What a strange month of football in Arkansas.
Over the years, the Razorbacks have seen their fair share of cold Decembers. Can’t forget searching for a coach in the aftermath of the Bret Bielema firing saga.
They’ve had unseasonably warm ones, too. Ryan Mallett and Adams, Wright and Childs.
Much like the wild weather that’s permeated from the Boston Mountains down to the deltas of the Mississippi River this year, little has been predictable about the Hogs’ Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s portion of the season.
For a bit, the chilly snap was simply endured. The regular-season-ending loss to Missouri was the start of a three-week span that had doubts cast far and wide about coach Sam Pittman and the future of the Razorbacks program. Arkansas lost almost two-dozen players to the transfer portal in the fall and entered Wednesday’s Liberty Bowl with slightly more than 50 scholarship hands on deck. Gone were defensive coordinator Barry Odom and tight ends coach Dowell Loggains, off to promotions at UNLV to head coach and South Carolina to coordinate the offense.
Momentum Shift for Arkansas Football
The mercury rose on early signing day as Arkansas reeled in one of its best-ever classes. Then, as circuitous a route as it may have been, the warm feelings continued with a win over Kansas, clinching the Hogs’ second straight winning season. It’s the first time for such an occurrence since 2015-16.
Those two events – signing day and the bowl game – aren’t just linked by their proximity in the month, either. Other than KJ Jefferson, who proved (yet again) his dynamism is Arkansas’ driving force, it was Pittman’s most recent recruiting class that shined brightest. Not only in the Liberty Bowl proper, but looking forward to the future. And suddenly all the three or four weeks that came prior thawed as hope was renewed.
Arkansas was without its second- and third-best players against the Jayhawks. Linebacker Drew Sanders had left early for the NFL Draft, where he’s a projected late-first, early-second-round pick. Running back Rocket Sanders exited the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury. Sanders was second in the SEC in rushing yards after putting up a season better than anyone ever to wear the crimson-and-white not named Darren McFadden or Alex Collins. In their stead rose a pair of freshmen. A pair of Peach State freshmen.
Peach State Delivers in Liberty Bowl
Pittman returned to Arkansas from Georgia, of course, where he was on the Bulldogs’ staff for four years before taking his first head-coaching gig with the Hogs in 2020. His experience in politicking, er, recruiting the Deep South has perhaps been his biggest asset.
Rashod Dubinion, a Class-of-2022er from Ellenwood, Ga., ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. He also caught the game-winning two-point conversion in the third overtime.
Entering the game, Dubinion had 51 carries for 171 yards — less than three yards-per-carry. He hadn’t eclipsed an eight-carry or 40-yard threshold in a single game during the regular season. Not that he didn’t show flashes. At times he usurped the No. 2-back role from sophomore AJ Green. Still, Rocket Sanders was a workhorse for a reason.
“R-Dub’s a good player. We knew it. He just happened to be behind a couple good players, as well,” Pittman said afterward. “We talked about it after the game about how disappointing it is when you don’t play. … But then the feeling when you do get to play and you have success really overrides all those disappointments. It really does.”
Drew Sanders’ replacement on the other side of the ball was almost as good. Pooh Paul was a three-star recruit from Cordele who turned into a staple as the third linebacker in a system that largely only uses two at a time. He still came up with 62 tackles on the season, the most by a first-year collegiate player at Arkansas since Dre Greenlaw, he of potential Pro Bowl selection with San Francisco this season. Paul had a game-high 12 tackles on Wednesday.
Dubinion and Paul came from Georgia. So did play-anywhere defensive back Jayden Johnson, man-who-picked-up-a-sack-in-the-bowl defensive tackle Cam Ball, wide receiver Sam Mbake and tight end Ty Washington, whose first career catch went for a touchdown from the arm of Jefferson.
Sam Pittman and Georgia Recruiting
Jefferson won’t be around forever. In fact, the 2023 season is likely his final at Arkansas. Pittman has yet to find a suitable replacement, a major reason the Hogs lost at least two of the six games they did this year. But if the coach’s run from his old state continues, his next quarterback could be dual-threat sensation Malachi Singleton, arguably the jewel of the Arkansas recruiting class two weeks back.
How fitting it would be, really. Georgia created Pittman’s head-coaching career. Natives of the state have helped him go into next season carrying a significantly lighter burden. (The ensuing meltdown had Arkansas lost to Kansas after that second-half collapse would not have been pretty.)
If Georgia yields his next regular starting quarterback, Arkansas’ head coach ought to just scrap his plans for a retirement in Hot Springs and instead get himself a big ol’ place in Savannah, soaking up the sun. Georgia recruiting has been that good to him. Outside of, you know, games against the Bulldogs in his first two seasons with the Razorbacks.
Winning the Liberty Bowl didn’t exactly save the Arkansas football program. It was more of a car wash, showcasing a program that can and should remain reliable year after year. If Pittman stays vigilant on the recruiting trail, expect another hundred-thousand miles or so on the odometer.
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