Some lessons from Hogs’ spring game 

After Saturday’s spring practice-ending Red-White game, many observers wondered why Arkansas’s highly touted “new” offense looked so much like its “old” one.

All spring, the focus of attention has been on the hiring of high school coaching sensation Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator and the introduction of his “spread” offensive scheme. After all, for the past few years, Arkansas has been one-dimensional, continually ranking at the top of the conference in rushing and at near its bottom in passing. Largely because of a lack of offensive balance, Arkansas has failed to win consistently in the SEC.

After a dismal 4-7 record last year (with only two conference wins), Head Coach Houston Nutt drew heightened criticism for his stubborn dedication to the run and his refusal to call plays that challenged the defense over the middle and beyond 10 yards from scrimmage. While his play calling kept Arkansas in most games, the overall lack of imagination on offense made the Hogs predictable and easy to defend in crucial situations. Fourth-down calls against Vanderbilt and South Carolina come immediately to mind, but the proof is in the pudding and Arkansas was 0-4 in games decided by 10 points or less. The margin between winning and losing is not usually 70-17. Play-calling makes a difference.

So after the offense on display in the Red-White game looked like it did when Nutt was still calling the plays, Nutt and Malzahn were asked what happened to the wide-open offense everyone expected to see. They both commented that since the game was televised on ESPNU, they didn’t want to tip their hand to opponents this early. That seems a bit far fetched. It’s not like SEC defensive coordinators haven’t seen the spread. And Malzahn has written a book about his offense, for heaven’s sake.

Seriously, does anyone think that Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll was watching the Hogs’ spring game? Of course he wasn’t. He was too busy with his own team. Sorry Hog fans, Carroll is not yet worried about a team he beat by 53 last season.

What is more worrisome than fans not getting a look at the spread, or that the Razorbacks ran more times than they passed in a Red-White game, is that this might have been first taste of things to come. After the game, Nutt was quoted as saying, “I limited him [Malzahn] to certain things, but he did fine.” This shows that Nutt is still intimately involved in the offense (more than a typical CEO-style coach would be) and will continue to exert his authority over it.

If Nutt decided to hold Malzahn back, as his quote here so indicates, then it raises the critical question: Who is really running the offense? What’s the point in hiring a coach to call plays when you limit the plays he can call?

Now, it’s only spring practice, and it could be that Houston’s comments don’t indicate that the Razorbacks’ offensive philosophy will remain unchanged from last year. But the very real concern is that things may not be different, mainly because Nutt has never believed his offense was the problem. Even last year, Nutt commented that play-calling was overrated, and he later made a point to take credit for the Ole Miss victory while taking a shot at his critics with the infamous “I called some great plays today” statement in his post-game interview.

For the sake of Arkansas’s season, hopefully Nutt’s most recent remark was nothing more than misspoken words and that his intention is to let Malzahn direct the offense without interference.

But if not, then Nutt has told us a lot about who is in charge of the offense on the Hill and what Arkansas’s fans and opponents can expect this fall.

J.R. and Henry are a couple of sports fanatics who have tired of the same ol’ song and dance of the statewide sports columnists and are offering their opinions on the Little Rocking blog on Wednesdays and Saturdays.


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