What works for the Arkansas offense?
Though Dan Enos wants to do the bulk of his work through the dropback passing game, he hasn’t just completely thrown away concepts that suit KJ Jefferson and the Arkansas personnel. As I’ve discussed before, a modern pro-style attack is still going to utilize plenty of spread tactics. The includes the RPO game, which was a major part of what the Hogs did in Kendal Briles’ system.
As is the case with the majority of modern offenses, most of Arkansas’ run game features a pass tag. The most common RPO you see from the Razorbacks is the Glance route. A Glance is a 5-step post meant to pick on outside LBs or safeties that step down to fit the run. It attacks the space voided by those defenders when they see run action in the backfield.
It’s a simple read for the QB. If their key defender comes flying down into the box, throw the Glance. If the key defender stays back, hand the ball off to the RB. Receivers running the Glance are expected to win inside against corners to create an open throw.
Here’s an example from the Hogs on the second play of the game against BYU. They’re running Split Zone out of 12 personnel with their WRs on Glance routes. The OL and TEs are all blocking for the run. KJ Jefferson reads #26 for BYU. As Jefferson is in his mesh-point with the RB, #26 goes with the TE working across the formation, vacating the middle of the field. Jefferson pulls the ball and throws a strike to his WR for a 12-yard gain.
These Glance routes give Jefferson the opportunity to pick up easy completions and force the defense into playing back, opening up opportunities in the run game. The last part is important for the Hogs. Though Enos loves his passing game, this is a team that, at its core, wants to run the football, but they aren’t nearly as dominant up front run blocking as they have been in the past.
When the RPO threat creates space for Jefferson and Arkansas’ group of tailbacks to get yards on the ground, their offense has been much more productive. Bulldog safety Shawn Preston will be a player watch on Saturday, as one of his main responsibilities is defending RPOs.
The Arkansas receiving corps hasn’t been a dominant group this season, but one player has emerged as a reliable target. WR Andrew Armstrong is far and away the go-to option for Jefferson. He has 39 catches for 485 yards and four TDs. No one else has more than 19 receptions, and he’s about 230 yards ahead of their second-place receiver. 31% of Arkansas’ completions have gone to Armstrong.
Armstrong is a good receiver in space. He does most of his damage in the short to intermediate area of the field, settling into zones and finding run after catch opportunities. The Glance RPO shown above went to him. But he’s capable of winning downfield as well, and while KJ Jefferson doesn’t always display the best timing and touch on intermediate passes, he can connect on a deep ball.
Here’s Jefferson hitting Armstrong for a long TD against Texas A&M. This is the Mills concept with Armstrong running a deep post. The field safety (who isn’t visible pre-snap thanks to the camera angle) bites hard on the dig route from the slot receiver, giving Armstrong plenty of space to win one-on-one against the CB. Jefferson has time in the pocket, a rarity for this season, and delivers a perfect ball.
State’s pass defense has been bad this season. They’ve been shredded on underneath throws, and when they’ve played man, WRs have beaten then over top consistently. They’ll need a plan to contain Armstrong Saturday.
You can’t talk about the Arkansas offense without discussing KJ Jefferson’s threat as a runner. He’s amassed nearly 1600 rush yards and 20 rush TDs in his career. At 6’3, 245, Jefferson is built like a tree truck. He’s a bruising runner that can easily break tackles and plow ahead for yardage. In fact, Nick Saban had the perfect analogy to describe how Jefferson fights off defenders.
And while he’s not the fastest, he’s elusive enough to makes defenders miss in open space. Much of Jefferson’s damage on the ground has happened in scramble situations this season. When protection breaks down, which happens frequently, he can still make a play to get big yardage. Here’s a look at that in action against LSU.
Even when the Bulldogs have fielded good defenses under Zach Arnett, containing mobile QBs has been a major issue. Unsurprisingly, that’s remained the case this season. Some how, some way, Mississippi State has to stop KJ Jefferson from evading pass rushers if they’re going to get stops in this game.