While the main source of disappointment around the Arkansas football team this season has been the anemic offense and ineffectiveness of the offensive line, there has also been jadedness from some fans around the program’s big offseason gains in strength and conditioning.
In the summer, there was plenty of buzz around the wonders Ben Sowders, the Hogs’ first year S & C coach, had worked with the team.
According to stats gathered from the UA’s GPS data collected from vests worn by players during workouts, 61 percent of the team was reaching 20 mph and 36 percent was at 21 mph.
“That’s everybody — I’m talking about O-line, D-line, tight ends and your skills,” Ben Sowders said in fall camp. “You’ve got over half your team being able to run 20 (mph), so we got faster.”
Sowders didn’t have the numbers from when he first arrived, but he did know that the list of players who reached 21 mph had doubled. He also said there were five players who hit 22 mph, compared to just one in 2022.
That’s all great and fine, but since the BYU game that speed hasn’t much translated to the field on the offensive side outside of a Isaiah Sategna TD punt return, an AJ Green breakaway run and some flashes by Luke Hasz before his injury.
Of course, the offensive line’s struggles have played a role here. If KJ Jefferson had more time to throw the deep ball, there’s no doubt the likes of Sategna, Issac Teslaa and Andrew Armstrong would have more chunk plays by now. With bigger holes, you can bet Green and Rashad Dubinion would have racked up more 10+ yard carries as well.
Big Gains for Landon Jackson
No Razorback has had a more impressive body overhaul than team captain Landon Jackson, the 6’7″ defensive end who gained over 45 pounds in the offseason in Sowders’ program. The right nutrition and weight regimen turned him from an above average defensive end into someone who could potentially turn into an all-SEC lineman, and get himself drafted early in the 2024 NFL Draft.
For at least one game, he realized that vast potential, stealing a Crimson Tide freshman’s milk money and wrecking Alabama’s offensive line to the tune of 3.5 sacks, winning SEC co-defensive player of the week honors.
“I was ecstatic for him,” Hogs defensive lineman Eric Gregory said on Tuesday. “Just seeing him out there making plays, like you said, he does it at practice a lot. And to see him transfer it to the game and just knowing he can do it. It was big. The whole D-line, the whole defense was happy for him.”
No Razorback defensive end has gone in first round of since Jamaal Anderson in 2006, but Jackson is trending in that direction after Saturday. In the below video provided by Hog Sports’ Matt Hart, NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper says that Jackson has rocketed past Florida State’s Jared Verse and Ohio State’s J.T. Tuimoloau to No. 1 among defensive ends on his next ESPN mock draft board (the printed update will publish on Friday):
“I feel like I’ve finally fully transferred what I’ve worked in practice every day to the game. I think it paid off big time,” Jackson said on Tuesday, referring to the Alabama game. “I use a lot of hands and really just had my eyes on what I was attacking.”
Clearly, Sowders’ own point of attack when it comes to his plan for the Razorbacks is paying off given how much faster and stronger much of the defense looks. They also appear to be well-conditioned given how much better the defense has played in the second halves the last couple games, even with major contributors like Dwight McGlothern and Chris Paul Jr. missing time.
It’s also important to note that KJ Jefferson has stayed healthy (knock on wood) despite sustaining more sacks and hits per game than the previous two seasons. While it’s easy for fans to get caught up in his uptick in interceptions, the fact he is able to stay out there week in and week out after missing three games last season is an achievement.
The offensive line’s struggles, however, have taken up most of the oxygen in the room because they are so foundational to the rest of the team. Earlier in October, former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones went so far as to say that “on the offensive side of the ball, we’re soft. Let’s just put it out there.”
When it comes to the question of how much of that “softness” comes down to lack of good technique vs lack of strength and conditioning, it would be wise to err on the side of lack of good technique. If, for instance, a lineman is failing to keep his feet apart when sliding, then that issue has nothing to do with power and explosiveness. Likewise, the wide receivers have been criticized for lack of “wiggle,” but it’s clear they also have plenty of vertical jumping ability and – as the LSU game showed us – beaucoup hand strength.
It doesn’t make any sense that somehow Sowders’ offseason work would have benefited so many position groups but somehow skipped over the offensive line. Especially with Beaux Limmer doing stuff like this over the summer:
Big Picture for Sam Pittman
While Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman continues to take heat for his offseason hire of offensive coordinator Dan Enos, the fact his other assistant hires appear to be panning out well so far matters in the big picture.
That is, it wasn’t working out with Sowders’ predecessor, Jamil Walker, and Pittman made the needed change when he fired Walker soon after the 2022 regular season ended.
“In the leadership role, a good leader understands that people aren’t going to like you at times,” Pittman said in August at the Little Rock Touchdown Club. “They’re just not. A good one. Now, if people like you all the time, you’re probably not leading, to be perfectly honest with you.”
“And so I had to learn to be comfortable with people around me not necessarily liking what I had to say. Now, it’s nothing disrespectful in it, but I had to learn that. I wanted to be the guy that everybody liked all the time. But I don’t know if we’re doing right for the kids with that type of mentality. So I had to learn to switch a little bit.”
In another part, he continued: “If you hire good people, they are going to switch and they’re going to do what you ask them to do. And if you hire somebody that’s not any good, they’re going to continue to be not any good. They’re going to blame everybody else but look in the mirror. And usually those people have huge egos.”
Don’t let the poor technique of a few struggling offensive linemen lead you to believe that all the hype around Arkansas’ strength and speed gains were unwarranted. Yes, it’s disappointing that a Rocket Sanders who packed on so much muscle now can’t use it because of a knee injury. And yes, it’s disheartening to see so few completed deep balls when that’s Jefferson’s strong suit and something that Arkansas’ tall receivers should do well.
Still, the improved speed and strength of the defense and special teams (to go along with better skill and discipline) point to Sowders being a good hire despite the 2-5 record so far. Throw the likes of Morgan Turner, Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson in there too.
Maybe Dan Enos’ offense turns it around in the coming few games against weaker competition. Maybe it doesn’t.
In the latter case, Pittman’s body of work in hiring quality assistant replacements for Arkansas football suggests Enos would be an outlier and not the norm. Looking at his body of work as a whole absolutely matters when it comes time for Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek to weigh bringing Pittman back for a fifth year or not.
Derek Oxford contributed to this article
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