As Razorbacks football sagged 1-7, 0-8, 0-8 in the SEC from 2017-2019 came some Arkansas fans mutterings that maybe the Hogs should turn tail. Flee the SEC for the Big 12, as Bob Stoops once suggested.
Forgotten were Danny Ford’s 1995 SEC West championship, Houston Nutt’s three SEC West championships, Bobby Petrino’s 10-3 and 11-2 seasons both 6-2 in the SEC.
Not to mention abandoning Arkansas prowess in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball, men’s and women’s track, and men’s and women’s golf honed from playing and winning in the nation’s customarily toughest collegiate league that’s unquestionably the most financially lucrative and stable.
Fortunately, in December, 2019, Arkansas hired a football coach as confident the Razorbacks in the SEC could win in his sport as Arkansas SEC successful coaches were and are confident winning in theirs.
This year alone UA teams won championships in baseball, men’s and women’s cross country, indoor and outdoor track, women’s soccer and women’s softball in the league some Arkansas backers would have abandoned because it seemed too tough for Razorbacks football.
Sam Pittman had coached offensive lines for struggling teams at Tennessee, three Arkansas teams under Bret Bielema that began 3-9 overall/0-8 in the SEC in 2013 but by 2015 went 8-5 overall with a Liberty Bowl victory and 5-3 SEC record and from 2016-2019 for Georgia teams that won three SEC East championships and played in one national championship final.
Growing up a Razorback fan in nearby Grove, Okla. Pittman rooted for some Frank Broyles and Lou Holtz Arkansas football teams that would have won in any league like they won in the old Southwest Conference.
The notion anybody would suggest Arkansas should flee the SEC offends him.
“I’ve certainly never one day thought we didn’t belong in the SEC and in the SEC West,” Pittman said last spring.
“It’s a challenging, challenging deal but at the same time we’re Arkansas and we should be right where we are each and every week.”
Pittman’s observations from last spring ring ever more prevalent with the recent news that Big 12 linchpins Texas and Oklahoma will depart from the Big 12 and likely land in the SEC as part of a major SEC expansion move.
Just a decade ago, Big 12 members Texas A&M and Missouri did the same.
Had the Hogs never left the Southwest Conference, it’s likely they would have joined the Big 12 and about to be left high and dry by Texas, Oklahoma and perhaps Oklahoma State given this week’s report. The rush of bigger schools to the SEC would have left Arkansas in an apparently moribund league without an anchor.
Sam Pittman on Arkansas Football Schedule
Pittman’s points from last spring were reiterated when he was asked at Thursday’s SEC Media Days session in Hoover, Ala. about the “brutal” schedule awaiting Arkansas this season following last season’s “brutal” schedule.
National champion Alabama, No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 7 Florida and No. 9 Georgia were on last year’s all-SEC schedule as were 2019 national champion LSU, and preseason top 25 ranked Tennessee and Auburn. Mississippi State enjoyed Top 25 status upsetting LSU before Pittman’s Razorbacks sprang a mammoth upset in Starkville, Miss.
All but Florida and Tennessee return to the 2021 schedule with Texas looming nonconference along with Rice and traditionally upset capable Georgia Southern.
“We are the defending national champions of the hardest football schedule in college,” Pittman said.
“I look towards next year and I think we’re going to three-peat in that area next year. However we’re the University of Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference West, exactly where we belong, and we’re excited about those challenges.”
Picked sixth by SEC Media Days media in the seven-team SEC West, they will face plenty of challenges.
Arkansas went 3-7 in the SEC last year that should have been 4-6 given an officiating error enabled Auburn to keep what it had fumbled to Arkansas on the Tigers’ game-winning field goal drive in Auburn, Ala.
Other than Alabama, nobody no-sweat routed Arkansas.
Missouri, Auburn and LSU combined outscored Arkansas by just seven points.
“For guys to be looking out for Arkansas that means we’ve given them a reason,” Pittman said.
“If we give them a reason, then we’re going to have a better team because our team will be more confident. We’ve got 19 starters back. So if people are looking out for us it’s because we gave them a reason.”
While nobody is so ghastly to celebrate the horrors of the covid pandemic as beneficial, it’s indisputable that some of the reasons this 2021 Arkansas football team won’t be opposition overlooked stem from Covid 2020.
Because the NCAA allowed 2020 seniors a 2021 mulligan of senior eligibility due to Covid nationally disrupting 2020 fall semester sports, the Razorbacks return 11 whom Pittman calls “super seniors” who were seniors last year.
So unlike many coaches inheriting a losing program and crave eventually coaching players that they recruited, Pittman avidly re-recruited players he inherited.
The 11 include 2020 senior captains Grant Morgan, the first-team All-SEC/second team All-American linebacker from Greenwood, and starting left offensive tackle Myron Cunningham who accompanied Pittman as Arkansas’ player representatives at SEC Media Days.
Starting offensive guard Ty Clary, starting receiver De’Vion Warren, starting tight end Blake Kern, defensive end Dorian Gerald, receiver Tyson Morris, linebacker Hayden Henry and running back T.J. Hammonds are among the 2020 seniors returning for Arkansas football.
