The Biggest Surprise from Day 1 of Arkansas’ Fall Camp Came Before the First Whistle

Arkansas football, Arkansas fall camp
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — It required players setting their alarms for times most college kids never see, but Day 1 of fall camp for Arkansas football is officially in the books.

The Razorbacks hit the field at 6:20 a.m. Friday, just before sunrise, for what head coach Sam Pittman described as a “nice, spirited” practice that lasted about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Considering they weren’t in full pads and didn’t tackle to the ground, perhaps the most impressive and encouraging takeaway from the practice occurred before the first whistle blew. During his post-practice interview with the media, Pittman mentioned multiple times that none of the players were late, despite such an early start and the fact the time change wasn’t made until a couple days earlier.

“It shows that you have a hungry team, an accountable team, a grown-up team, a mature team,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to do it every day, but I believe that they will. I believe they want to win and that football is fun to them.”

Of course, it helps that it was Day 1, which naturally comes with a certain level of energy. Quarterback KJ Jefferson said he felt like the entire team was excited to be back and both he and linebacker Chris Paul Jr. told reporters that they got up at 4:45 a.m. pretty easily.

“I talked to my mom yesterday about it,” Jefferson said. “I couldn’t really sleep that well last night because I was just so pumped and eager to get out there and be with my teammates and getting ready for a great practice and a great season.”

Until Wednesday, Arkansas was set to begin fall camp Friday afternoon. In fact, the first five practices were going to start around 2:30-3 p.m. Pittman shifted things to the morning, though, because of high temperatures in the forecast.

The next four practices will start around 9 a.m., but with Fayetteville projected to reach 99 degrees, with a heat index soaring into the triple digits, Friday’s practice was extra early. That reminded Pittman of his season at Cincinnati in 1996.

“I think we may have started at 6 a.m. at Cincinnati,” Pittman said with a smile. “I don’t know, it was all a blur, because once you’ve had three practices in a day it’s a beast on everybody.”

Not only are three-a-days a thing of the past, but so are two-a-days. Now, Pittman doesn’t even want his team practicing in the hottest time of the day.

(READ NEXT: Top 5 Questions Facing Arkansas Football Entering Fall Camp)

Rather than have his players battle the heat and potentially hinder their focus, Pittman said the goal is to get quality practice time during fall camp. Instead, most of the summer conditioning program was done in the middle of the day.

“We had to get tough,” Pittman said. “There’s a lot to be said about mental toughness, too. We’ve got to get tough, now. You can go in the morning, you can go in the afternoon, you can go at night, and we just elected to put them in the hardest situation that we possibly could.”

In another sign that the old-school mentality of gritting it out is being replaced by one focused on health and safety — and, as a byproduct, efficiency — at practice, air conditioning is being installed in Arkansas’ indoor facility, the Walker Pavilion.

Pittman said it should be ready by next Thursday, with the final touches being done during the Razorbacks’ off day Wednesday. He expects that to really help during the hotter, first part of season, when he is trying to avoid fatigue in the middle of the week leading up to games.

Jacolby Criswell Settling In

For the fourth straight year, Arkansas football doesn’t have a quarterback battle entering fall camp. Not only is KJ Jefferson the undisputed starter, but he’s considered one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC.

The question is who will emerge as his backup. Cade Fortin, now on scholarship, is back for his second season after splitting the backup duties with Malik Hornsby in 2022. The frontrunner for the role, however, is probably a newcomer.

North Carolina transfer and Morrilton native Jacolby Criswell is who Best of Arkansas Sports has projected to be No. 2 on the depth chart. He took the second-team reps during the media viewing portion of Friday’s practice, after which he drew positive reviews from Sam Pittman.

“It seemed like Jacolby was a little more relaxed or confident — I don’t know the word — today than what he ever was in the spring,” Pittman said. “I felt like the summer and the OTA’s on their own and all that stuff helped him.

“A lot of it has to do with talent, a lot of it has to do with what my mind’s telling me motivation-wise or confidence-wise. I felt like he was night and day from where he was in the spring.”

Freshman WR Has Solid First Day

It’s hard to glean too much from practice when players aren’t in full pads or tackling to the ground, but freshman wide receiver Davion Dozier had a solid first day, by most accounts.

Reporters in attendance Friday saw him make a few nice catches and Sam Pittman said afterward that he “looks like an SEC wide receiver.”

A four-star recruit coming out of Moody, Ala., Dozier was one of a handful of 2023 signees who didn’t arrive on campus until the summer, but he seems to already be developing a nice chemistry with his quarterbacks, including KJ Jefferson.

“Davion is a great guy, a great teammate to have,” Jefferson said. “He’s young, he’s maturing in some areas quickly. Coming in on our off days, he’s the first one in the building. He’s excited to work, he’s ready to work, and he’s eager to learn.”

Arkansas Football Injury Report

Although he joined Arkansas football as a midyear transfer, former Baylor safety Alfahiym Walcott wasn’t able to go through spring ball because of a knee injury. He was limited to conditioning work on the sideline and never suited up.

An All-Big 12 honoree for the Bears, he’s expected to play a large role in this year’s secondary, either as a safety or nickel, so getting Walcott – who wears jersey No. 13 – on the practice field for the first time Friday was a nice boost.

“He actually got to do some things in the summer, but I teased (him), I walk up to the players and ask ‘Who is this 13, who is this guy?’” Pittman said. “Because he’s been here, he just hasn’t had the opportunity to practice. He’s a really good kid and works really hard. We’re awfully glad that he’s on our team. We’re glad he’s back and healthy.”

On the other side of the ball, wide receivers Jaedon Wilson and Tyrone Broden missed the back half of spring ball because of injuries. Wilson broke his leg in a car accident, while Broden collided with a teammate.

At the time of his injury, Wilson was drawing steady praise and was seen as a potential breakout candidate, so Pittman was less worried about his return to the field than that of Broden, a transfer from Bowling Green.

“(Wilson has) been in the system — not necessarily in Dan’s system, but our system as a team,” Pittman said. “I wasn’t too concerned about him and he showed up today. He showed up all summer. Broden was the one who doesn’t understand our system, doesn’t understand the offensive system, that I felt like got hurt in spring because of that.”

Without watching film, though, Pittman said he thought Broden had a productive practice in his return to action.

Running back Dominique Johnson was back on the field, too, after missing most of last season and all of spring ball with a torn ACL. He’s been fully cleared, but is being worked back in slowly. He participated in individual drills and was wearing a brace during the media viewing period.

Two players the Razorbacks will be without this fall camp, and possibly for much longer, are cornerback Quincey McAdoo and offensive lineman Terry Wells.

McAdoo — who ended the year as a starting cornerback after arriving as a wide receiver — is still recovering from a serious car accident in May. Pittman hasn’t revealed many details about his playing future, other than he’s optimistic, but did reveal he has an important doctor’s appointment coming up on Aug. 10.

Wells is a reserve offensive lineman who has dealt with injuries throughout his career. The Wynne High product missed spring ball in 2022 because of a back issue and now has a torn pectoral muscle.

Check out what Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman had to say about Day 1 of fall camp 2023:

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QB KJ Jefferson and LB Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. recap Day 1 of Arkansas football fall camp 2023:

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Some Arkansas football highlights from Day 1 of fall camp from our friends at HawgBeat:

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