August is here and in Arkansas that ensures two things — scorching hot, humid weather and unbridled optimism about Arkansas football. Despite too many years in a row of watching a nearly intolerable product on the field, Razorback fans, myself included, just can’t help themselves in thinking this year is going to be different.
Every season that comes along means the program is one more year away from the crippling Chad Morris era — so things have to be looking up? Right?
The eternally optimistic Hog fan has to believe things are on the uphill climb after some wins and close calls last season. Taking that momentum (yes, moral victories count given the recent state of affairs with football), the football program appears to be headed in the right direction.
That momentum may not add up to more SEC wins in 2021 as the schedule is unbelievably brutal. But what’s new?
I have no doubt Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s charges will look more like a mid-tier SEC football team this season after having a spring football followed by a full fledged preseason camp to further instill his system and his maybe more importantly, mindset.
There are no smoke-and-mirrors shenanigans with Pittman and how he knows this football program needs to act, recruit and play on Saturdays. Size, speed and toughness and the belief the guys in Razorback red belong in the SEC is what he instills every day, and the players and recruits seem to be on board.
Since last season had a few things go against the Hogs, maybe this year some breaks will go their way and flip Ls to Ws. The erroneous call at Auburn, the terrible timing of a COVID breakout amongst the defensive line before LSU, star tailback Rakeem Boyd’s injury and opt out and so on.
Success in sports, much like life in general, takes talent (and in the SEC a sack full of it) but also requires some things to go your way.
With that being said, there are definitely events that simply cannot happen in 2021 if Razorback football wants to elevate from cellar dweller to a dependable, consistent bowl-worthy squad. There is no reason to put the cart before the horse and start saying things like “able to beat Alabama or Georgia or LSU or Florida” or “play in the SEC Championship game” as those goals are off in the distance. Way off in the distance. Probably should try and beat Missouri and the like first.
Even doing that will be hard if any of the below happen. Here are the top 5 things that could torpedo Arkansas football in 2020. (These are in no particular order because if any of them happen, the ship may be sunk)
Remodeled offensive line can’t keep opposing defenses out of Razorback backfield
Fans can cuss and discuss KJ Jefferson’s ability as QB1 all day long but if he’s on his back or running for his life play after play, talent level, arm strength and ultimately his health won’t matter much. Offensive coordinator Kendall Briles’ system relies heavily on QB reads to execute the multitude of post-snap options available on each play.
If Jefferson is evading tacklers before he can make good decisions with the football, the offense will struggle. Star wideout Treylon Burks will be throttled. Shifty tailback Trelon Smith will be juking and jiving behind the line of scrimmage instead of at the linebacker level and the next star tight end in Fayetteville will never develop because Briles will be forced to go max protect to have any chance of moving the football.
The line has a lot of experience and is much beefier (25 more pounds on average) than what the previous regime thought would work in the SEC. There is also some decent depth and versatility which hasn’t been present the past few seasons.
The proof will be in the pudding once a team in another colored uniform opposes them in the trenches.
Nobody steps up to take the heat off Treylon Burks
Burks is special. Acknowledgment of his ability that is destined for the NFL is well known by coaches, players, scouts, media and fans. Everyone on the planet knows he will be double and maybe even triple covered until Jefferson proves he can deliver to someone besides #16 and someone besides Burks gains the opposing defense’s respect.
With Mike Woods moving on to Oklahoma, that spot(s) is wide open (pun intended). Trey Knox looks the part but has struggled mightily in previous seasons to separate himself from SEC defenders. Elusive De’vion Warren showed a lot of promise as that guy in 2021 but is coming off a significant knee injury. The good news is Arkansas has recruited very well at this position and there is a long list of candidates capable of having a breakout season. If 2-3 guys on top of Burks make a leap AND #1 above doesn’t happen…look out as this should be a very entertaining offense.
