UPDATE (Dec. 17): Yet another name has emerged in the search, as UCF defensive coordinator Travis Williams is expected to take the same role with Arkansas football, according to multiple reports. Matt Zenitz of On3 was first to report the move.
The Knights gave up 23.2 points on 382.6 yards this season. Those figures are tied for 39th and 71st nationally, respectively. They are also fifth in the FBS in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score only 68.5% of the time.
Sam Pittman Closing in on DC
FAYETTEVILLE — It sounds like Sam Pittman has zeroed in on who he’ll hire to be the next defensive coordinator for the Arkansas football program.
The Razorbacks’ third-year coach didn’t mention any names, but insinuated that he knew who it would be during the opening remarks of his first in-person interview with local reporters since the Missouri game, as it’s been a wild three weeks of roster management, recruiting and sorting out his staff.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do as far as announcing that,” Pittman said. “I think I’m weighing our program and possibilities of hurting our recruiting versus hurting some other university’s recruiting. It is so close to signing day. So I’m closing in on that.”
A few hours after Pittman’s press conference, The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reported that Tulane defensive coordinator Chris Hampton “has emerged as a strong candidate” for the position.
Hampton has been in charge of a unit that ranks 33rd in total defense (342.4 ypg) and is tied for 25th nationally in scoring defense (20.5 ppg). That helped the Green Wave go 11-2 and win the American, which earned it a No. 14 AP ranking and spot in the Cotton Bowl. Before Tulane, Hampton coached at McNeese State and UCA as a safties coach in 2011. He began his career as a graduate assistant in 2008 at Arkansas State on Steve Roberts’ staff.
Nothing has been officially announced yet, though, and Feldman was careful in how he worded his tweet. Several names have popped up throughout the search, only not to come to fruition.
What Sam Pittman is Looking For in a DC
Beyond the Xs and Os he brought to the Arkansas football coaching staff, Sam Pittman has openly credited former defensive coordinator Barry Odom with helping him in his first head coaching job at a major college program.
His experience as the head coach at Missouri was huge for the longtime offensive line coach who had only ever been a head coach at the high school and junior college level nearly three decades earlier.
Now that Pittman has three years under his belt at the helm of Arkansas, he may not necessarily need someone with a resume similar to Odom — i.e. head coaching experience. Instead, his No. 1 priority is something he learned while on staff at Georgia under Kirby Smart.
“We need a guy that can recruit,” Pittman said. “I think that’s a big part. I’ll never forget when I went to Georgia, Kirby said, ‘You’ve got to change your room. You have to.’ Especially with the portal going on right now, you’ve got to have somebody that can recruit.”
From a schematic standpoint, it sounds as though Pittman would like to move away from the rush-three, drop-eight scheme that was a staple of the Odom-led defenses.
There were times the Razorbacks mixed it up, especially early in the season, but they predominantly ran a 3-2-6 dime package that utilized a three-man front with six defensive backs. They also brought more pressure this year, with their 39 sacks equal to the previous two seasons combined and one shy of tying the UA single-season record, but those came in bunches.
“I’d like to have somebody that’s multiple,” Pittman said. “I’d like to get into a four-man front more. I think our strengths go to that a little bit more now than what (they) were in the past. … I’m looking for some aggressiveness out of that coordinator.”
He also mentioned that player retention is important, but understands that keeping 100% of players is probably an unrealistic expectation.
While it sounds like a single candidate has emerged, Pittman made sure to slip into the press conference that he believes he’s found all of those requirements in “two or three guys.”
Parting Thoughts on Barry Odom
The reason Sam Pittman finds himself searching for a defensive coordinator is because Barry Odom left after three seasons in the position to become the new head coach at UNLV.
Reports surfaced about him taking that job just two days after Pittman told reporters on a Liberty Bowl teleconference that not only did he anticipate having both of his coordinators when they played Kansas, but he was sitting next to Odom and about to go into a recruit’s home while doing the interview.
At the time, negotiations between Odom and Tulsa to become the head coach there had reportedly fallen apart and UNLV wasn’t even on Pittman’s radar. About a week and a half later, he admitted it was a bit of a surprise, even though he knew him leaving was a possibility this offseason.
“Catch me off guard? UNLV did,” Pittman said. “I knew about Tulsa and all that kind of stuff. Not a whole lot about UNLV. But no, I was kind of prepared for that because I knew that he had opportunities. Certainly if he wanted them, I wanted him to get them.”
The departure put Pittman in a tricky situation because he was still in the process of doing in-home visits with Arkansas’ commitments in the 2023 class when he found out Odom was leaving.
“You’re getting ready to go into a home visit, you know you’re going to lose him, so how are you going to talk to the kids?” Pittman said. “What I did was, I took the parents aside and just said, ‘Hey, tomorrow, Coach is going to be the new head coach at UNLV, and they want to keep it quiet.’”
Reading the Tea Leaves
It remains to be seen if Chris Hampton becomes the next Arkansas defensive coordinator, but he would seemingly make sense.
The way Pittman was talking, it sounded as if the man he has in mind is preparing for a big bowl game. Tulane certainly has that on the horizon, as it’s facing USC — which is led by Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams — in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.
It is easily the biggest game for the Green Wave since they left the SEC in 1966 and their biggest bowl game since facing Texas A&M in the 1940 Sugar Bowl. Considering how much Pittman values loyalty, it’d make sense that he’d honor that if Hampton wanted to coach in such a game.
One person who can be eliminated from the list of candidates is Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Williams, whose name popped up when fans tracking the UA plane noticed it stop in Baltimore.
“The poor guy at Maryland, I did not interview him for the job,” Pittman said. “I felt terrible. I’m sure his coach was running in there going, ‘What’s going on?’ I was up to see a couple of recruits and then I flew down and (tight ends coach Morgan) Turner was in Miami recruiting.”
If it ends up not being Hampton, another possibility would be someone on Georgia’s staff. Pittman obviously has tremendous respect for his former boss, Kirby Smart, and the Bulldogs are in the College Football Playoff, trying to defend their national title.
Georgia defensive line coach Tray Scott (an Arkansas native) and co-defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann were names that came up early in the search that would make sense for Pittman delaying an announcement about the new defensive coordinator.
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