Quick. Name the best 10 players on the Arkansas football roster this year.
Cam Little. Landon Jackson. Andrew Armstrong. Jaheim Thomas. Dwight McGlothern. KJ Jefferson.
People might quibble with that Jefferson pick, so…
The biggest problem Arkansas had Friday in its season finale against Missouri wasn’t play-calling. It wasn’t the offensive line. It wasn’t Sam Pittman. It was nothing, technically, on the field. No, the largest issue, just like it was throughout the entire 2023 season, was what was not on the field.
Talent. The Razorbacks don’t have enough of it.
Pittman, who was announced as returning for the 2024 season just six days before the 48-14 beatdown his team suffered to the Tigers, had said at various points during the fall that Arkansas had built better depth than it had in his two previous seasons. And while it may be true that the Razorbacks have a stable of competent, if underachieving, running backs, as well as bodies galore to play on the defensive line, the team also lacks any real star power. That’s super disappointing in a year in which fans expected an All-SEC quarterback and running back.
The team’s best player, statistically and when it comes to likely postseason awards, is the kicker.
The kicker is the best player on the roster. You know, the guy whose job-load would be cut in half if certain people had their way and the NCAA eliminated kickoffs all together.
The roster talent level is on Pittman and his Arkansas football staff, without a doubt. They are responsible for building the roster via traditional high-school and junior-college recruiting and also now through the transfer portal. Pittman sounded upbeat Monday when he let it slip that the program would put more money into its NIL program in the offseason, thereby making Arkansas a more attractive destination for recruits.
But, c’mon. You think that’s the answer? Arkansas is not, and will not be, good enough to play with the big dogs in the SEC. Five of the last seven seasons, with three different head coaches, the Razorbacks have maxed out at four SEC wins. Oh, the Hogs might get there once in a while, but most of the rest of the league, at least the members of the league Arkansas wants to successfully emulate, have had their time in the sun. In Fayetteville, the Hogs have felt that warmth a grand total of four times this millennium (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2011).
Pittman is tasked with making it five and he probably only gets one more shot to do it. So, what’s the calculus to make it happen?
Overhaul Time for Arkansas Football
The coach himself said after Florida International that his roster needs an overhaul. A talent influx, no doubt, would create some of the off-season momentum that is so necessary given the poor last game and lack of the bowl game. The transfer portal is likely to be Doctor Strange-sized as players make their way out of Fayetteville.
Pittman and his coaching staff have to counter with a net-win coming from the other direction. Perhaps signing a power-conference, established wide receiver would be a start, because as fair as Andrew Armstrong was, his season (56 catches for 764 yards, five touchdowns) was more suited to a No. 2 option than a true No. 1.
Defensively, the secondary had its moments, though only Snaxx Johnson and Al Walcott truly established themselves and Walcott’s Arkansas career is now finished. Jaheim Singletary and Kee’yon Stewart are, at least, young and could develop.
Of the five defensive linemen who came in from the portal, none but former Missouri Tiger Trajan Jeffcoat will leave any significant mark. None of John Morgan III, Keivie Rose and Tank Booker came close to having the kind of effect John Ridgeway did back in 2021.
And at linebacker, Jaheim Thomas was good until teams figured out how to block him in the second half of the season. Who knows whether he’ll even be back after a certain deleted Tweet Friday night. Antonio Grier was held back by injuries. Chris Paul, too. Brad Spence, who burst onto the scene with that pick-6 in the season opener, could be a player in the future.
And, boy, oh, boy, that offensive line. The names on the back of the jerseys may change, but almost every Arkansas football fan out there wants only one move to be made in this area.
Pittman almost certainly has to give it to them, too, as it’s hard to imagine Cody Kennedy staying on for his fourth season as the offensive line coach after hitting it out the park in earlier years. Shaking up the staff would, no doubt, generate a kind of momentum going into the offseason. When asked directly about this after Arkansas vs Missouri, Pittman didn’t bring up changes in the transfer portal or staff, instead opting for a frustrated “I don’t know” response and pivot to the next question:
It was reminiscent of another “I don’t know” response about a month ago.
