When the Arkansas football head-coaching job came open in 2017 on Thanksgiving weekend, Chad Morris was in the process of taking his third SMU team to its lone bowl appearance as an American Athletic Conference member.
Bret Bielema's five-year run that once showed promise with the Razorbacks had ended with a 4-8 thud, and Morris quickly developed a theme in his mind.
"I'll walk backwards to Fayetteville," Morris kept thinking.
Morris got his wish and was named the Arkansas coach, but his first season wound up with a 2-10 record that included humbling losses to Auburn (34-3), Alabama (65-31), Mississippi State (52-6) and Missouri (38-0). It was the first 10-loss season in the program's proud history, and there was even a 44-17 home debacle against North Texas.
Still willing to make that backward walk? Absolutely.
"It can be done, or I promise you I wouldn't be here," Morris said this week in a news conference. "I can promise you that. As I shared when I got the job, this is a sleeping giant, but this is not an overnight fix. I think we're building something special, and I think our culture is established and will continue to be defined every day.
"This is going to be a special place."
Arkansas is opening the second year of the Morris era Saturday afternoon against visiting Portland State. All 11 offensive starters will be different from those who started last year's 55-20 opening rout of Eastern Illinois, with the most notable change being at quarterback.
Morris on Monday named Ben Hicks as the starter over Nick Starkel following a preseason competition of graduate transfers. Starkel arrived this summer after transferring from Texas A&M; Hicks arrived in January and had the familiarity edge of coming from SMU.
Hicks was a member of the first Morris signing class of 2015 with the Mustangs, redshirted that year and then went on to compile 9,081 passing yards and 71 aerial touchdowns in 37 career games.
"We feel very confident in Ben and his complete overall knowledge," Morris said. "Ben has been in this offense for three years, and he's been here since January. Nick has been in this offense for three weeks.
"We're going to play a lot of young guys, and that alone was the main deciding factor. Ben knows where everybody is supposed to be and can get our offensive line in the right protection."
Hicks is the Southeastern Conference's second graduate transfer this month to win a starting quarterback role for a coach he played under previously . Last week, Mississippi State coach and former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead named Penn State grad transfer Tommy Stevens as his starter.
Arkansas has veterans at quarterback and at running back, where former top-100 national prospect Devwah Whaley returns for his senior season, and nobody is more veteran than defensive coordinator John Chavis. This is the second year for Chavis in Fayetteville, but it's his 25th season as an SEC defensive coordinator.
The Razorbacks have four senior starters across the defensive front but also have six freshmen in their two-deep depth chart defensively, with the unknowns giving Chavis just as much cause for excitement as his veterans.
"I've been around at other stops where we were every bit as young as this team is, and they certainly grew into good football teams," Chavis said this week. "That is what we intend to do here. The same kids we had last year are playing faster and are more comfortable with the scheme, and I enjoy coaching young football teams, because when they're young, sometimes they don't know anything except to work hard."
Arkansas is 13-43 in SEC games the past seven seasons, and even a No. 23 recruiting class earlier this year can be tempered by SEC West counterparts Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU finishing among the top five. There is good reason why Morris is preaching patience, and Chavis can speak to that with significantly more experience in the league.
"We're building a program here and not just a football team," Chavis said.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.