MEMPHIS — As the Arkansas football team takes the field against Kansas this afternoon, it will look nothing like the team it was for much of 2022.
Between players opting out to focus on the NFL Draft, injuries and transfer portal departures, nine Razorbacks who started the Week 1 win over Cincinnati will not be available in the Liberty Bowl.
According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas has 88 players on its travel roster for the game, but that includes a lot of walk-ons. By Best of Arkansas Sports’ count, the Razorbacks are down to about 54 available scholarship players for the game, but that number might actually be lower — an exact count won’t be known until pregame warmups.
“I think when you go into a regular game, you have a certain number of DBs, a certain number of linebackers, a certain number of d-linemen that you’re going, ‘These guys are going to play,’” head coach Sam Pittman said. “I think we still feel good about those numbers.
“In other words, we might have seven d-linemen that we think we can go and win the game with, and we still have those guys. … I still think we have enough players that we feel can play winnable football for us that we’re feeling pretty good about the game.”
Needless to say, it has been a tumultuous month for Arkansas, who will also be without its defensive coordinator, tight ends coach and strength coach from the regular season.
With Barry Odom leaving to become the head coach at UNLV, linebackers coach Michael Scherer will handle the defensive play calling duties Wednesday. New defensive coordinator Travis Williams is with the team in Memphis, but won’t be part of the on-field coaching staff.
New tight ends coach Morgan Turner and strength coach Ben Sowders have already full integrated with the team and will go through normal gameday routines.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on out there, but we’ve had plenty of time,” Pittman said. “What I’m trying to tell you is there’s no excuse for what happens (Wednesday). None. We’ve had plenty of time to get ready for this game. Mike Scherer’s a capable football coach. He’s going to call the game. And we’ve got enough players to go out and win the game.”
Replacing the Starters for Arkansas Football
Going back to the start of fall camp in August, the Razorbacks have seen 21 scholarship players enter the transfer portal. Entering Tuesday, that was tied for the third-most in the FBS, according to FarrellPortal on Twitter, trailing only Texas A&M (24) and Florida (22).
Making the portal departures tougher is the fact that Arkansas lost quite a few significant contributors. In fact, a whopping 18.2% of the Razorbacks’ total starts this season were by players now in the portal. That leads the SEC, according to the Fort Smith Times Record, with South Carolina checking in at 13.3% for second in the league.
On top of that, wide receiver Jadon Haselwood, center Ricky Stromberg and linebacker Drew Sanders have each declared for the 2023 NFL Draft and will not play in the bowl.
It’s also worth noting that linebacker Bumper Pool — a team captain and the UA’s all-time leading tackler — missed the regular-season finale at Missouri and is out against Kansas because he had hip surgery.
Here’s a quick overview of how the Razorbacks are expected to replace all of those key players:
- C Ricky Stromberg (NFL Draft) out —> Beaux Limmer to C, Ty’Kieast Crawford to RG
- WR Jadon Haselwood (NFL Draft) out —> Bryce Stephens in
- WR Ketron Jackson Jr. (portal) and Warren Thompson (portal) out —> Jaedon Wilson in
- TE Trey Knox (portal) out —> Nathan Bax in
- DT Isaiah Nichols (portal) out —> Cam Ball in
- LB Drew Sanders (NFL Draft) and Bumper Pool (injury) out —> Chris Paul Jr., Jordan Crook in
- NB Myles Slusher (portal) out —> Simeon Blair to NB, Latavious Brini to S
Of course, those departures will also have a trickle-down effect on the depth chart. Backups who haven’t gotten much playing time this season could be thrust into action, either from regular rotation or injuries within the game.
Wide receiver is particularly thin, so true freshmen Isaiah Sategna and Sam Mbake could get an opportunity to play on offense, as well as walk-on Harper Cole. It’s safe to expect Hudson Henry and true freshman Ty Washington to get some work at tight end, as well.
Defensively, a pair of true freshmen — linebacker Mani Powell and defensive back Jaylen Lewis — could potentially get their first collegiate defensive snaps, while regular backups like linebacker Jackson Woodard and defensive backs Malik Chavis and Jayden Johnson could also play.
LIVE UPDATES – Arkansas vs Kansas
END of 1Q – Arkansas 24, Kansas 7
The Razorbacks got a productive opening drive for just the second time this season, getting a field goal, before giving up a quick touchdown to the Jayhawks and then going three-and-out. From that point on, it was all Arkansas in the first quarter.
KJ Jefferson hit Matt Landers for a 59-yard touchdown pass, Kansas muffed the ensuing kickoff and Jefferson hit Ty Washington for a 17-yard touchdown on the next play. Kansas was driving to answer, but Quincey McAdoo jumped in front of a pass and intercepted it. Arkansas turned that into a touchdown, capped by a 3-yard run by Jefferson.
The 24 points are the most the Razorbacks have scored in the first quarter since 2019, when they also had 24 against Colorado State. It is a Liberty Bowl record and UA bowl record for any quarter, as well.
HALF – Arkansas 31, Kansas 13
The Razorbacks got a 20-yard touchdown run by AJ Green, who got around the corner and wasn’t touched on the play, to increase its lead to 31-7 with about five minutes left in the half.
However, Kansas managed to put together a 10-play, 75-yard drive to find the end zone again. The Jayhawks converted a couple of third downs on the drive.
They left 1:18 on the clock, though, and Arkansas got all the way down the field and inside the 10 in the closing seconds of the half. A big chunk of those yards came on a 32-yard run by KJ Jefferson and a late hit penalty on the play. However, Jefferson was intercepted in the end zone to thwart the late scoring opportunity.
END of 3Q – Arkansas 38, Kansas 20
Both teams found the end zone in the third quarter. It started with a nice 80-yard drive by the Razorbacks, capped by a 2-yard run by Rashod Dubinion. That was their first possession of the second half, but they went three-and-out on their other two in the third quarter.
Kansas, meanwhile, punted on its first two drives before managing to cover 86 yards on only five plays, the last of which was a 2-yard touchdown run by Ky Thomas.
As the quarter comes to an end, the Jayhawks are knocking on the door once again thanks a 28-yard pass and third-down conversion.
Water Issues in Memphis
The frigid temperatures that swept through a large portion of the U.S. last week have caused some major issues in Memphis.
A boil water advisory has been issued in the city after the freeze cause pipes to burst, leaving a large portion of Memphis with low water pressure or no water at all, according to the Memphis Light Gas and Water.
Despite what they have described as “significant weather challenges,” Liberty Bowl officials have insisted that the Arkansas vs Kansas game will still be played as scheduled.
However, according to a press release Tuesday evening, there are still water pressure issues at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium. Because of that, the venue is bringing in 400-plus porta-johns for fans to use instead of the normal restroom facilities. There will also be 80 hand sanitizer pumps placed throughout the stadium.
How to Watch Arkansas vs Kansas Liberty Bowl
Date: Wednesday, Dec. 28
Location: Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium (Memphis, Tenn.)
Kickoff Time and TV Schedule: 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Announcers: Dave O’Brien (play-by-play), Dan Mullen (analyst), Taylor McGregor (sideline reporter)
ESPN FPI: Arkansas has a 58.1% chance to win
Odds/Betting Line: Arkansas, -2.5 | O/U 68.5 (BetSaracen)
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