FAYETTEVILLE — The most critical offseason Sam Pittman has experienced as the Arkansas football coach got more challenging on Wednesday.
After initially staving off a strong pursuit by Mississippi State and getting Kendal Briles to publicly commit to another season with the Razorbacks, it appears the fourth-year coach is set to hire Dan Enos as his next offensive coordinator thanks to Briles leaving for the same position at TCU.
This is the second time Pittman believed he was keeping one of his coordinators only for another school to swoop in and hire him away.
Leading up to the Liberty Bowl, Pittman told reporters during a teleconference that not only did he expect defensive coordinator Barry Odom to coach in the bowl, but touted that he was sitting right next to him about to go into a recruiting visit.
About 48 hours later, news broke that Odom was leaving to become the head coach at UNLV. Pittman later admitted that the Rebels caught him off guard after his negotiations with Tulsa broke down.
At least that was a promotion for Odom, who wanted another crack at being a head coach. Losing Briles to another offensive coordinator position — granted at a school that just played for a national title — feels like a bit more of a slap to the face, especially after telling the world he was “looking forward to 2023 with” quarterback KJ Jefferson and he was ready to “#Runitback” for another season.
There was a good chance Arkansas was going to make Briles one of the 10 highest-paid assistant coaches in the country, so money doesn’t seem to be the driving factor behind his decision to leave. Perhaps it’s impossible to put a price tag on being back in Texas for a native of the state like Briles, but whatever the reason, Pittman now has to find his replacement.
What Arkansas Football Replaces after Kendal Briles
Contrary to what a portion of the fan base believes, Kendal Briles was a very good — borderline great — offensive coordinator for the Razorbacks.
He inherited a dumpster fire of an offense from the disaster that was the Chad Morris era. Over that two-year span, Arkansas started eight different quarterbacks who threw for more interceptions (33) than touchdowns (31). It averaged 21.5 points during those two seasons, its lowest two-year average since the pre-Houston Nutt years of 1996-97.
In his first season running the offense, Briles helped the Razorbacks put up 25.7 points per game — in a 10-game, all-SEC schedule without the benefit of spring ball to install the offense and while breaking in a brand new quarterback coming off a significant injury in Feleipe Franks.
Arkansas averaged 30.9 points on 441.7 yards in 2021 — its best marks since 2015 — and then improved those numbers to 32.5 points on 471.4 yards, the latter of which ranks second in UA history behind only the 2010 offense led by Bobby Petrino and Ryan Mallett.
Those figures would also be significantly better had quarterback KJ Jefferson stayed healthy all year. Throw out the two games he missed and the Liberty game, when he was clearly hobbled, and Arkansas averaged 37.7 points and 496.8 yards. Both of those would have been school records and ranked in the top 12 nationally.
One of the biggest complaints about Briles is his play-calling, which did include some head-scratching decisions at times, but for the most part he was very good. Some fans may point to the Razorbacks’ red zone as evidence to the contrary, but those numbers were skewed pretty heavily by the health of Jefferson.
According to research by Best of Arkansas Sports, Arkansas scored on 47 of 52 trips inside the 20 when Jefferson was its quarterback this season. At 90.4%, that would have been tied for 15th nationally. However, if you throw in the 2 of 7 by Malik Hornsby and Cade Fortin, that drops to 83.1%, which is 70th in the FBS.
Speaking of Jefferson, Briles deserves a lot of credit for developing him into one of the top quarterbacks in college football. A very raw athlete and inaccurate passer when he arrived in Fayetteville, Jefferson is now arguably the most accurate quarterback in UA history and is set to break most major career passing records at Arkansas in 2023.
Pittman’s Arkansas Dan Enos Decision
With all due respect to bringing in Travis Williams to replace Barry Odom at defensive coordinator, securing the return of KJ Jefferson has made the imminent hire of Enos, who previously served as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator for two seasons under Bret Bielema, the most important hire of Sam Pittman’s tenure.
Jefferson is widely considered one of the top returning college quarterbacks in the country, much less the SEC, and you don’t want to waste what will likely be his final season in college — or worse, lose it all together.
Not surprisingly, some speculated that Jefferson might follow Briles to Mississippi State and now there’s some concern he might leave for TCU. Whether or not that is justified remains to be seen, but it’s certainly understandable considering Briles cited Jefferson as a major reason he returned in 2022 and indicated that was the case again this offseason. Plus, that’s just the state of college football these days.
The fact that news of Briles’ departure came on the final day of the current transfer portal window should help, as does the fact that Monday is the final day to enroll in classes at TCU for the spring semester. At this point, the window to transfer is shut.
There’s always the May 1-15 portal window, but that at least gives Pittman time to find a replacement and for that replacement to convince him it’s in his best interest to stay at Arkansas.
It’s not just Jefferson, either. The Razorbacks also have a deep stable of running backs, led by All-SEC performer Rocket Sanders, plus a group of young, talented offensive linemen and an incoming crop of coveted wide receiver transfers.
The pieces are there for Arkansas to have a very good offense in 2023 — one that can carry a defense in a transition phase. Pittman just has to make the right hire in order to get the most out of it.
Importance of Year 4 for Sam Pittman
At this time last year, Arkansas football fans were ready to build a statue of Sam Pittman. He was coming off a win in the Outback Bowl that put the Razorbacks at 9-4 and in the final AP Poll for the first time in a decade.
Barry Odom and Kendal Briles had turned down opportunities to leave and likely make more money and Arkansas only lost a couple of significant players to the transfer portal and NFL Draft while returning several key guys.
Even with a brutal 2022 schedule on the horizon, things were trending in a much more positive direction than even the most optimistic fans had hoped when Hunter Yurachek hired a career offensive line coach.
Several injuries, four losses by 3 or less, a near-blown 25-point lead in the Liberty Bowl, 25 transfer portal entries and five assistant coach departures later, though, and things feel much different.
It’s too early to say Pittman is on the hot seat, as he seemingly lifted Arkansas out of its worst stretch in program history, but he can’t afford a misstep with so many critical decisions to be made this offseason — especially in a conference like the SEC.
Counting players who are out of eligibility and moving on, the Razorbacks must replace close to half of their scholarship players. They’re off to a good start with that, as they’re set to sign a rare top-20 class and have done well in the transfer portal so far, although their work is far from over. Pittman has also been tasked with replacing half of his coaching staff, as well as the strength and conditioning coach departure that kicked things off.
On paper, at least, it seems as though he’s done a solid job. Yet only time, and most likely Dan Enos, will tell if Sam Pittman can right the ship.
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