Arkansas football is a good program. They’re healthy both on and off the field. They’re winning games at a reasonable rate. They have some national cachet.
Things aren’t perfect in Razorbacks World. Coach Sam Pittman knows that. As much as he’s well-liked, locally and nationally, the man entering his fourth year at the helm in his first-ever college head coaching gig is still evolving.
In the offseason, he had to replace both defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who left to be head coach at UNLV, and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, who left for the same job at Texas Christian. The two of them took a lion’s share of the flak that may have otherwise gone to the head coach in recent years. Now, with new blood in those roles, the onus is on Pittman to ensure Arkansas can take the next step.
Sam Pittman Goes with Familiar
So Pittman went with familiar. Former Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos returned to the role he held with the Hogs from 2015-17. That first year in Fayetteville, he and Pittman worked together on then-coach Bret Bielema’s staff as Pittman served as the team’s offensive coordinator. The results were splendid as Arkansas had the 29th-ranked offense in FBS. Pittman moved on the following year to Georgia, while Enos later landed in Alabama and most recently Maryland.
But Pittman is also trying to adjust to the changing game. He isn’t only sticking to the familiar. The coach on Wednesday during his time on the dais at SEC Media Days in Nashville said that he has learned this offseason he has to play the numbers a bit more and go with his gut a bit less. Sometimes that’s tough for the old-school, hard-nosed guys.
“I’ve worked on myself,” he said. “I won’t go for it on fourth down very often. So I have to work on and see if we can get a little bit more in practice; at the same time we are helping the defense, analytics certainly has changed football. I have to get into it a little bit more than what I have in the past.”
Part of the past refers to just last season, when Briles, especially, came under fire from armchairs across the Natural State about play-calling. After the Texas A&M game that Arkansas lost, 23-21, those folks were calling for Briles’ job after what they deemed poor management.
Pittman stuck up for his offensive coordinator and, in a half-mocking tone after the game, said he didn’t like the results of the plays (as opposed to the play calls themselves). As to whether Pittman will have more input on the play-calling in 2023 with the veteran Enos on staff, it’s unclear. Giving the experienced Enos less free rein than he did Briles seems doubtful, at least to start.
Arkansas Football and Too Much 4th-Down Chutzpah?
Arkansas didn’t actually attempt many fourth-down conversions last year compared to the rest of FBS. They went for it 20 times, which was 94th most in the sport. The issue was the timing of them. The Hogs hit on just 45% of those attempts, which ranked 91st. And in October, a month when Arkansas lost two of its four games, it was a giant O-fer at 0-for-4.
Pulling back on 4th down aggression actually goes against advanced analytics overall, but understanding when to abstain is something than can only be borne of head coaching experience. After three seasons in the cockpit, Pittman now has a good amount of that.
Don’t expect his attack mindset to disappear, though. He’s still a former offensive line coach, so will still prefer brute force in situations where it could be warranted. With his roster make-up, that makes sense, too. Arkansas’ 605 rushing attempts in 2022 were sixth in the country. Only Central Florida and Ole Miss had more, not counting the three service academies, which have been built on option-style offenses for the better part of the last 30-plus years. (Or forever, really.)
Rocket Sanders, Arkansas’ running back, can afford to shoulder a bulk of that load. His 222 carries last year were the most from a Razorback rusher since Rawleigh Williams III in 2016.
Sanders made them count, too, running for 1,360 yards and 12 touchdowns. And only Jayden Daniels at LSU had more rushing attempts from the quarterback position than Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson’s 158. With bringing back two potential All-SEC offensive linemen in Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham, it’s doubtful those numbers drop by much.
On the other side, the loss of pass rushers Drew Sanders and Jordan Domineck is going to hurt Arkansas’ attacking of the quarterback. That may be countered a bit by new defensive coordinator Travis Williams’ schemes. He plays a bit more aggressively than Odom did; again, something against Pittman’s initial instincts.
SEC Media Days Good Time for Optimism
“Sometimes you think about, well, what about if your corner gets beat and they go score. His corners — well, what happens if we hit the quarterback and the ball goes up in the air and we get it and go score a touchdown, too,” Pittman said. “I like that. I have a lot of confidence in (Williams) and we will certainly be more aggressive. That’s just his nature and his style.”
Besides, Arkansas’ defensive backfield can’t be beaten much more than they were last year as the Razorbacks allowed 295 yards a game through the air, the worst mark in FBS. The addition of five players in the secondary from the transfer portal should almost also help alleviate some of that concern. But even that was hard for Pittman, what with the transfer portal still so new and everything.
The good news is his is the type of personality that can benefit, and has benefited, from it. As long he keeps changing with the times and knowing when to adjust, Arkansas should never be down for long.
Read more about Arkansas football on BoAS here: