State of the Hogs: Spring Review

Not everyone was happy about the way things went for the spring game, but publisher Clay Henry liked it just fine.

There's been a lot of focus on what folks did or didn't see in last week's Red-White football scrimmage. Among the gripes:

• The top backs were not tackled to the ground and fans were not aware of that decision before making the drive to Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Stud runners Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis, Felix Jones and Michael Smith wore green jerseys that made them off limits as far as physical hits.

• The full Gus Malzahn effect was not on display in the scrimmage. In fact, it was quite vanilla. There was no hint of the no-huddle spread, the formation the new offensive coordinator featured in his book.

I understand those thoughts. They entered my mind, too. But if I had been the head football coach, I probably would have made the same decisions as Houston Nutt.

And, Nutt told us Wednesday at his post-spring media briefing that he'd do it the same way again given the same options, especially with ESPNU cameras in the stadium.

"If I had it to do over again, the only thing I'd have changed is that I would have told everyone we were not going to tackle those four guys," Nutt said.

Nutt made that decision on Wednesday, but he wasn't for sure about it until visiting with some former college coaches at a lettermen breakfast Saturday morning. Barry Switzer, Fred Akers, Ken Hatfield and Merv Johnson all said he was doing the right thing.

"The players were mad, especially the backs," Nutt said. "Darren McFadden and all of them thought we were taking away their ability to break tackles and they made a good point. I just couldn't take a chance on one of them getting hurt.

"We'd hit more this spring than any time in a long time. We tackled those backs. They proved it to their teammates. We'd gone ones against ones to start every scrimmage. I don't think it upset their teammates as much as it did those four backs. Their teammates understood what they had done in the fall and this spring."

It made sense to me, but I understand those that didn't like it. They came to see a football game, and didn't get one.

But, I bet they were more upset at not seeing Malzahn's stuff. They wanted to see more passes. The Red team, with the top offensive personnel, completed 14 of 22 passes for 150 yards in an abbreviated game.

"We didn't throw more because we didn't have the receivers to do it," Nutt said. "We were just too beat up to throw the way we wanted to."

Even if the wideouts were all healthy, the real truth is that the Hogs just aren't ready yet to run all of Malzahn's stuff. The offensive line isn't ready for the no-huddle. The quarterbacks aren't ready, either.

"We ran some no-huddle just about every day," Nutt said. "We are getting there and some days we looked pretty good. We'll get better, too.

"I think the offensive linemen found out they needed to be in better shape when we ran it. It stressed the defensive line to move that fast, but it also made the offensive linemen think they weren't in good enough shape.

"We are going to get there, though. (Strength and conditioning coach) Don Decker has already devised a plan to run some conditioning this summer for our O-line that simulates the no-huddle.

"Our linemen like it and see how we ripped off some big plays because the defense wasn't ready. Stephen Parker, one of our offensive linemen, mentioned that it was a good plan, but he said what we did this spring showed we need to get in better shape."

I understand why they didn't show all of their stuff on national TV. I'd have done it the same way.

(It is interesting that no one griped about not seeing the new plays put in by Alex Wood, the new quarterback coach with an NFL history. They kept that stuff under wraps, too. That told me that our new quarterback coach is still flying under the radar. For the record, I like Wood's stuff as much as I like Malzahn's. They are going to make a great tandem.)

I think one of the worst things this staff could have done was to try to run the Malzahn/Wood stuff before it's ready. It would have been unfair to the players as far as evaluation and unfair to the coaches trying to install a new system.

"I think Gus got a little frustrated that we weren't further along," Nutt said. "Part of it is we probably went a little too fast right at the start with the wideouts. We got some pulls and tweaks from doing a little more running than they were used to and then didn't have enough wideouts.

"And, it didn't help that those guys were so excited that they got out there and did some running before they were even stretched. That wasn't smart, but the wideouts were excited and wanted to run some routes before (the coaches) got out there. Our lines were short at wideout and we probably did try to do too much with them early.

"That won't be a problem in the fall. Those guys have all summer to get ready and we'll be fine when August gets here. The lines are going to be longer in the fall when we get some new (wideouts) in here. We won't have short lines like we did in the spring."

That's not all of it, though. Malzahn learned that installing things on the college level is a slower process than on the high school level.

What was that? Slower?

