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Arkansas’ Chad Morris off to tough start in first season with Razorbacks

September 27, 2018

As a Texas A&M student, Chad Morris probably joined in chanting “Beat the Hell Outta Arkansas!” when the Razorbacks came to Kyle Field. On Saturday Arkansas’ first-year head football coach will take a bit more business-like approach when he faces his alma mater in the Southwest Classic in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.

“It’s like playing anybody else,” Morris said at Arkansas’ weekly press conference Monday. “It’s an opponent, and the focus is on the Razorbacks and getting us better.”

Morris grew up in Edgewood just east of Dallas wanting to become an Aggie.

“That’s where I wanted to go to school,” Morris said. “That was kind of a dream, and that’s kind of how I got there.”

The A&M ties for Morris go deeper than the mathematics degree he earned in 1992. Some thought A&M would have considered hiring Morris as its head coach had it not hired Jimbo Fisher from Florida State.

A&M (2-2, 0-1) now becomes a barometer for Morris, a highly successful high school coach in Texas who had great success as an offensive coordinator at Tulsa and Clemson. He landed his first head coaching job in 2015 at SMU, replacing June Jones after an 1-11 season. Morris went 2-10 in his first season but improved to 5-7 and 7-5 over the next two seasons.

Morris won his Razorbacks’ debut, a 55-20 victory over Eastern Illinois, but Arkansas (1-3, 0-1) has lost the last three games. The last two were ugly. North Texas intercepted six passes in a 44-17 victory, and Auburn grabbed a 44-17 victory as the Razorbacks allowed punt returns of 36 and 48 yards and a 96-yard kickoff return.

Optimistic Razorback fans had visions of a bowl trip in Morris’ initial season, but with three ranked teams left on the schedule, Arkansas will be hard-pressed to match or better last year’s 4-8 record that got Bret Bielema fired.

“Make no mistake, losing is not accepted in this program,” Morris said. “There’s no moral victories, and that’s totally not accepted. The effort’s there. It’s going to take toughness. It’s going to take togetherness to work through these times.”

Offense is Morris’ forte, but the Razorbacks averaged just 313 yards in the last two games, converting just 8 of 29 third downs and coughing up eight turnovers.

“Turnovers and inconsistency on third downs and penalties, these are areas that have to improve,” Morris said. “We can’t keep having self-inflicted wounds when we have drives going.”

Morris said the Razorbacks will consider using more offensive and defensive starters on special teams to improve. Arkansas ranks 113th nationally in kickoff return defense and 126th in punt return defense.

Arkansas’ best unit has been the defense under coordinator John Chavis, who coached at A&M the last three seasons. Auburn, which averaged 438.3 yards of offense per game in its first three games, managed only 225 against Arkansas.

“I thought this was the most complete game our defense played this season,” Morris said. “They did a good job of handling sudden change. They gave up one long drive to a team that’s known for their explosive offense and running the football.”

Arkansas will be tested by A&M’s seventh-ranked offense that averages 545.5 yards per game.

“They don’t have any deficiencies,” Chavis said. “That’s good for them. We have to get up to that level, and we’ve got to keep pushing.”

Arkansas’ defensive strength is stopping the run, allowing only 88.3 yards per game to rank seventh in the country.

“It’s about numbers in the box,” Chavis said. “It’s about showing them a five-man box and ending up playing a six- or seven-man box. Teams that are spread teams don’t want to run into a seven-man box.”

A&M’s running backs managed only 76 yards rushing on 31 carries (2.5 average) against second-ranked Clemson and top-ranked Alabama, but quarterback Kellen Mond rushed for 131 yards on 28 carries despite losing 44 yards on 10 sacks against those teams.

“He’s a great runner,” Chavis said. “He’s on track to be a 3,000-yard passer. They have six receivers who can play anywhere in the country.”

Morris said Mond “is playing at an elite level right now.”

A year ago, Mond shook off an early interception that Arkansas converted into a touchdown and a 21-7 lead to help the Aggies rally for a 50-43 overtime victory. Mond threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns and added 109 yards rushing on 10 carries.

Mond is a big reason the Aggies are three-touchdown favorite as A&M looks to win its seventh straight in the series.

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