By Rob Patrick
With spring practice beginning on Monday, May 23, let’s take a moment[more] to look back, football fans.
The time: Sept. 5, 2008
The place: War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock
The predicament: The considerable remnants of Hurricane Gustav hit central Arkansas turning the annual Salt Bowl between the Hornets and the rival Benton Panthers into an ugly, windy car wash of a football game.
It was not a good night for the spread offense, which both teams were trying to run.
“We still didn’t have an identity on offense,” recalled Bryant head coach Paul Calley. “And when we started 0 for 14 passing because of the weather, we decided we had to line up in a two-tight-end-I and run the ball.”
The Hornets had an untested junior running back named Chris Rycraw. After the game, he was plenty tested as he rushed for 130 yards and four touchdowns.
Of course, Rycraw went on to become the career-leading rusher in Bryant history in just two seasons.
“I wasn’t sure if Rycraw was going to be the back that he was,” Calley acknowledged. “I knew he had potential. But, after that game, I realized that our best bet was to go to the pro-style, play-action game. That gave us the best chance to win.
“We couldn’t stretch the field vertically,” he added. “We knew that would be a challenge for us. And when you can’t stretch it vertically, it allows teams to come up and play you tighter, take away your screen game. If you can’t throw the screens and you can’t beat people deep, you’re intermediate passing game’s also affected.”
It also had its effect on the defense.
“Coach Griff (defensive coordinator Steve Griffith) didn’t feel like we had the defensive personnel that could support the spread offense for the simple fact that, if you throw the ball three times in a row and you throw three incompletions and you’ve run 15 seconds off the clock, now your defense is forced back on the field.
“In ’07, when we won the conference championship, we had the personnel to run the spread and we had the defensive personnel to back it up,” Calley acknowledged. “We knew after that it’d be difficult to do that. So, we took our defense off the field, I’d say 20 percent more of the time, by running a pro-style offense. And we were able to play-action pass and throw the deep ball which, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do.
“It shortened the game,” he said. “It allowed us to be much more effective in the red zone. When you can line up and run the football, which I feel like you ultimately have to do to win in our conference and our classification — we were able to do that.
“Last year, we tied a school record for points scored in a season and we have been much more efficient offensively,” the coach noted. “Our total yardage production has been higher than it was the last couple of years we ran the spread and our ability just to be able to run the ball when we have to at the end of the game trying to protect a lead, fourth-and-one — you know, we went for it a lot more than we normally would have. Even when you look back at the tough games we had, when we got in a bind against Cabot a couple of years ago, against Conway last year, against Springdale in the playoffs in ’08, we went to that two-tight-I and we were able to run over people when we couldn’t throw it.
“I personally think it’s harder to prepare for because we had around 46 different formations we could run out of. It takes defenses a lot of time to prepare, just to lineup to that.”
All of that being said, Calley added, “It’s going to be hard to give that up.”
“We felt like we had to transition from the pro-style offense back to the spread due to personnel,” he explained. “It’s all a matter of adjusting to the talent on your team. And, now, plans are to utilize the available talent by going back to the spread.
“You know, when I was hired here,” he quipped, “they didn’t ask me what we were going to run on offense and defense. They just asked me if I would leave if we didn’t win. So we have done what we felt like we had to do as coaches to give our kids the best chance.”
That puts a whole new level of importance to spring practice.
“We pushed it back because of snow days and we thought our quarterbacks would still be in baseball, playing for the State championship and they are,” Calley explained regarding the later start date. “We’re going five days from May 23 to the 27. We’re skipping Memorial Day then going the next four days to June 3.
“We’ve made a lot of changes in our passing game and without your quarterbacks here to actually throw to receivers, it’s hard to get timing down and things like that,” he mentioned. “But we’ve been working to learn the offense. The quarterbacks have been coming up on their own time and working with Coach (Dale) Jones, so they have a good understanding of what we want to do. It’s just the fact that we haven’t been on the field and haven’t actually done it.”
Hayden Lessenberry, the returning starter at quarterback, is the starting catcher for the Hornets baseball team and sophomore-to-be, Wesley Akers, is a pitcher. Austin Powell has been moved to wide receiver, joining returning starters Sawyer Nichols and Dillon Winfrey. The Hornets are hoping to take advantage of the size of 6-3 junior Devon Sears as well. Plus, as Calley said, returning running backs Karon Dismuke and Jalen Bell are both good receivers that can split out or work in the backfield.
Calley is still a bit weary of the change.
