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Cautiously Optimistic About Morris

By Jim Johnson
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The announcement of former SMU head coach and Clemson offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, as Arkansas’ head coach has been largely met with a positive response, although some are withholding judgement.

The announcement of former SMU head coach and Clemson offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, as Arkansas’ head coach has been largely met with a positive response, while some are more cautiously optimistic, and a few leaning towards underwhelmed, to say the least.

Frankly, the reaction fits the hire -- there are a lot of reasons to love it, but just enough concerns to give one pause.

This table shows Morris’ offenses S&P+, Fremeau Efficiency Index, non-garbage time points per drive, points per game, and yards per game rankings, from throughout his career. Italicized are the programs’ rankings the year prior to his taking over.

Everywhere he’s been, the offense has shown immediate and marked improvement.

The advanced metrics show a Tulsa offense that was one of the worst in college football, before his arrival, which he transformed into one of the better groups in the country. The more traditional numbers show a jump from good to great.

In any case, the one year there was enough to earn him a job at Clemson. The opposite was true, where the traditional numbers indicated an offense around the bottom third of the sport, where as the advanced stats saw it as middling, at best. Regardless, the unit improved into one of the nation's top 25, or so, across the board.

SMU was more of a grind to accomplish some modicum of national relevance, but with good reason. The group he inherited was a year removed from making its case as the worst in the FBS. The fact that they were, more or less, average the next year is a modern miracle, however the development stalled, in 2016. This season, though, has been his masterpiece.

The 2017 SMU offense is not as good as the one he led at Clemson in 2012, but, with all due respect, he’s not exactly working with Tajh Boyd, DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Andre Ellington. Although, under his tutelage, Ben Hicks, Courtland Sutton, Trey Quinn, and Xavier Jones look an awful lot like the aforementioned fearsome foursome.

Here’s the comparison between the quarterback, top two receivers, and primary running back of those respective groups:

QB Boyd: 299.7 passing yards per game, 38 passing TDs, 13 INTs, 165.58 passer rating
QB Hicks: 286.8 passing yards per game, 32 passing TDs, 9 INTs, 144.69 passer rating

WRs Hopkins + Watkins: 178.9 yards per game, 15.2 yards per reception, 21 TDs
WRs Sutton + Quinn: 184.1 yards per game, 13.1 yards per reception, 24 TDs

RB Ellington: 83.15 yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry, 8 TDs
RB Jones: 84.92 yards per game, 6 yards per carry, 9 TDs

Sure, Clemson played tougher defenses, on the whole, in 2012, than SMU has this year, but, relative to the talent at Morris’ disposal, the efficacy is, to a substantial extent, proportional. That would indicate that his offensive production is less talent dependent than it is schematic.

Chad Morris is not without red flags, though.

For instance, what on earth happened in 2014?

The Tigers did lose Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd, as well as a pair of offensive line starters, but does that justify going from being, inarguably, one of the 20 to 25 best offenses in college football to, and this is charitable, below average?

Also, with the exception of the 2012 offense at Clemson, Morris has never coached a truly elite, cream of the crop group.

He’s led a number of good, even very good, ones, but only one great one. That is, of course, not to say that he can’t, or won’t, consistently do it, or be able to. It just begs the question, is that enough to warrant an SEC head coaching job?

Ultimately, it seems like, while Morris’ offensive approach is not especially talent dependent, it is scheme-fit dependent. It’s not that he needs world beaters, bust the pieces have to fit into the puzzle that he has created.

Also, his offensive success is centered around explosiveness, which is a litle bit like living and dying by three pointers in basketball. Can you win a lot of game like that? Certainly. Can you beat teams that you may not otherwise should have like that? Sure. But, can you compete like that, on a consistent, week to week basis? That’s where it starts to get hairy. That’s where defense comes into play.

More important than, arguably, anything else Chad Morris does in the early going as Arkansas’ head coach will be finding his defensive coordinator. Fortunately, he seems to be aware of that and has, basically, stated as much. As fast as Morris’ offense goes, on days when the long ball just isn’t falling, the Hogs will have to get stops. That’s what makes everything click into place.

All things considered, relative to the kind of job that Arkansas realistically is, this is a positive hire. It’s imperative that the Razorbacks be able to recruit Texas, in order to compete in the SEC, and Morris has developed ties throughout the state, while at SMU, aside from his already legendary status in the high school football scene. He has been heralded by his former boss, Dabo Swinney. The impact that his offense can have is clear as day, in the numbers.

Only time will tell how good this hire actually is, but, as it stands today, the general fan base reaction sees to be about right -- cautiously optimistic.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP