Turns Out Hogs Probably Had The Best Group in All College Football At This Position

Arkansas football

It flew under the radar at the time, but Arkansas might have had one of the best position groups in the SEC, if not all of college football, a couple of years ago.

Sure, the tight ends at Georgia, linebackers at Alabama, wide receivers at Ohio State, offensive line at Michigan and a few others certainly had a case — as they always do. The Razorbacks, though, had two NFL players at a position most schools rarely have even one.

Are we talking about kickers? You bet we are.

The headliner in 2022 was, of course, Cam Little. In three seasons as the starting placekicker, the Moore, Okla., native rewrote the UA record book and finished his career as the school’s most accurate kicker ever by booting in 82.8% (53 of 64) of his field goal attempts.

Little, who arguably surpassed Steve Little (no relation) as Arkansas’ all-time greatest kicker, was so good that ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. tabbed him as the top draft-eligible kicker in the country. That led to him making the rare decision for the position to enter the NFL Draft as a true junior and the Jacksonville Jaguars took him in the sixth round back in April.

The kicker, as it were, comes from an unknown walk-on transfer who began his collegiate career as a soccer player at UCA before emerging as the Razorbacks’ backup kicker in 2022.

At the start of that season, many Arkansas football fans probably didn’t even know Jake Bates’ name. The diehards probably eventually learned it, but kickoff specialists — even those who lead the FBS in touchback percentage — don’t typically get a lot of publicity.

While earning first-team All-SEC honors probably helped, most fans never appreciated what the Razorbacks had. And to be fair, head coach Sam Pittman and special teams coordinator Scott Fountain probably didn’t either.

The Emergence of Jake Bates

Arkansas had an excellent kickoff specialist in walk-on Vito Calvaruso during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. He ranked fourth nationally in touchback percentage as a sophomore and even earned a scholarship.

However, with Cam Little locking down the place kicking duties, Calvaruso opted to hit the transfer portal and go somewhere he could also kick field goals and PATs. Although things didn’t work out at Wisconsin and he ended up transferring back to Arkansas, his one-year absence created a void.

That’s where Jake Bates entered the equation. Having begun his playing days on the soccer pitch at Central Arkansas in Conway, he transitioned to football after two seasons as a primary starter for the Bears.

Bates actually spent a spring semester in Fayetteville, but transferred to Texas State before the 2020 season. He spent two years as the Bobcats’ kickoff specialist before transferring again and landing back at Arkansas, where he eventually booted an FBS-best 85.3% of his kickoffs for touchbacks.

Despite never attempting a field goal or PAT in college, Bates signed with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent. He lasted less than two weeks before getting cut and ultimately signing with the Michigan Panthers of the UFL, a minor league that plays in the spring.

In his first game, Bates booted a 64-yard game-winning field goal — tied for the second-longest field goal in professional football history. He made a couple more kicks of 60-plus yards and earned a spot on the All-UFL team:

Sure enough, that made him a hot commodity for the NFL. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Bates visited the Lions, Packers and Commanders before deciding to stay in Detroit on a two-year deal. The Lions’ incumbent is Michael Badgley, who didn’t miss a field goal and made 13 of his 15 extra points in the regular season.

So there you have it: Arkansas will have two kickers from its 2022 team in the NFL this season — and both were coveted, with the Jaguars using a draft pick on Cam Little and Bates being pursued by multiple teams.

What it Means for Arkansas Football

By now, you’ve read more than 600 words on kickers. Even for the thick of the offseason, that’s a lot. But this does underscore the growing talent gap between Arkansas and the rest of the SEC.

In recent memory, there have been only a handful of times the Razorbacks could truly make a case for having one of the best position groups in the SEC, let alone the country.

The backfield of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis is the most notable example, but that was – you might want to sit down for this – 17 years ago.

You could also make a case for Arkansas’ wide receivers under Bobby Petrino, as the likes of Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs and Cobi Hamilton helped the Razorbacks win 21 games from 2010-11, but again, that was more than a decade ago.

Detroit Lions Get Hoggy With It

Even the offensive line that Sam Pittman built while working for Bret Bielema that eventually helped land him the head coaching gig is coming up on its 10-year anniversary. (That unit featured a pair of Jake Bates’ new teammates, Frank Ragnow and Dan Skipper.)

The Razorbacks thought they had a loaded stable of running backs last year, especially after the group had quite a bit of success in 2021 and 2022 and was adding Isaiah Augustave, but it didn’t pan out like they hoped. A major reason why is because the position viewed as Pittman’s specialty – the offensive line – faltered significantly.

Fast forward a year and Rocket Sanders (South Carolina), AJ Green (Oklahoma State), Dominique Johnson and Augustave (Colorado) are now gone. Arkansas did retain Rashod Dubinion, plus added Ja’Quinden Jackson (Utah) from the transfer portal and a promising freshman in Braylen Russell, but no one is talking about the group as one of the best.

In fact, outside of special teams, college football prognosticator Phil Steele doesn’t rank any of Arkansas’ individual positions better than 11th out of 16 teams in the SEC – hence his 14th-place prediction for the Razorbacks.

If Arkansas can’t compete with the rest of the conference in terms of NIL and overall depth, it might behoove Pittman to load up and be great at a position or two to give his team at least a fighting chance in the new-look SEC.

Unfortunately for him, however, kickers don’t move the needle that much.

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Relieve Jake Bates’ like most famous play for Arkansas here:

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