FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The spread offense is en vogue. No longer the outlier of college football offenses, the spread has become the standard, especially with smaller, non power-conference teams. Arkansas has seen a lot of spread offenses through its first five games this season. Every game, actually.
They won’t this week. Alabama is not a team that will line up often with empty backfields or four wide-receiver sets. Maybe every once in a while. Don’t kid yourself, though. Alabama can throw it. The Crimson Tide are fourth in the SEC in passing and tops in the league in touchdown-to-interception ratio. Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has continued the recent Alabama tradition of inexperienced quarterbacks leading the team to impressive totals. With Calvin Ridley, the league’s best wideout, on the team, too, Arkansas will have its hands full slowing the twosome down.
Where the game is more likely to be won or lost for Arkansas, though, isn’t with the passing game. Hurts is the second-leading rushing quarterback in the SEC. He has more yards rushing than Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs and Mississippi’s Chad Kelly, two quarterbacks who were known as the top dual threats in the conference before the season.
Arkansas couldn’t stop Kelly last year despite a 53-52 win in Oxford, Miss. Kelly ran 11 times for 110 yards and three scores. This year, the Razorbacks defense allowed TCU’s Kenny Hill to go for 93 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries and Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight destroyed the unit with 157 yards and two scores on 10 carries. Hurts has been just as dangerous. He ran for almost 150 yards against Ole Miss in Week 3 in the Crimson Tide’s win.
The Razorbacks run a 4-2-5 defense every play. The two primary linebackers, Dre Greenlaw and Brooks Ellis, have been found out of position against teams like Texas A&M because the spread forced them to cover wide receivers on quarterback draws or when Knight was flushed out of the pocket. They need help from a safety clamping down or the nickel cornerback, most often Henre’ Toliver, floating to the middle.
Because that’s where the Razorbacks have been vulnerable. Seven of Hill’s 15 carries and both of Knight’s scores went up the middle. Even Alcorn State’s Noah Johnson capped the Braves’ most impressive drive with a 12-yard touchdown run between the hash marks.
Safety help will go a long way in stifling what Hurts can do with his legs. A good chunk of that starts with strong safety Santos Ramirez. Ramirez didn’t play against Alcorn State because of a leg injury. He’s still seventh on the team in tackles and is known as a big hitter. What he has been less known for, or rather more infamous for, is his inability to wrap up ball carriers. Ramirez earned coach Bret Bielema’s ire with his play in the second half of Arkansas’ loss to Texas A&M two weeks ago. Bielema knows he has to have Ramirez, though. Only Josh Liddell and De’Andre Coley are at safety otherwise.
Ellis and Greenlaw shouldn’t be positioned as wide against Alabama as they’ve been forced to be against other opponents pre-snap. Of course, one of those two, or one of the safeties, will instead have to cover Alabama tight end OJ Howard, a likely first- or second-round pick at next year’s NFL draft.
And there’s the matter of covering Ridley on the outside, never mind traditional rushing plays with Alabama running backs. A safety-cornerback double-team might limit what Ridley’s able to do on the exterior, but again, that opens the middle. One-on-one, either cornerback Jared Collins or cornerback Ryan Pulley would draw the assignment against the SEC’s second-leading receiver. Opposing quarterbacks have completed fewer than 30 percent of their passes going Pulley’s way and Collins has seen few throws in his direction.
If Arkansas can keep Hurts from taking off between the tackles, it should counter just enough gains for first downs to result in shorter Alabama drives, in turn giving the ball back to Arkansas and its top-five SEC offense.