“I think a lot of those guys coming back, it’s because of our coaching staff,” Pittman said.
Bonded by last year’s success and reminded of last fall’s no-available vaccine situation when many, including Pittman, were variously sidelined because they had contracted or been contact traced to covid, the Razorbacks.
Pittman reported Thursday the Hogs wield an 89 percent vaccination rate.
The vaccination rate for all employees working within the Fred Smith Football Center is 92 percent, Pittman said.
While recruiting existing Razorbacks, Pittman and staff certainly recruited hard for high school seniors and through the transfer portal.
It’s no coincidence that through the portal the Razorbacks added former Missouri defensive linemen Tre Williams and Markell Utsey, both of whom Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom coached during his 2016-2019 Mizzou head coaching tenure, and heralded former Illinois State defensive lineman John Ridgeway.
The Razorbacks were so deep, and still are, in the secondary, but so depth thin in the defensive line and became thinner with 2020 senior nose tackle Jonathan Marshall turned pro as the New York Jets’ sixth round draft choice, that a 3-2-6 alignment became Odom’s base defense.
The dropping back eight in coverage especially early baffled Coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense the very week after the Mississippi State coach debuted masterminding the Bulldogs explosively routing reigning 2019 national champion LSU.
And it picked off six passes by Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, who was otherwise so successful he’s been deemed the SEC’s best quarterback this preseason.
However by season’s end offenses more than caught up to the defensive game plan and its lack of pass rush up front.
The last two games closed with Alabama winning 52-3 and Missouri outlasting, 50-48.
Arkansas Football Defense Preview
Pittman said it’s imperative that the Hogs have the defensive flexibility to intersperse more 4-man fronts increasing their early downs aggressiveness.
“Barry is an old four-three guy along with a little bit of odd front and things of that nature,” Sam Pittman said. “We weren’t able to do much of that; therefore, we didn’t get anybody in second and long.”
“I think the biggest thing that we’re trying to emphasize this year is that we can put people in second and eight, second and 12, second and whatever it may be, instead of second and four or five, and we didn’t do a very good job of that last year. Part of it was schematics.”
“Part of it was we didn’t take as many chances on first down. I think we’ll do more of that.”
That said, the defense’s strength definitely is embodied by senior linebackers Morgan, Bumper Pool and Hayden Henry and the deep, experienced secondary paced by All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon and adding Penn State graduate transfer Trent Gordon and January enrolled true freshman Jayden Johnson impacting in spring practice.
Arkansas Football Offense Preview
Offensively old line coach Pittman loves returning starting center Ricky Stromberg, starting guards Clary and Brady Latham and starting tackles Cunningham and Dalton Wagner and that all have somebody pressing right behind them.
In fact off spring drills former Notre Dame lineman Luke Jones begins slightly ahead of Latham who responded with a great summer offseason, Pittman has said.
The Hogs return their leading rusher, running back Trelon Smith, (134 carries for 710 yards and five touchdowns) and leading receiver, Treylon Burks, 51 catches, 820 yards and seven touchdowns. Burks not only is Arkansas’ best receiver but may well be the SEC’s best receiver it was suggested during the SEC Network’s coverage of SEC Media Days.
Pittman said Burks enters his junior believing how good he can be.
“You know how you have really good players and you don’t know if they know they are?” Pittman said. “At some point you have to make them really believe that so they can reach their highest potential. He’s finally turned that corner.”
Burks ought to find that corner easier to turn if De’Vion Warren returns healthy to complement him.
Before a season-ending knee injury requiring surgery, speedster Warren in six games caught 15 passes for 278 yards, the longest for 52, and three touchdowns.
Though held out of spring ball as a precaution, Warren rehabbed ahead of schedule Pittman said last spring and will be ready for August drills which Pittman reaffirmed in Hoover.
“I’m excited about De’Vion,” Pittman said. “Certainly before he was injured I thought he was the second-best receiver we had. So we’re excited to get him back.”
Of course, Burks and Warren need someone to deliver them the ball.
With 2020 Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks now an Atlanta Falcons free agent, that task befalls third-year sophomore KJ Jefferson, Franks’ 2020 understudy.
In his only 2020 start while Franks recovered from injuries, Jefferson in the 50-48 loss to Missouri in Columbia, Mo. was spectacular completing 18-of-33 passes for 274 yards with three touchdowns and rushing 13 times for 32 yards and a touchdown.
“He has proven he can play well in the Southeastern Conference in a game,” Pittman said in Hoover.
Cunningham added Jefferson as the undisputed No. 1 has picked up where he left off in Columbia.
“I think KJ brings a great swagger about himself,” Cunningham said.
“He’s getting more vocal. He’s very assertive in how he plays. He’s very athletic. He’s just got a great leadership factor, and I think it’s only going to help him.”
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Author Nate Allen has reported on the Razorbacks since 1973 and is a member of the Arkansas Sportscasters/Sportswriters Hall of Fame. Besides his prolific newspaper work, he has written three books and co-authored another.
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