As the Arkansas football team hits the practice field Thursday afternoon to begin spring drills, it will mark the unofficial start to what appears to be a critical year for Sam Pittman.
The Razorbacks replaced half of their on-field coaching staff, including both coordinators, plus saw 25 scholarship players leave via the transfer portal, leading to dramatic roster turnover — all on the heels of a disappointing 7-6 season.
Now entering his fourth season at the helm, Pittman is not even remotely on the hot seat, especially having brought the program out of the ditch in which Bobby Petrino originally wrecked his motorcycle and Chad Morris dug to depths never before seen at Arkansas.
Considering all of the changes this offseason, though, it feels like the Razorbacks are teetering on the edge — either on the brink of collapsing or reaching new heights. Which way they end up going hinges on several things, including a handful of questions that must at least begin to be answered over their 15 practices this spring…
1. What will Arkansas’ offense look like under the leadership of new OC Dan Enos?
On paper, the Razorbacks have some of the best offensive weapons in the country, as quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Rocket Sanders were ranked among the top 10 returning players in the country at their respective positions by Pro Football Focus.
However, there is some level of uncertainty surrounding what the offense will actually look like because offensive coordinator Kendal Briles left for TCU and Maryland’s Dan Enos was hired as his replacement.
Briles had been in Fayetteville for three years, meaning almost every meaningful snap of Jefferson’s career came with him calling the plays. That actually led to Enos and Sam Pittman having a conversation about how he should go about installing the offense.
“That was one of the things Dan asked me when I spoke with him,” Pittman said. “He said, ‘Hey, what do you think? Do I need to marry my stuff to the last three years?’ I said, ‘Oh hell no. It won’t roll off your tongue if you’re having to remember what to call it versus this is my offense.’”
In Pittman’s opinion, there are enough walk-throughs and meetings allowed with today’s rules that the Razorbacks should be able to get everything installed before the season without having to tweak anything.
Of course, Arkansas football fans remember Enos from his first stint in Fayetteville, from 2015-17. He runs more of a pro-style offense that utilizes 12 and 13 personnel (two- and three-tight end sets). It will likely be an adjustment for Jefferson, but it could pay dividends down the road.
“I think KJ believes Dan can coach him to be not only a better quarterback at Arkansas, but a lot better opportunity to be in the National Football League by understanding pro-type schemes and checks and things of that nature,” Pittman said. “I think certainly KJ is bought into that. I think they’ve got a really nice relationship. I knew they would, but you’ve got to work on those things.”
2. How will the offensive line shake out?
For the first time under Sam Pittman, there is legitimate mystery surrounding what the offensive line will look like in 2023. After returning most starters the last couple of seasons, Arkansas must replace center Ricky Stromberg, right tackle Dalton Wagner and left tackle Luke Jones this year.
The Razorbacks do return their two starting guards from last season, Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham, but there’s a chance neither of them play the same position. Limmer is moving from right guard to center and Latham is a potential candidate to slide from left guard to left tackle.
Ty’Kieast Crawford, the sixth man from last season’s line, is also back, but he could end up playing guard or tackle
“I think that’s the beauty of spring, trying to find out your five pieces,” Pittman said. “Who’s your top five and where should they play? And if you had an injury, who would be your next guy or two in there and where would they play? It’s really exciting.”
The Razorbacks also added Joshua Braun, who is expected to play guard, and have several highly touted young players — guys like E’Marion Harris, Andrew Chamblee and Patrick Kutas — who could push for playing time somewhere in the front five.
3. Who will emerge as the top pass-rushing DE for Arkansas?
One of the most notable differences between new defensive coordinator Travis Williams and his predecessor, Barry Odom, is that the Razorbacks will run a base defense that features a four-man front. They could mix in some three-man fronts, but it sounds like they’ll almost always have four defensive linemen on the field.
Another aspect of Williams’ scheme is that it relies on getting after the quarterback, with one of the defensive end spots being the “Jack” — a position designed for skilled pass rushers. Sam Pittman actually said the “biggest question mark” is finding out who can fill that role.
“The biggest thing I want to find out is who is going to be that jack, that buck linebacker, that boundary standup in our system,” Pittman said. “He’s also got to be a guy that can play down. What I wanted when T-Will came in is I wanted four D-linemen. Even if we were in an odd package, I wanted four D-linemen on the field. And that should be your dominant pass rusher.”
Jordan Domineck would have been perfect for that position, but he changed his mind after originally announcing he’d return as a super senior and transferred to Colorado.
The Razorbacks were successful in the portal, though, bringing in John Morgan III from Pittsburgh and Trajan Jeffcoat from Missouri. Both of them have reputations as pass rushers, with the former being more consistent throughout his career and the latter with an All-SEC season on his resume.
In addition to Morgan, Pittman specifically mentioned Landon Jackson and Nico Davillier as candidates to play that spot. Both are former four-star recruits in their second year with the program, with Jackson transferring in after one year at LSU and Davillier being a sophomore who primarily contributed on special teams as a true freshman.
Best of Arkansas Sports originally projected Davillier to be a defensive tackle considering the lack of depth on the interior and the fact he moved inside during last season, but the Razorbacks did recruit him as a defensive end.
4. How quickly will the wide receiver transfers adjust to the SEC?
The Razorbacks lost their top four wide receivers this offseason, as Matt Landers exhausted his eligibility, Jadon Haselwood declared for the NFL Draft and Ketron Jackson Jr. and Warren Thompson both entered the transfer portal. That quartet accounted for a huge chunk of Arkansas’ receiver production in 2022.
Those departures made wide receiver one of the top priorities in the transfer portal and Sam Pittman did an excellent job in landing three guys heavily pursued by multiple Power Five programs. The only catch? All three played at lower levels last season.