Linebacker depth impacted/exposed by injury
Given their longevity in the program and time spent on the field, what the Razorback defense will get out of stalwarts Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool is known. The mystery is what happens if one of those guys goes down for an extended period of time?
Morgan missed the Missouri game and it showed as the Razorback defense struggled to keep the Tigers out of the end zone. The Hogs were up 40-26 when he went out and lost on the last play of the game 50-48. Both Morgan and Pool battled lingering injuries last season and experienced light practices between games in an effort to keep them available.
With improved size and depth on the defensive line and defensive coordinator Barry Odom planning to play more four down defensive fronts, the Hog linebackers are expected to make a lot of plays, especially in coverage. Hayden Henry and Deon Edwards have received playing time in the past and been seemingly serviceable. Chris “Pooh” Paul, Jr. looks the part but is a true freshman.
The experience levels really drop off after Morgan and Pool further emphasizing why these two can’t miss any significant time in 2021. The non-conference games will be crucial for the Hogs to get comfortable with a lead and play some of these other guys versus having to panic and throw one of them out there against a competitive SEC foe.
Excellent breakdown by SEC Mike on Arkansas football here:
Special teams continues to be not so special
As one of the few schools with a dedicated special teams coach, Arkansas sure seemed to have a lot of issues in that part of the game. Blocking on punts and field goals, inconsistent punters, zero return game and porous kickoff return defense all reared their ugly heads in 2021.
I can buy that those areas of the game were impacted by overall depth/talent and no spring and limited preseason football. But there won’t be those kinds of excuses laying around for Scott Fountain in 2021.
With all the talent Pittman has recruited at the receiver and running back position, surely someone can get back there and make some forward progress in the return game? With more “big man” depth in the program, one would think the Hogs should be able to keep wannabe kick blockers out of the backfield. Throw in freshman Cameron Little, the nation’s No. 2 rated high school kicker who is already turning heads, and maybe, just maybe the Razorbacks will be better across the board with special teams.
If not, look for some winnable games to slip away once again.
Arkansas football players, fans and so on let go of the rope
Sam Pittman is still in the honeymoon period even though he’s entering his second season guiding the Razorback football program. Last year’s SEC only schedule and compromised spring and preseason camps made a full evaluation impossible. And by all accounts, the fan base and players seem to still be drinking the Pittman Kool-Aid.
The positive vibes coming off some actual SEC wins with some other very competitive games against name brand programs was a HUGE shift from the previous inept regime. But aren’t nearly all respectable football programs all smiles in August?
The realistic Hog fan has surely already squared off with the fact that wins will be hard to come by in 2021. The schedule is brutal and rated toughest in the country according to ESPN’s College Football Power Index. I don’t and won’t listen to call in shows because of all the “experts” but I am sure there are some lofty predictions being batted around.
That’s ok but let’s be real…another big step forward for the program may not result in as many wins as some would like. The fan base cannot hit the panic button on Pittman or the team as football programs take a good bit to build. Please don’t compare Pittman and football to Musselman’s quick work with basketball. That’s apples and oranges as hoops has a significantly smaller roster, one to two really good players can transform a basketball team and frankly, the SEC isn’t as strong in basketball as it is in football.
The players also have to continue to believe in themselves and Pittman’s vision for the program. Pittman appears to be very sure of what the Razorbacks need to look like on the field and how they need to play to be successful in this league.
Given his long history of coaching winning teams in this league, I’d say he’s got a pretty good clue.
Losses are tough and when they mount up, a disgruntled player often becomes cancerous. The locker room becomes divided and even winnable games become challenging. All of a sudden, the season is in the crapper and the program takes a big step back. Arkansas football cannot afford to go in reverse any more than it already has.
With so many returning players, many of which have played on some really poorly led football teams, I don’t envision this being an issue. Really solid upperclassmen, including a slew of super seniors, are littered in nearly every position group. That’s unbelievably valuable and should keep the majority pulling on the same end of the rope.
But again, it’s August and everyone is undefeated. It’s the season for feeling pretty good.