Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas’ athletics director, has waded into each previous Arkansas football season looking both ways and treading carefully.
“I’ve gone into the last few seasons using the words ‘cautiously optimistic,’” Yurachek said on 103.7 The Buzz in late August. “This year, I’m just ‘optimistic.’ I think we have a chance to have a really good season.”
Reading between the lines, it seems Yurachek believes expectations for this year are not as low as in years past. That’s somewhat surprising considering last year’s expectations. The Razorbacks came off a 9-4 season in 2021 that included a bowl win over Penn State. This had many, including this reporter, picking the Razorbacks to do big things in 2022. Yet, from what Yurachek said, we can infer that his expectations are actually higher in 2023.
From what we saw in the season opener vs Western Carolina, this faith may be well founded.
Reasons We’re Optimistic
There is no bigger reason to be optimistic than KJ Jefferson, Arkansas’ starting quarterback who’s entering his fifth year on the Hill. In fact, he is the only fifth- or sixth-year starting quarterback at a Power Five school who is still with his original team.
In the season opener, Jefferson had a good day, going 18 of 23 for 246 yards, three touchdowns and a rushing touchdown. He made solid decisions on his reads and in the passing game.
Arkansas’ receivers also looked good, getting open and routinely making catches in tight windows. Nine different Razorbacks caught passes and four caught balls for touchdowns: Jaedon Wilson, Issac Teslaa, Andrew Armstrong and Davion Dozier.
Arkansas’ defense was another reason to be optimistic. The Razorbacks forced five turnovers, with four of them being interceptions, despite getting only two sacks. The defense kept Western Carolina under 300 total yards for the day, as well.
Jayden Johnson had a really nice day with five tackles, a forced fumble and an interception. Many thought he would have a breakout season last year, but he struggled at times. Saturday was the best Johnson has looked since arriving on campus.
Jaheim Thomas, who started instead of Chris “Pooh” Paul, was a nice surprise. Viewed as a potential backup when he first committed to transfer to Arkansas from Cincinnati, he racked up eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss. His day started this way: he tackled the quarterback for a loss of two, he assisted on a tackle on the running back and finally he pressured the quarterback and forced an incompletion. Those were Western Carolina’s first three plays. He continued to impress the rest of the day as he rotated series with Paul until Paul was ejected for targeting.
The Hogs also looked good on special teams. Isaiah Sategna had two kick returns for an average of 23 yards, but had a big one called back. He also had two punt returns, one for 39 yards and another for 12. Max Fletcher had a tremendous day. He had five punts for an average of 49 yards. That’s 11 more yards than his average from last season. If Fletcher keeps it up, he will be one of the best punters in the country. His average currently ranks eighth nationally.
Reasons We’re Reticent
The offensive line struggled to run block. The Razorbacks ran for 39 yards in the first half and Western Carolina was routinely in the backfield on any running back carry.
You would think Western Carolina was primarily stacking the box on defense in an effort to slow Arkansas’ steller cohort of backs, but after a rewatch of the game, I found this wasn’t the case. Only once did the Razorbacks gain three yards or less where the Catamounts had eight or more guys in the box. Mostly they had seven defenders in the box and their safeties were at a fairly normal level.
However, it seems pretty obvious that their safeties were instructed to make stopping the run their first priority. Their eyes were in the backfield the whole game and at the first hint of a handoff, they headed that way. This was part of the reason play action was so effective early even without much success running the ball.
Sam Pittman wants Arkansas to establish the run in every game. So what, specifically, went wrong in that first half? Here’s what happened on the Hogs’ eight running plays for three yards or less:
On four plays, an offensive lineman gets at least partially beat or misses the block. Josh Braun was beaten twice, Patrick Kutas once and Devon Manuel once.
I’m not terribly concerned about this because left guard Brady Latham was out due to injury. This meant Braun played out of his normal position, shifting to the left side. Both times he was beaten were early in the game and as the game went along, he had no more problems.
Kutas and Manuel, on the other hand, are both young and mistakes are to be expected. I expect they will get better as they get more experience. Manuel is also competing with Andrew Chamblee for the starting spot at left tackle. Chamblee was not involved in any of these snuffed-out runs, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him get a bigger portion of the workload next week.
Here’s what happened on the other four plays:
- Rocket Sanders missed the hole.
- Sanders had one man to beat, but didn’t.
- The right side of the line didn’t get a big push, but all 11 defenders were within eight yards of the line of scrimmage.
- It seemed like Manuel got lost on the play. He blocked the defensive tackle who was already engaged with Braun. It’s possible it was a read play, but it didn’t set up like a traditional read play does.
The jury is still out on whether the Razorbacks’ wide receivers, mostly unproven at this level, will generate enough separation vs SEC competition to take the pressure off the ground game. It seemed like the Western Carolina defenders were routinely within a half-step of the guy catching the ball. That was more than enough for the receivers to have a great day, but SEC defenders would likely make up that difference in a flash.
When I rewatched the game I found that this was not because the receivers were not getting open it was because of where KJ Jefferson put the ball. In fact, out of the first nine passes Jefferson threw, I found five sub-optimal throws from Jefferson. On three passes, the receiver had to slow down to catch the ball, one pass was behind the receiver and one pass required the receiver to go full extension because the ball was so far above his head. All five were receptions, which is a testament to the receivers, but these kinds of throws will be dangerous against SEC competition.
Verdict for Arkansas Football
After the game, Pittman wrapped up a press conference by admitting “I don’t know if we answered any questions.” He was talking about Jefferson and the offense, but the same could be said about the entire team.
Ultimately, a game against such an inferior opponent makes it hard to tell how good the team really is, but there was more positive than negative to take out of it and all of the concerns are fixable.
I’m still not sure how good this team is, but they are trending in a direction that should make Hunter Yurachek smile.
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