By Otis Kirk
Arkansas is still seeking its first SEC win under Chad Morris and would love nothing more than to get it in Little Rock on Saturday night against Ole Miss.
The Hogs won their season opener against Eastern Illinois, but have since lost five in a row including all three in the SEC. But coming off their best performance of the season this past Saturday against top-ranked Alabama the Hogs are hoping to secure a victory.
“Yeah winning always helps,” Morris said. “It helps a lot of things. But again it’s focusing on just winning today. Can we just be the best we can today? I know you keep hearing that out of me and it’s not gonna change. It’s just about having our daily wins. Can we hit our daily wins today and be the best we can be today? If we have then we have succeeded today and we will worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”
Arkansas played much better on offense and special teams against Alabama, but not so well on defense. Can this team excel in all three phases for four quarters?
“I believe so,” Morris said. “There’s no doubt about that. It’s gonna happen at some point this year and we’re getting closer and closer. One thing we want to focus on more than anything else is just getting better every day. When that time comes we will know it.”
While Arkansas hasn’t won since the opener, it appears they have made obvious vast improvements. How much does Morris feel the players and coaches have improved since the beginning of fall camp?
“I think anytime you are around each other as much as we are and when you go through adversity like we have you find the growth,” Morris said. “You find what you are really about. You force yourself to continue to grow.
“As we have shared with our team so many times when you go through adversity you become closer, you become better. I think the staff has become better. I think the players have become better and closer. That’s why you have seen the progress that you have seen.”
Arkansas’ starting right guard Johnny Gibson was in a green protective jersey on Tuesday, but Morris said Wednesday he will play against the Rebels. He also talked about how Gibson has played thus far this season.
“I think Johnny has done a really good job,” Morris said. “Obviously what he did coming out of summer and transitioning his body. He’s done a good job of moving around and moving in space and continues to get better as the whole group does up front. Especially since we found the group of five.”
Another offensive lineman, true freshman left tackle Noah Gatlin, has been spotted in a yellow protective jersey recently. What is his status and any chance he redshirts now?
“We’re looking at that and if he continues to develop from his health standpoint on his ankle and see if we can get him back and then obviously have him ready to go,” Morris said.
Many times people refer to the Alabama hangover the next game after playing the Tide. Morris was asked about that as well on Wednesday?
“Well, I don’t know much about that outside of the fact that it’s just about us,” Morris said. “That’s been my message that it’s about us and about us getting better every day and that message won’t change.”
As far as Ole Miss, how does their offense compare to some of the other teams you have faced?
“When you look at their skill guys, they’re as good as anybody in the SEC from a skill position,” Morris said. “They have receivers that two, possibly even three, first-round receivers. They’re that talented. They have great speed.
“They’re very well experienced and I know that the quarterback makes them go. He has been very efficient and effective. I think the guy’s only thrown 60-something incompletions this year, and he’s capable of running the football, so he’s very much a dual-threat. It’s going to force us to have to cover not just sideline to sideline, but we also have to cover end zone to end zone with these guys.”
Morris said he has heard stories from former players and fans about the rivalry with Ole Miss. The two teams played on several occasions before the Hogs opened SEC play in 1992.
“Well, I have and they have, as well,” Morris said of former players talking to him. “Through traveling around since I’ve been here and having former players at practice and back around, I’ve heard several stories. It’s always a unique perspective when you start talking to former players and how excited this game is to them.”
This past Saturday both left guard Hjalte Froholdt and right tackle Brian Wallace left the game with injuries at one point. While they were out Austin Capps filled in for Froholdt and Dalton Wagner for Wallace. How did they do?
“Well we’re trying,” Morris said of building depth on offensive line. “Once we got the rotation that we felt was our best five. We have to try to build on it in case something comes up like Brian Wallace going down last week. Dalton came in and you can definitely tell the way we practiced him, and not just him, all our offensive line in front giving them substantial reps he did some really good things. So I think that has allowed us he and Austin Capps to help grow our depth. We’re not anywhere close to where we need to be, but we are getting better in that area.”
Running back Devwah Whaley was injured in the Auburn game and missed both the Texas A&M and Alabama games. Will he be back this week?
“Well we’ll probably know more today,” Morris said. “He was out at practice yesterday and going. We will see how today is and we’re anticipating him playing. It will be great to get him back, but Rakeem Boyd has had a really good last few weeks. I do anticipate being able to roll Devwah in if he is able to go.”
The Ole Miss secondary has had a lot of injuries and there has been some pretty good numbers there. Is there any thought of passing more against them?
“They have had some injuries, but they are very well coached,” Morris said. “A lot of experience back there. What we’ll do is just worry about ourselves and do what we do. Try to get this football team better each week.”
The secondary is an issue that has Ole Miss coach Matt Luke concerned.
“Arkansas presents a lot of challenges because how much shifting in motion they do, but Zedrick Woods will be the quarterback back there,” Luke said. “He has a lot of experience, but we will have to play Armani Linton who has a running back, but he will have to go over there and help us. Same with Tylan Knight. They will have to go in and play a bunch. Just for depth.”
Luke knows Arkansas is probably coming off its best game of the season, but the Rebels defeated Louisiana-Monroe 70-21 this past Saturday as well.
“Looking forward to a good game in Little Rock against Arkansas,” Luke said. “It should be a great venue. I felt like we we probably played our best game offensively against Louisiana-Monroe and was pleased with the turnovers we got defensively. Just a little bit banged up in the secondary forcing some guys to move from offense to defense. But it should be a great game in Little Rock.”
Luke was with Ole Miss in 2012 when they faced Arkansas in Little Rock. The Rebels escaped with a 30-27 win over the Hogs and John L. Smith.
“You know I remember busing over, and we’re doing it the same, we’re going to bus over,” Luke said. “It was a really, really good game. Fortunate to win on a last-second field goal. We’re going over Friday night so the kids get a look at the stadium.
“There is nobody on our team that has played there. We have a few of the coaches that were on staff that were here. So we’ll go over there. It does get loud so we’ll continue to work crowd noise. But it should be a great atmosphere in a historic venue. An SEC night game should be a great atmosphere.”
Luke talked about Arkansas’ Ty Storey and Cole Kelley as well. Kelley was the quarterback last year when the Hogs beat Ole Miss 38-37 in Oxford.
“Yeah, you can see Ty’s progression and how he’s growing in confidence,” Luke said. “I really think a lot of him and how tough he is. He’s taken some shots and he keeps on going. He has a way of seems like energizing the team and the guys around him play hard. So I’ve been very impressed with him. I’ve never met him, but I just have a lot of respect for him and the improvements he’s made.
“Cole’s so big. I just remember in our game last year, it seemed like he could fall forward and gain five or six yards when it didn’t look like he was getting much. Just his size and being able to have a guy like that in short yardage could be a weapon.”
What do you think the difference in playing in Fayetteville and Little Rock will be for you guys?
“You know what, Fayetteville’s always been a tough place for me to play,” Luke said. “But as far as Little Rock, I’ve only been there one time and it was 2012 and it was also a tough environment. I do think it’s unique that both teams are traveling to play there. It’ll still be a hostile crowd and we’ll have to deal with all the crowd noise, especially on third down.”
Arkansas and Ole Miss will kickoff at 6:30 p.m. on the SEC Network. Ole Miss (4-2, 0-2) and Arkansas (1-5, 0-3) are both seeking their first SEC win of the season.