The Real Reasons That Arkansas Football’s Feel-Good Story Took a Turn for The Worse

Jadon Haselwood, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

Arkansas fans don’t have the market cornered on this – just read most Power 5 teams’ message boards or listen to their podcasts, even Alabama’s – but many among the Razorback faithful never fail to grab an opportunity for massive overreaction.

When things are going great, like in a 2-0 start with plenty of offense, and the quarterback or running back, or maybe that new receiver, has got to be a candidate in the Heisman Trophy race. When the team falls short of overzealous expectations and then drops a game to even a good “mid-major” program, they lament, it’s time to dynamite the place and start all over.

Not even a full year after hailing Sam Pittman as a miracle worker for guiding his Hogs to the program’s best record in a decade and a New Year’s Day bowl win, many of the more vociferous fanatics are convinced the head coach is now not the guy for the job, and that the sooner UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek moves to find his replacement, the better.

It’s hard for the more sane heads – and granted there are plenty of those, too – to be heard among the cry of the crazies after what some of them were categorizing as one of the worst losses in the program’s history, a 21-19 loss at homecoming on Saturday to Liberty. Never mind that the Flames were the highest-ranked independent in the country (23rd), and had completely destroyed the same BYU team that Arkansas had tussled with a week earlier, and were a failed two-point conversion against ACC offensive juggernaut Wake Forest from being unbeaten. Never mind that they’d probably done a better job even than the Hogs at hitting the transfer portal for talent to fill key roles on their roster, particularly in the defensive line.

Vegas bookmakers curiously made even more of a case for the bandwagon bailers by making Arkansas a 13.5-point favorite when everything – most especially the odd scheduling from three years back by the current AD that put this dangerous trap game in the middle of the final stretch of tough Southeastern Conference games – pointed to a difficult day. You could see this one coming in August, if not earlier: Hugh Freeze, program builder at Ole Miss extraordinaire, whether his methods were a tad shady, ousted due his own alleged indiscretions with credit cards and call girls, sent not to Nick Saban’s Tuscaloosa coaching rehab (because the SEC wouldn’t allow it) but rather to the hinterlands of rural southwest Virginia to the Falwells’ university, Liberty, for some personal life rebuilding if not football redemption.

Freeze, since his days as an assistant and then head coach for a year at Arkansas State, could always spot talent as his quarterback from last season now plays with Treylon Burks on the Tennessee Titans.

Revisiting the Loss to Liberty

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze took the field Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium with the fastest and best receiver among the two teams, two capable running backs, a third-string quarterback who had performed like a star for a month in place of two injured reclamation projects from Power 5 programs Tennessee and Baylor. It was all with, to be true, the kind of offensive line you’d expect from teams in the Group of 5, where Liberty will be next season in Conference USA.

But what Freeze also carried with him, because he learned as an assistant at Ole Miss under Ed Orgeron what it took to compete with other SEC teams (even if Coach O failed miserably anyway as the head coach), and what Freeze put into practice when he replaced Houston Nutt as the Rebels’ coach in 2012, was a fast, athletic and physical defensive line backed by speedy linebackers.

Are they the best defensive front six the Hogs have faced next to Bama? Difficult to say in terms of “ratings,” whatever those really mean, but certainly they played with more fire than any other Arkansas opponent thus far after Bama. And they whipped the Razorbacks’ offensive front with a variety of twists and stunts that, Pittman said, the Hogs expected but were nonetheless unable to deal with until falling three touchdowns behind.

The verdict afterward is that the Hogs “weren’t prepared,” and Pittman, like all head coaches, pointed the finger back at himself. They all do this, though they know in their hearts they spend 168 hours from the end of the previous game to this one, and Pittman was preaching the gospel of Liberty and what the Flames could do to the Hogs if they didn’t bring their best.

Growing Pains for Arkansas Football

In case you haven’t noticed, Arkansas hasn’t brought its best offensively at home since that awful display of football against Missouri State in September, when the Razorbacks stumbled and bumbled and trailed 17-0 before denting the scoreboard, then eventually pulling it out with big plays in the fourth quarter. They trailed Alabama two weeks later 28-0 before finally making a game of it in the third quarter, then collapsed defensively. After two weeks of getting back on track with double-digit wins at BYU and Auburn, once again the offense failed to compete, starting with four punts and a turnover on downs on its half of the 50 in the first five possessions. Only a break via penalty in the final seconds of the first half allowed them to avoid a goose egg with Cam Little’s 50-yard field goal.

Thank goodness, Arkansas fans, that the Hog line is coached because for three weeks running, it’s taken the adjustments to a gap scheme to finally get the running game going, and that takes advantage of the opponents’ strengths and uses it against them. Using straight up man blocking, or even trying zone blocking at times, the Hogs couldn’t match Liberty athletically on Saturday. It made them look flat and no-caring, but it also was a bad matchup. Practice against their teammates didn’t prepare these Hogs for this kind of aggression and quickness.

Pittman’s going to take the blame for all of this, naturally, and the overreacting Arkansas fans are still going to balance their ridiculous preseason expectations in Year 3 of a rebuild with what they’re seeing on the field, and surmise that this is failure. Rest assured after LSU’s defensive front whips the Hogs’ O-line this weekend, and Missouri gives it fits in Columbia with its newfound aggressiveness, they’ll still be convinced that it’s not the talent but the coaching. Arkansas actually has a chance to block a not-deep Ole Miss offensive front, but the question that night (Nov. 19) will be whether they can keep up with the Rebels on the scoreboard.

This is all really just more growing pains of a program trying to extricate itself out of a morass of 1-7, 0-8, 0-8, 3-7 in a four-year stretch of SEC play, 11-35 against all opponents, before Pittman marvelously turned it around with a 9-4 season and New Year’s Day bowl win. That record was way ahead of where it should have been, on paper.

Sam Pittman Still Building an SEC Roster

He’s not fantastic one year and stupid the next, though a good percentage of fans who don’t do a deep dive into the roster between seasons will nevertheless see it that way.

He’s still two recruiting classes away from assembling a full program of his players, yet a 5-4 mark in Year 3 has elicited screams from the deep end of “fire him.” More are cautiously falling back on “he’s not getting fired this year, but the seat has to be hot next year,” or “he needs more time, but I’m not so sure of him now.”

Pittman’s starting offensive line still consists entirely of Bret Bielema and Chad Morris guys, and Morris recruited for a lighter and seemingly better moving group in the open field. Pittman, as we all know well from his stint as Bielema’s line coach and then at Georgia, wants brawn and strength, but also athleticism. The more athletic linemen he’s recruited – such as the freshman trio of E’Marion Harris, Andrew Chamblee and Patrick Kutas – aren’t quite ready in the all-important experience department, and still have to understand the cohesiveness required of the five-man unit before they can take over.

There’s no Treylon Burks this year at receiver, but the Hogs dipped into the portal for transfers to blend with young receivers to make the overall unit better – but mostly they still look young when it’s not Matt Landers or Jadon Haselwood catching the football. Rocket Sanders has been the workhorse at running back and ably spelled by fast AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion.

And, of course, there’s Chad Morris’ best gift to Arkansas: seeing that a kid from little Sardis, Miss., could indeed play quarterback in the SEC, has paid off handsomely for two years in KJ Jefferson — when he can stay on the field. His nature puts him in harm’s way a lot, though, and the staff doesn’t have enough faith in the backup, Malik Hornsby.

It’s a good thing Freeze didn’t roll that way, or we wouldn’t be fretting Saturday’s outcome. Instead, he’s three-deep at quarterback.

The Leadership Issue

Outside of the hobbled linebacker Bumper Pool, Arkansas’s best defensive players are their transfer portal pickups. But first-year transfers, even if they are head-and-shoulders better than their peers, are not going to be the leadership guys. Arkansas, instead, looks to overachieving former walk-ons and recruits who had no other offers but stuck it out for four years to provide that leadership on defense.

Jefferson is clearly the offensive team leader, and when he’s out, the mood seems to hit “crestfallen” for some of these players, including 4- 5- and even 6-year (Dalton Wagner) offensive linemen who should be the leaders now. Instead, when asked to bring it from the kickoff Saturday, with Jefferson clearly hobbled from a bruised clavicle and running at about 60 percent, they spit the bit.

Good players don’t need a coach to fire them up. Pittman and the rest of his staff can absorb the blame all they want, but players who have worn the red and white of the Hogs in the past know the truth. Good players fire themselves up. You can surmise that this paragraph is saying exactly what it does: that the Hogs still lack enough good players.

Yes, they already have some. Some of the average players get caught up in the momentum and follow the leadership of 19 super seniors, like last year, and pick up some big wins along the way to winning a bowl game in Florida against a name opponent. Things go right more often than not for a team in that frame of mind.

We’re seeing the opposite this year. There are fewer good, older players. And we’re seeing some of the younger, better players, the guys who are providing the leadership, even trying too hard – like Jefferson in his leap against A&M – to push this team to the same heights they reached last year.

A 9-4 or even a 10-3 mark was certainly on the table this year if things fell exactly right. When Jalen Catalon re-injured his bum shoulder in the opener against Cincinnati, that was the first sign that 2022 might not be quite as fun as last season. It reminded me of the 2000 season, Houston Nutt’s third. It came in with promise off two good seasons and a bowl romp over Texas, but with some personnel issues via recruiting that they had not had in those first two seasons. Arkansas upset Alabama 28-21 by coming from behind late, but lost star running back Cedric Cobbs in the process. The team crashed to a 4-6 mark before salvaging the last two regular season games at Mississippi State and at Little Rock against LSU and the Tigers’ then-coach Nick Saban.

Another opportunity for late-season salvaging comes in the form of this Saturday’s Arkansas vs LSU tilt (with another curious line), with the Tigers’ coach Brian Kelly coming off his first vanquishing of Saban’s Alabama squad.

Looking Ahead for Arkansas Football

Arkansas’ personnel, excepting the transfer portal guys, is made up of Bret Bielema’s last class, not a good one; Chad Morris’ first, bad class; Morris’ acclaimed second class that has lost several 4-star washouts over three years; Pittman’s first class that had to be cobbled together in December for the early signing date; and finally back-to-back classes for Pittman that show some life on the roster. Fans would no doubt be happier if they knew his O-line recruits are as good as previously forecast, and they’d like to know a backup to Jefferson is either maturing in practice or showing up from somewhere else sooner rather than later. 

The defensive line has taken almost too long to reach even Liberty-like quality, though – neither of Pittman’s first two defensive line coaches recruited well. Linebacker appears on the upswing with talented backups like Chris Paul Jr. who are contributing behind Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool. With the wealth of freshman talent at receiver, guys who have lots ahead of them, wiser heads prevailed a month ago and moved Quincey McAdoo of Clarendon to cornerback, and given his first chance Saturday, he was the bright spot of the game. 

Portal transfers again likely will have to fill in the gaps as Pittman now aims to keep the Hogs in the hunt against the rest of the SEC West. Coming off a loss to a Top 25 team better than widely expected, some Razorback fans seem to have completely forgotten how downright awful things were from 2017-19, before Pittman stepped up when no “big name” would dare take the Arkansas head coaching job.


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