Arkansas hopeful and eager for Chad Morris’ coaching debut
It’s a past that features arguably the worst six-year stretch in school history, an embarrassing conclusion to the scandal-ridden Bobby Petrino era and a disappointing tenure under Bret Bielema, fired after last season.
On Saturday, when the Razorbacks open their season against Eastern Illinoi in Morris’ debut, they can finally start to look forward instead of constantly being reminded about the mistakes of those who came before them. To a man, the relief is universal around a program historically unaccustomed to such a significant stretch of limited success.
“It’s the first chance for our guys to talk about who we are and tell our story,” Morris said.
After three straight losing seasons, Arkansas collapsed last year and finished 4-8 in Bielema’s last season, including a 1-7 mark in the Southeastern Conference. The losing season brought the overall record for the program to a woeful 33-42 since Petrino’s firing in the spring of 2012, the school’s worst stretch since a 22-38 record from 1948-52 and easily its worst since entering the SEC in 1992.
Morris was hired to do more than just return Arkansas to winning. The former SMU coach was tasked with reinvigorating a lethargic fan base that stayed away from Razorback Stadium by the thousands to end last season.
So far, Morris’ outgoing personality and high energy level have been a hit across the state. The opener will be the first test to see if his up-tempo offense will be equally well received.
After an offseason of competition, Morris named sophomore Cole Kelley the starting quarterback for Saturday’s game earlier this week. Kelley started four games last year as an injury replacement for then-starter Austin Allen, throwing for eight touchdowns and rushing for two more. While the 6-foot-7, 258-pound Kelley will start, Morris said junior Ty Storey will also see playing time — and that the position is likely to be up for grabs throughout the season.
“It means a lot to me, but it’s really just the beginning,” Kelley said.
Eastern Illinois coach Kim Dameron is entering his fifth season at the FCS school, leading the Panthers to a 24-22 overall record, including 6-5 last season. Dameron is also very familiar with Arkansas, having played football for the Razorbacks from 1979-82 and grown up just up from the road from the Arkansas campus in Rogers.
Arkansas was 114th in the country in scoring defense a year ago, allowing 36.2 points per game. Morris is counting on marked improvement this season thanks to an experienced group of players and the arrival of defensive coordinator John Chavis . The former Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M assistant won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant while at LSU in 2011, and he’s expected to bring with him a high-pressure, high-energy defensive look to the Razorbacks.
Arkansas isn’t the only team in Saturday’s game that’s expected to feature multiple quarterbacks. Dameron has said Johnathan Brantley and Harry Woodberry will play in the school’s first game against an SEC team. Brantley is a transfer from Tulane and Woodberry is a junior college transfer.
Arkansas will take the field in a new-look Razorback Stadium. A $160 million renovation brought the stadium’s capacity to more than 76,000.