When it comes to staff changes, Kennedy may just be a drop in the bucket if Pittman’s overhaul suggestion is as true as it sounded.
Look at Sam Pittman’s Staff
Jimmy Smith’s running backs had just 1,150 yards in total and the individual leader was AJ Green with just 312 yards behind a faulty offensive line (Rocket Sanders had 1,443 by himself last year behind a good line). But then, Smith also recruited Isaiah Augustave, perhaps the only bright spot from the Missouri debacle, who racked up 202 yards for a 5.77 yards per carry average in mostly just the last two games. It doesn’t take a genius to realize why keeping Smith means a higher likelihood of keeping Augustave.
Cam Little helped Scott Fountain’s case as special teams coach, but punting was a mixed bag and punt coverage was brutal. Travis Williams likely returns on defense if he wants to, especially with the team’s early-season success. They didn’t go blank on him until after the Florida game.
Defensive line coach Deke Adams may get Jackson back up front, if he doesn’t go pro, but will need to rebuild depth with the loss of so many seniors. Morgan Turner did…fine (?) with the tight ends, probably grading as an ‘incomplete’ given the early-season loss of Luke Hasz, who did look like a future star. Deron Wilson’s secondary was mostly positive as the Razorbacks entered the Missouri game 43rd in FBS in pass defense.
And then there is Kenny Guiton. Guiton took over the Arkansas offense for Dan Enos when Enos was fired mid-season. Pittman said at the time and everyone understood that Guiton’s role was interim. He likely won’t be named full-time OC after the team failed to improve outside of the Florida and FIU games, but would he want to return as wide receivers coach? And if he did, what of Derek Kief, the man who took over there when Guiton was promoted?
“Obviously I’d like to have a little bit more time to evaluate everybody,” Pittman said after Friday’s game. “But those (questions) are hard to answer at this point. We just got our butt kicked. I need to take some time to figure out exactly what we need to do over the entire staff.”
Look, that’s a lot to sift through, no doubt. It’s also justified because it shows the scope of the problem with Arkansas football. No quick fix is coming. Too many places need too much help and, barring a miracle, we’ll be here a year from now having a similar conversation.
When it comes to overall roster talent and coaching, Arkansas just wasn’t good enough in 2023.
Traditional Sales Pitch Working against Arkansas?
DJ Williams, the former Arkansas football star, has an idea about what’s the biggest culprit behind Arkansas’ fall the last couple of years.
As he sees it, the influx of NIL money alongside the increasing importance of the transfer portal “has allowed players to be very hard to coach and has created players with a sense of entitlement,” Williams says in the Fourth & 5 video below. “And it has created players that at any sign of trying to be told that they’re wrong, they just fold and choose to go somewhere else. This is a product of trying to be friends with your players instead of making tough decisions and having tough conversations and telling them to their face something that might hurt their feelings.
Now, this is a dynamic that would apply to all SEC programs in the same general stratosphere as the Razorbacks.
So what would the Hogs get hurt any more than, say, Missouri or Ole Miss? Why wouldn’t Rebels and Tigers also have as big a sense of entitlement if some of them are also taking home six-digit annual payments?
Williams’ hypothesis is what generally is held out to a recruiting pitch for the Arkansas football program – that the Razorbacks are the only big-time college program in a state with no major league pro teams – may also create issues in this new collegiate landscape.
“I think it has a lot to do with what makes this program so special here at Arkansas. This is the state’s professional team,” he says. “If you’re good here, you’re a celebrity across the state. It’s the only thing that matters here. And I think that sometimes builds egos and gets to people’s heads.”
Whether you agree with DJ Williams or not, it’s hard not to give him credit for at least coming up with a new theory involving Arkansas’ woes. Check out the rest of his Arkansas vs Missouri analysis here:
Read our next piece on possible defections from Arkansas football here: