In one of the earlier seasons of HBO hit show “Succession,” up there with my favorite TV shows of all time, patriarch Logan Roy, brilliantly played by Scottish actor Brian Cox, sought to save the reputation and future of his billion-dollar entertainment empire with a “blood sacrifice.” In this case giving up his supposed successor, son Kendall (no, we’re not making references to departed Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles here). You can watch the now-completed four-season series for how all this worked out.
For the fourth season of the series that stars Sam Pittman as Arkansas football coach, how this will all wrap remains to be decided.
But the trust Pittman has with much of the fan base appears fractured, and once that’s gone there’s not anything bringing it back to where it was during a nearly three-year run of high ratings. The trust with the players seems strong enough that the Hogs aren’t yet giving up; rather, they’ve managed to run Pittman’s record in games decided by a touchdown or less to 5-12, with three of this year’s four losses being by 7, 3 and 7.
But it’s clear, especially on the offensive side of the ball, that other than a couple of tight ends and wide receivers, the players are confused about what to do and how to win.
While Dan Enos, Pittman’s hire in the offseason of offensive coordinator, is taking most of the media’s and fan’s wrath in this 2-4 start, the fact is his offense can’t possibly function if everything is blown up at the snap with inept offensive line play.
Pittman’s desperation surfaced last week with a shuffling of starting linemen, which he announced to Ole Miss for some strange reason, only to shift back to the regular lineup at halftime after an ugly first half. How much did that 30-minute waste cost the Hogs in a 27-20 loss against an Ole Miss team that looked ripe for beating?
No, Pittman has to change something outside of moving linemen around like chess pieces while he employs what I see as his game strategy of one-play-at-a-time, never thinking two or three plays ahead.
Time for Sam Pittman to Channel Logan Roy
Sam Pittman needs the Logan Roy blood sacrifice: He needs to fire Cody Kennedy, or in the least announce to the fanbase that HE is fully taking over offensive line coaching with Kennedy at his side, and start running O-line the way he did during his three years under Bret Bielema, including the 2015 season when Dan Enos was the Hogs’ offensive coordinator.
Before anyone says “no head coach does that,” none other than Nick Saban, head coach for this week’s opponent, Alabama, is hands-on with his defensive backs every day in practice. Last week’s opposing coach, Lane Kiffin, is always in the mix with his quarterbacks day-to-day.
Anyway, what else does Pittman do these days? The defense appears in decent shape after having been turned over to Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson; those offseason hires have boosted that side of the ball with a much-needed infusion of talent and have given the Hogs a chance. Could they be quicker and stronger up front? Yes, and this will happen based on recruiting results, if fans can be patient. But, it’s easy to see this unit improving and being well coached, with the right players put in the right places and playing with urgency.
No one sees that from the offense, starting with the offensive line.
I don’t know Cody Kennedy; I’m sure he’s a great guy, and I don’t wish anyone to lose their job. But what we’re seeing is an embarrassment, and it really began halfway through last season. Players who lack ability can do that to a coach, making him look unqualified, but he’s the one choosing who plays and he’s the one recruiting the players. In sports, when the fanatics are beyond restless, the head man of an organization has to shake things up.
A baseball GM can’t fire his 25 players; he fires the manager. A head coach can’t bench an entire unit of his team; he has to replace the position coach. Usually this happens at the season’s conclusion. Often it happens to placate the fans after a disappointing season to avoid the inevitable ax falling on his head — not always, though.
One of the more famous examples in the SEC occurred midway through the 1988 season at Tennessee, where once winning was the only accepted standard. The Volunteers’ defensive coordinator was Ken Donahue, a legend in the league for his two decades working for Bear Bryant at Alabama, and the acclaimed “genius” for his defensive game plan that thwarted Vinny Testaverde and No. 2 Miami in the 1986 Sugar Bowl in Vols’ stunning 35-7 rout, denying the Hurricanes a national title. But after Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors’ team started 0-5 in 1988, he placated a bloodthirsty fan base by firing Donahue. (Coincidentally, the Vols’ next opponent was also Alabama, and they lost a close one, 28-20 to go 0-6; also coincidentally, the Vols’ schedule got much easier after their first six games and they finished with five straight wins.)
Pittman dispatching Kennedy would be like Logan Roy deciding that his son should take the fall and head to prison on “Succession.” Pittman seems to treat Kennedy as his protege, if not his own son. He claims Kennedy has been sought for other top jobs; he nominated Kennedy for the Broyles Award for the best assistant coach in the country in 2021 during that turnaround 9-4 season.
But, let’s face it: Pittman’s not “a killer” like the way Logan Roy saw himself on the TV show. The first half of the 2023 Arkansas season, also to paraphrase a line from the fictional mogul, looks like the folks running the Arkansas football program “are not serious people.”
In the past, Kennedy clearly coached well. The 2021 season was special all around, and no one had any complaints about line play as Arkansas rushed for 229 yards per game; in 2022, while the Razorbacks even bettered the previous year with 236 yards rushing per game, Hogs fans will forever have nightmares about the way Liberty wreaked havoc on the offensive line in a stunning homecoming upset, followed a few weeks later by a disastrous performance against Missouri. Something seemed out of kilter with the offensive line the last half of the season.
Arkansas Football Chemistry Issues?
Is this new Dan Enos-Cody Kennedy mix as bad as the Enos-K.J. Jefferson blending appears? It’s hard to tell how bad the Enos-Jefferson combo really is when Jefferson can’t get anything started anyway with the O-line being blown up and center snaps occasionally off-target.
Last week, former Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams dissected several plays from the 34-22 loss to Texas A&M on his 4th & Five podcast. In the incisive video below, Williams illustrated why he thinks the offensive line is poorly coached. Against the Aggies, simple fundamentals were being ignored, bad steps were being allowed, in ways that he said could be easily fixed.
If Williams can see this from a highlight film, one wonders why Pittman and his staff aren’t noticing and correcting it. Some sports truths to consider here: Players lacking in top-level ability may never correct their errors no matter how good the coaching. Given Kennedy was hired from his one year as a full-time assistant at Tulane and a brief spring stopover at Southern Miss, how many times has he (and by extension Pittman) recruited players well below SEC quality the past three years?
It’s also worth looking more closely at the Arkansas recruiting track record of Kennedy’s predecessor, Brad Davis, now at LSU. One of Davis’ UA recruits now starts at UNLV, in case you’ve missed it.
Were the returning linemen carried the past two years by the greatness of center Ricky Stromberg, an NFL draft pick by the Washington Commanders and currently on their 53-man roster, as well as by right tackle Dalton Wagner, a free agent signee who Raiders observers said appeared destined for a 53-man spot with the Las Vegas Raiders before being injured late in preseason camp?
Either way, this doesn’t look good on the UA coaches: You either recruited players who aren’t coachable or aren’t skilled enough, or they’re coachable and skilled but whatever you are teaching isn’t clicking. The coaching, as Pittman insists, may be great, but what everyone sees now is a fundamentally unsound bunch.
Why are the fifth-year seniors, who are Chad Morris leftovers, among the biggest disappointments this season, committing errors right and left, slow to get off the line and into their blocks, unable to hold blocks, and undisciplined to a point that they pile up procedure penalties? Why is the most consistently good lineman a portal transfer, Josh Braun, who was a cast-off at Florida?
After four years of Sam Pittman, here’s what we know: He isn’t making a blood sacrifice, now and maybe ever unless ordered to by his athletic director; he didn’t fire the strength and conditioning coach last year until immediately after the Missouri game. He surely isn’t cutting his protege loose in midstream. He also probably isn’t even urging his favored assistant to bench a fifth-year team captain who, to anyone watching these first six games, is having an awful time of it no matter where they put him.
Sweet Respite after Arkansas vs Alabama
Sam Pittman is coming back next season, rest assured, and he’ll no doubt ride this rough patch out. The truth is, the schedule eases up considerably after Arkansas vs Alabama for the last six Saturdays, including a much-needed open date coming Oct. 28 and four of five games being played at home. Physically, Arkansas should match up well with Mississippi State, which strangely changed its offense away from its quarterback’s strengths, then saw that very quarterback, Will Rogers, injured last weekend and probably sidelined for a while. Hugh Freeze doesn’t have his Auburn offense in place this season, but the Tigers will put up a stout defense; and Florida International should make for a nice homecoming foe.
The Hogs will need another win out of either Florida on the road or Missouri in the day-after-Thanksgiving finale at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Florida might have been more likely a Hog breakthrough victory if it were played at Fayetteville; Arkansas has never won at Gainesville, but these Gators are still un-Gator like under second-year Coach Billy Napier. Missouri is accomplishing far more in Eli Drinkwitz’s fourth season than Pittman has, and has the offense with two stud receivers and a run-pass quarterback to cause big problems.
Maybe by the 12th game, Dan Enos’ offense will be up to preseason expectations to keep up on the scoreboard, if Jefferson and the team haven’t been beaten into shambles by then.
This would mirror the 2015 finish when Enos called plays for Bielema; after scuffling through the first few weeks, Arkansas went on to win seven of its last nine games.
When he hired Enos after last season, Sam Pittman noted that they had worked together well in 2015 before Sam jumped for a job with Kirby Smart at Georgia. However, it’s important to also note that in 2015, Enos wasn’t working with Cody Kennedy as his line coach; again, that was Pittman. It probably should be again if Arkansas football is to make anything of this season.
Sam Pittman on Alabama
Pittman dove into specifics about the Crimson Tide in a Wednesday press conference.
How this year’s Alabama defense compares to last year’s:
“I think they’re really good. I think they compare very well. Have a lot of… They have, in my opinion, great defensive ends and they’re a problem. It’s a problem if somebody has one that can wreck your game plan, let alone three, maybe four. Very, very big, physical inside, as well. I love their linebacker group. Obviously Koolaid is one of the best players in the league, and Caleb Downs. You just keep going with Amos and Key. They are really talented, as well coached on defense as anybody in the league, anybody in the country. They play with passion and very physical.”
Nick Saban on Comparing KJ Jefferson with Jalen Milroe
“I don’t like to compare players. KJ is a really good player in his own right. He’s got a lot of experience and he’s gotten better and better every year.
Jalen has matured a lot as a quarterback, as a player, as a passer, his confidence in making reads and getting the ball out on time. They’re both outstanding athletes, so they can make plays with their feet and they can scramble and make plays and keep their eyes downfield as passers.”
“That part of it is pretty obvious, I think. Jalen has come a long ways from where he started with no experience to the kind of player he’s become in terms of understanding the offense and being able to read and diagnose things more quickly and distribute the ball more like a point guard and not think that he’s got to make every play and understand that his role is to distribute the ball to the right guys in the right time at the right place.”
For a less blood-soaked take on all the false starting, see comedian Matt Besser’s latest bit on Arkansas football:
More on Arkansas vs Alabama here:
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