Western Carolina is a bad football team. Not just bad compared to Arkansas and most of the rest of the SEC, but bad for their own division, the FCS. The Catamounts haven’t been to the postseason since 1983, so any notion that they would enter Saturday against Arkansas with a real chance to win was in error.
No, the game Saturday in Little Rock wasn’t truly about the Razorbacks’ opponent. It was about what the 2023 iteration of the Hogs would preview. Beyond quarterback KJ Jefferson, running back Rocket Sanders and offensive linemen Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham, questions were just about everywhere for the roster. They still are because Western Carolina, as much as they were in opposition for Arkansas, wasn’t going to automatically answer those queries.
They could, however, provide a preview, anyway, most notably on defense, where new defensive coordinator Travis Williams’ approach was evident quickly.
Arkansas vs Western Carolina Provides Glimpse
Williams took over for Barry Odom after Odom took the head coaching job at UNLV after last season. When Williams arrived in Fayetteville, he spoke of wanting an aggressive group. That’s what he had shown at Central Florida in his two years there: a defense that blitzed early, often and constantly right into opponents’ faces.
In a way, Arkansas fit that mantra on Saturday afternoon, just not in the expected way. The Hogs had just two sacks, a year after compiling 42. Considering the game was against an FCS team, things aren’t trending toward duplicating that total.
Where Arkansas did fit Williams’ agenda was stuffing the run and ball-hawking, even as the new coordinator sat high above the War Memorial Stadium grass in the press box, an unfamiliar position. The Razorbacks had 10 tackles for-loss against Western Carolina, limiting the Catamounts to just 64 yards on 30 carries. And when any of the three WCU quarterbacks put the ball in the air, Arkansas was around. Four different players had interceptions, though, weirdly, as a group, they had just one pass break-up.
That aggression, though, may need to be tamped a bit in the coming weeks (though Kent State is hardly going to supply a challenge in Week 2).
Linebacker Chris Paul Jr. won’t play in the first half of next week’s game against Kent State after he was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting. And Paul’s penalty wasn’t one of those ‘iffy’ ones, either. In fact, the linebacker largely expected to lead Arkansas in tackles on the season, didn’t even use his hands to attempt a tackle. Instead, he just led with the top forehead of his helmet up under the chin of the Western Carolina quarterback, Paul’s arms pulling out to the side as it happened as if to say “I didn’t do it.” Cole Gonzalez, the WCU signal-caller, ended up with his helmet about halfway up his face, chinstrap on the nose.
A Short Ramp Up for Arkansas Football
Paul wasn’t expected to get much run Saturday after having dealt with injuries for the better part of the last week. The good news for Arkansas is that Cincinnati transfer Jaheim Thomas more than held the fort, leading the Hogs with seven tackles, including 1 1/2 for-loss. Given that Paul did play, it’s possible Thomas has been so good in fall camp that the starting job is actually his, regardless.
“I thought he played really well,” Pittman said afterward. “I thought he was probably the most productive linebacker we had. Didn’t see him miss many tackles. I can’t remember, maybe there was one on the running back outside, I don’t think that was. But what a nice pickup for us… I was really happy with him. He was happy after the game, so I’d imagine he played well.”
Regardless, Paul’s gaffe was a mistake that was better for Arkansas to have now, in Week 1, than when the going gets tough in the heart of SEC play. The reality is that the Razorbacks will need aggression when they run into LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Alabama in weeks four through seven during a gauntlet from which this writer feels Arkansas will emerge winless.
A passive defense will get lit up by those four offenses, three of which are expected to be among the absolute best in the nation, not just the SEC. (On Saturday, Ole Miss hung 73 points on Mercer, Alabama put up 56 on Middle Tennessee State and with new OC Bobby Petrino Texas A&M notched 52 against New Mexico.)
Nothing from Saturday has changed my mind, either. Nor will anything that happens against the Kent State Golden Flashes in Arkansas’ second game. Coach Sam Pittman said it best after the 56-13 drubbing:
“I don’t know if we’ve answered any questions, but I thought we played well today.”
Against Western Carolina…in Little Rock…for a season opener, that’s about all anyone around the program could have asked for.
Pittman on Hudson Clark
Yeah, he can play safety. He can play Hog. You can depend on him. He’s so smart. He knows everything. But he made a nice little pick today, early. He’s a guy that you can just count on. You know you can count on him. I’m proud he’s on the team. He’s one of the most popular guys on the team too. Everybody loves him. And you would because he does everything right all the time.
Pittman on Arkansas football defensive line rotations
I feel like we’ve got nine or 10. I mean we do. So we’ll go in there with a four-man rotation of four plays. I think we pretty much stuck to that. Of course Nico, he played a lot. And Quincy and those guys got in
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