that are helping us as well.”

Kiffin was on a soap box last week touting the productivity of well-run RPO attacks.

“Dealing in facts, it really is amazing the output of what this system [can do] and credit to Art Briles, all three of those [SEC] teams we just talked about are three of the top rushing teams in the country,” Kiffin said. “And then you look at the SEC, where some teams probably a lot of people listening to this would say ‘They’re great rushing teams’ and they’re really not. So I give a ton of credit to Art Briles.”

Kendal Briles put together a productive scheme last year for drop-back quarterback Feleipe Franks. But as Pittman said during spring drills, having dual threat quarterbacks like Jefferson and Hornsby funnel right into Briles’ wheelhouse.

The Razorbacks’ offense has produced sublime moments, such as 676 total yards two weeks ago in a 52-51 loss at Ole Miss and 633 total yards, including 269 on the ground, in a 45-10 win over Georgia Southern.

Arkansas has out-gained every opponent this season with the exception of Georgia, whose sturdy defense limited the Hogs to 162 total yards. Otherwise, the Razorbacks have posted 443 total yards or better in every other game since opening with 373 yards in a shaky opener against Rice.

Several factors have played critical roles for the potent Arkansas attack. The Razorbacks have an experienced senior-laden offensive line, anchored by upperclassmen like Ty Clary, Myron Cunningham, Ricky Stromberg and Dalton Wagner.

They have a sublime pass catcher in Treylon Burks. They employ a talented array of tailbacks with junior Trelon Smith leading the youngsters Johnson, Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and AJ Green. The apex of the season has been 333 rushing yards, with each tailback scoring one rushing touchdown apiece, in a 40-21 demolition of Texas.

Then there’s Jefferson, whose footwork, passing accuracy and split-second decision making need honing, but whose strength, speed, agility and maturing presence have been on display all season.

Jefferson leads the team with 17 of those FBS-best 10-plus yard runs. Smith has 15 such runs, while Sanders has 13. Seven of Johnson’s 33 carries (21%) have gone for 10 or more yards.

Perhaps that’s why Pittman indicated on Monday he’d like to see more of Johnson.

“Every time he seems to run the football, good things happen,” Pittman said. “To me, he probably has to double his load, what we’ve been giving him, because he’s proven that he’s a really good player.

“With that said, someone’s going to lose carries and that’s fine. … When you give reps, you give them so you can see what the kids are able to do and when you’re in Game 7, you’ve probably seen it. Now there needs to be a little bit more of an order of, ‘This guy gets this many carries, this one gets this, that.’ Before, it was kind of that way, but you’re dividing them by four. I think the division’s got to come maybe a little closer to three, 2.5.”

Johnson said the coaching staff doesn’t talk about percentage of carries.

“We don’t really discuss the carries, but I’m not upset with the amount of carries I’m getting right now,” he said. “I mean everybody is doing their job with the amount of carries they’re getting.

“You see Deuce-Deuce [Smith’s No. 22] get the ball, he’s a blaze. You see Rocket get the ball, he gets in there and pounds the ball. I get in there and pound the ball. It’s just different styles of running that we can all have. It’s just hard for another team to stop the running style we have that we bring to the field every game.”

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