“When you go back to the spread — everybody’s running the spread, everybody knows how to defend the spread, everybody can line up against it,” he explained. “And it’s going to make it hard on us to score points and to move the ball. Personally, I like playing against spread teams because I feel like our defense can defend those type of teams better than we can a downhill running team, teams that run right at you, just because of size.
“I hate to get away from the pro-style but we’ve got two quarterbacks we feel like are capable,” he continued. “We’ve got receivers and running backs that are spread backs. They can catch the ball out of the backfield. They can line up at receiver and catch the ball. So, it’s going to be the best fit for us.
“Defensively, we’re still going to be small up front. We’re going to have to use our speed, different coverages, disguised coverages. I try not to get on message boards but I had several people tell me last year, wondering what our defense was doing, why we were giving up so many big plays like we did early in the year against Northside. We’re trying to mix up our coverages and disguise coverages and use different coverages to help slow down these spread teams. And, at the end of the year, we had a better grasp of it and we were able to do that. Early on, we struggled with it but I felt like one of our downfalls, especially in ’07 is that we didn’t run a lot of multiple coverages and it hurt us against Fayetteville in the playoffs. So that’s one thing we have stressed. We want to be multiple on defense. We want to play cover-two, cover-four. We want to play some man. We want to be able to do it all. And we’ve got a lot of those people back. So, I think it’s going to be beneficial to us.
“We are very thin in the offensive line,” said Calley, who’s the offensive line position coach. “Right now, I’ve got a few guys that I know that I can depend on and some that are still question marks.
“Going back to the spread forces us into a lot more ‘man’ pass protection which we haven’t done a lot of the last three years,” he added. “When it’s a play-action pass and there’s the threat of a run, the defensive linemen don’t pin their ears back and rush the passer. And it’s a little easier to control them on the line of scrimmage.
“When you’re in a shotgun and you’re in five wide, they can pin their ears back, get up the field and with the twist stunts and zone blitzes and the confusion it creates for the offensive line, that’s where the number of reps are very important,” Calley explained. “You get tons of different looks and you have to spend a lot of time on the different looks to get the kids accustomed to switching people, being able to recognize a zone drop by a defensive tackle, picking up a linebacker that’s stunted in his place. And if you don’t get a lot of reps at it, it’s hard to do, it’s hard to pick up those blitzes. You’ve got to block with your feet. Once you stop your feet, you’re going to get beat.”
It will affect the defense too, he acknowledged. “I feel like our linebacking corps can be pretty solid. We have some returners there that played well for us last year. We’ve had a couple of move-ins that I think can help us.
“Our front four, right now, we’re minus a defensive end,” he added. “We’ve got a little experience in the defensive line but not a lot of size. We have to develop those people. We don’t have a Josh Hampton and that presents a problem. Inside we’ve got to do a better job of recognizing things and not just be gap-pluggers. We’ve got to be able to work up and down the line of scrimmage and recognize what the offensive line is trying to do to us. This group, as JV players, weren’t real good at that. Hopefully, they’ll get better with more reps. We’re still going to be small up front.
“We’re going to have to use our speed,” he related, turning to the secondary. “I try not to get on message boards but I had several people tell me last year, wondering what our defense was doing, why we were giving up so many big plays like we did early in the year against Northside. We’re trying to mix up our coverages and disguise coverages and use different coverages to help slow down these spread teams. And, at the end of the year, we had a better grasp of it and we were able to do that.
“Early on, we struggled with it but I felt like one of our downfalls, especially in ’07, is that we didn’t run a lot of multiple coverages and it hurt us against Fayetteville in the playoffs. So that’s one thing we have stressed. We want to be multiple on defense. We want to play cover-two, cover-four. We want to play some man. We want to be able to do it all. And we’ve got a lot of those people back. So, I think it’s going to be beneficial to us.”
Spring workouts will start at 2:45 and finish around 4:45 p.m.
“We’re going to do a lot more group work,” Calley said, “with a lot of individual instruction because, due to the fact that we haven’t had quarterbacks and the freshman academy is on a different schedule, it has put us behind with our work in the spring.
“We’re much farther behind than we have been the last five years as far as having things in. We were ready to scrimmage from 2005 up to now on the first day of pads. We’re not there yet. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. Probably the first three days is going to be a lot more group work, a lot less scrimmage time. As we get into the second week, we’ll try to scrimmage a little bit more. We’ll have a pretty lengthy scrimmage the last day.”
The 2011 season begins with the 12th Salt Bowl and the 39th renewal of the Bryant-Benton rivalry on Friday, Sept. 2.