In fact, Tyrone Broden is the only one with FBS experience, as he brings his 6-foot-7 frame from Bowling Green. The other two actually began their careers in Division II, with Isaac TeSlaa playing at Hillsdale College and Andrew Armstrong playing at Texas A&M-Commerce, which moved up to FCS in his final season.
It remains to be seen how they handle SEC defenses, but the early reviews — at least in workouts and individual drills — are positive.
“I think we hit the jackpot with the three transfers we got,” Pittman said. “Again, they haven’t caught balls, but I’m talking about work ethic and ability. … I think all three of them are going to help us.”
Most people believe that “help” will come in the form of starting for the Razorbacks, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Pittman has a policy of putting newcomers — transfers and freshmen — on the second- or third-team units when they first arrive and giving returners the first crack at starting.
“I believe that anybody that’s new, they need to earn a spot even if the whole team knows that they’re going to be the starter,” Pittman said. “You’ve got to put them on the second or third team, somewhere in there.”
Slot receiver Bryce Stephens is the most experienced among the returning wide receivers, but Pittman also singled out Jaedon Wilson as an offseason standout. Other names to watch are second-year receivers Isaiah Sategna and Sam Mbake — and potentially Quincey McAdoo, but more on him in a moment.
5. What will the Arkansas secondary look like?
Much like the wide receiver room, Arkansas completely overhauled its secondary this offseason. A whopping 10 scholarship defensive backs entered the transfer portal and another, Latavious Brini, exhausted his eligibility. The Razorbacks have replaced them with nine newcomers (so far) — six from the high school ranks and three from the portal.
All but two of those newcomers, freshman Christian Ford and Georgia transfer Jaheim Singletary, are already on campus and will go through spring ball. Several of them — such as Baylor transfers Alfahiym Walcott and Lorando Johnson, and true freshmen Jaylon Braxton and TJ Metcalf — will compete for starting jobs right out of the gate.
However, the Razorbacks do have a pretty solid tandem at cornerback in Dwight McGlothern and Quincey McAdoo. Hudson Clark also showed promise after his midseason move from corner to safety last season.
Walcott and Metcalf are safeties, while Johnson and Braxton — as well as Singletary, a former five-star recruit — are cornerbacks, but those won’t necessarily be the positions they play at Arkansas because the secondary is similar to the offensive line in that the coaches will make the pieces fit however they have to in order to get the five best players on the field.
“If our second-team corner is the best safety, he needs to move back,” Pittman said. “We have to come out with who are the five best players on our football team and where we need to put them. … So there will be different looks this spring of who is starting, who is playing field safety, boundary safety, corner.”
Of course, the wildcard in the group is McAdoo. A four-star recruit from Clarendon, he came to Arkansas as a wide receiver, but flipped to defense — which he also played in high school — midway through the season because of all the injuries in the secondary. Not only did he end up starting, but he played well enough in only a handful of games to earn Freshman All-SEC accolades.
Despite his success on defense, McAdoo had “extensive conversations” with Pittman and the coaching staff about which side of the ball he wanted to play in 2023. The idea of playing both ways has even been floated and he’ll get a look in a third-down package this spring, but he must be one of the Razorbacks’ top four receivers to make it worth doing.
Regardless of how that plays out, which may also hinge on the No. 4 question on this list, McAdoo will play defense for Arkansas this season.
“With the emergence of the new staff, I think he’s more comfortable staying where he was,” Pittman said. “I think there might have been a point where he might have wanted to move to offense, but he’s going to stay on defense because I think he feels like he can help the team, help himself, more over there.”
The overhaul was necessary because the Razorbacks ranked dead last nationally in pass defense last year, giving up a whopping 294.7 yards through the air per game.
6. What are the remaining needs in the transfer portal’s spring window?
Even with the addition of Jaheim Singletary this week, the Razorbacks have room to add another eight players before hitting the 85-man scholarship limit, according to Best of Arkansas Sports’ 2023 roster tracker.
With the removal of restrictions on initial counters this year, Arkansas is welcome to sign as many high school, JUCO or transfer players as it wishes and so far it has brought in 31 — 20 from high school and 11 from the portal.
Pittman has previously been somewhat vague in how he plans to use his remaining scholarships, essentially saying he’s open to bringing in players at pretty much every position except quarterback, running back and special teams. The upcoming 15 practices this spring should help him zero in on a plan of attack when the portal opens back up for the April 15-30 window.
One position to keep an eye on is tight end. The Razorbacks return Nathan Bax and Ty Washington, plus added four-star signees Luke Hasz and Shamar Easter. However, Easter won’t get on campus until this summer, so the development of Hasz could determine whether or not Arkansas goes after a tight end in the portal, as it will likely use more two- and three-tight end sets this year.
“Luke would be the guy that is the question mark because we know what Tyrus is going to be able to do and what Bax is going to be able to do,” Pittman said. “If we feel like we’ve got enough tight ends to function, then we would stay out of the portal. If not, just numbers alone we would go in and see if we could find somebody.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle is a position that seems to have pretty good top-line talent, but is extremely thin. Taurean Carter has been cleared after missing last season with a torn ACL and Cameron Ball looked really good as a redshirt freshman, giving them a pretty solid group, but there are questions behind them.
Eric Gregory will likely slide inside to tackle and Nico Davillier could do the same, but it sounds like he’ll get a crack at the new Jack position first. That leaves lightly used reserve Marcus Miller as the only other scholarship defensive tackle, so that would be another position Arkansas will probably try to add to via the portal.
Watch Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman preview the start of spring ball 2023:
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