Yes, that's exactly right. NCAA rules allow the coaches to spend only 20 hours a week with players during spring drills, and they can't work them out in January, February or March ahead of spring drills.

There are no limits in high school. And, coaches can work their players every day of the week from January through May in high school.

"It's not going to be a problem," Nutt said. "But I think it was surprising to Gus when we spelled out the structure of the rules. He asked, ‘That's all we get?' And, we said, ‘Yep.' They've got the base and they have all summer to work on it."

I love the direction the offense is headed. I don't worry about Malzahn. He's one of the smartest coaches I've ever witnessed. He knows what he's doing in every area and the Hogs are going to be fine with him in charge. He's innovative, structured and can motivate. He'll figure college out just like he figured out high school.

It looks like the players and the coaches around him feel the same way. Nutt likes where the Hogs are headed in their pass protection, something that was a little sketchy the last few years and didn't seem better the first few days of spring ball.

"We are doing more man protection and that's the hardest thing there is in our conference where you have the best pass rushers in college football," Nutt said. "But we are working hard on it and it's getting better.

"What we are doing now is tough to protect, a formation with two short edges. Often, you don't have a tight end on either side and that's a short path to the quarterback for a blitzer. But we are getting it down. We'll have it down."

Line coach Mike Markuson doesn't bat an eye when he speaks up for Malzahn's system and the man protection that some thought Markuson couldn't or wouldn't teach.

Markuson said the line has progressed in fast fashion and seemed to be doing well by the end of spring drills. He said the blocking scheme for the new formations isn't entirely new to the Hogs, but it did require more practice time to get it right. He said it is similar to what the Hogs used a lot in this staff's first and second season at the UA, but not as much since.

"We've had it, but we haven't worked on it as much since Clint Stoerner and that bunch left," Markuson said. "Our first two years, we were very much in man protection because we did a lot of things with three and four wideouts. That's the only way to protect in that formation. You've got five offensive linemen and on defense there are four down linemen and the mike linebacker. You man up.

"We've had it since then, but didn't use it because we were in tight end formations a lot because we didn't have the jet wideouts like we had those first two years when Anthony Lucas was our best wide receiver."

Markuson knows the future is more formations with three and four wideouts with what has been recruited.

"Now, with Gus here and more wideouts on the way, those jet guys, then we'll be in three and four wide again," Markuson said. "We'll go back to that man protection. Our guys have fought hard to get it right this spring. They want to do it and they will do it.

"The interesting thing is that we still will use the zone blocking scheme. Some probably didn't realize it, but Gus did both at Springdale and we will do both here. There are some of our plays that you must zone block, those same plays Gus zone blocked at Springdale. So it works out well what we are doing together as far as man and zone in our scheme.

Markuson said man protection is the way to go.

"If we are in the gun, about the only way to protect it is in gap," Markuson said. "That's man. In our power and our counters, that's zone. So we are doing both.

"There are three ways to block. There is gap (or man), there is zone and there is veer. The only ones blocking veer are the academies. And, there are sometimes blitzes that you have to do a little of both. You man it and then turn it back. So you do both there.

Markuson is convinced the Hogs will be fine in man protection.

"The thing is, we are spending a whole lot more time in our man protection this spring," Markuson said. "It's the toughest, but we've done well with it. We just have to get the combinations together with the backs. We'll get there and in fact, we are getting there pretty well.

"Our last two practices of the spring, we worked a lot of third-and-8s and third-and-10s, so that is pass and that is multiple wideouts. You've got blitzes and a rush where they know it's pass. We've been man protecting it and I'd say the results have been very positive. I feel good about where we are and I think Gus does, too.

Markuson likes the way Malzahn has grabbed the attention of the offense. The focus was solid in the spring from all facets of the offense.

"Gus has been great," Malzahn said. "He's brought a different voice out here. He's made guys accountable with a different voice. They've responded and it's been very good. He's upped the tempo and we all have a real good feeling about where we are and where we are going.

"He's put a different spin on things and it's helped. You need that. Our guys know that we have more wideouts coming and another great quarterback on the way. They are very positive about what's going on this spring and what lies ahead in the fall."

None of this is going to stop the gripes about the first two points in this space. All I can tell you is that I saw 15 practices and know where this team is headed. I like it. I like it a lot.

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