SEC Coach Points to a New Problem Hampering Hogs Since Petrino Hired

Arkansas football
Credit: Craven Whitlow

By this point, the laundry list of issues that caused Arkansas to stub its toe so badly last season it needed hospitalization is well known.

On defense, the team largely collapsed. It went from allowing 19 points a game in October to 38 points a contest in November.

But at least the defense had played well during most of that 4-8 season. The same can’t be said of the other side of the ball. It started with the utter face-plant of Dan Enos’ second stint in Fayetteville. That flaming runaway fail train is something our own Tommy Foltz saw coming from a mile away.

But perhaps if Enos had been able to look up from emailing a student and other fans, he would have noticed that it wasn’t just some of his own guys failing to execute his concepts. There was also a failure in the kind of camaraderie that should serve as a team’s foundation. Far too often after a failed drive, former UA quarterback KJ Jefferson would take a seat on the sideline without talking to any of his teammates. That’s not the kind of leadership Arkansas football needed in that moment.

Arkansas Football’s Biggest Problem

It’s easy to poke holes in other parts of the squad – some sluggish running from Rocket Sanders here, bad routes by some wide receivers there, a Luke Hasz season-ending injury that came at the absolute wrong time – but the biggest problem was consistently bad play from the offensive line.

Way too many penalties, way too much porous protection and far too little push on run plays. It’s understandable if these issues pop up early in the year, which they most certainly did, but a real team addresses them week by week and shows improvement.

It appears the offensive linemen on the 2023 squad, though, never bonded as true teammates. That’s zero surprise given the circumstances with their quarterback and elsewhere on the squad. One source told Best of Arkansas Sports that the offensive linemen as a unit rarely if ever hung out with each other heading into the season, a harbinger of the lack of cohesion to come.

Eric Mateos, the new offensive line coach, saw signs of discord pop off the 2023 season film he watched. “There’d be guys getting tackled and nobody picked the guy up,” Mateos said on the Coaches and the Mouth podcast. “If you don’t go help somebody off the ground, it doesn’t matter if it’s a back, a receiver or anybody, then that’s a ‘loaf’ and we’re pointing those things out big time.”

Offensive Line Improvement under Pittman, Mateos

By almost all accounts, the offensive line is better this spring. That’s in part due to a new influx of talented transfers who along with the returners are showing a revamped camaraderie within the unit and also with their new starting quarterback, Taylen Green. It matters that they now get the benefit of an incoming offensive coordinator in Bobby Petrino with a much more proven track record than Enos when it comes to developing every facet of an offense.

On top of that, the linemen have been getting the benefit of extra attention and coaching from not just their position coach but also Sam Pittman himself, who in spring practice served essentially as a GA to Mateos.

Last spring, when Cody Kennedy was the OL coach, Pittman did not provide this level of hands-on assistance.

Mike Irwin, the long-time Razorback broadcaster, points to one particular drill from spring practice to show how how much the line has improved in pass protection.

“They’d get a grad assistant with a football, they’d line up the one defense against the one offense, and the whole idea was to get to that guy with the ball,” he said on the most recent episode of “Ask Mike.” “I would stand there and count, ‘1,001, 1,002, 1,003.’ If you got through 1,003, your quarterback has time to do something.”

Well, against the defensive linemen who most feel comprise the best unit on the team, the o-line guys often protected for a full three counts. “It wasn’t like last year,” Irwin added.

Given these reports and those by our own Andrew Hutchinson, it’s hard to imagine the offensive line not improving in 2024 if it stays healthy. Maybe not as much as many fans would hope, but some.

SEC Coach Believes He Sees an Issue

That is the general feeling about the offense as a whole under Petrino. Given how bad things were in 2023, and how Petrino still has his reputation for being an offensive genius intact, how could it not improve?

And yet one SEC football coach sees a problem with the unit that is supposed to be vastly better, telling Athlon that the “a shaky situation with their offensive line losses in the spring” may keep Arkansas from reaching the lush paradise that is a .500 record.

Here’s the full context:

These anonymous coach surveys are something Athlon regularly does and are valuable in that they do away from the on-the-record bland niceties SEC coaches say about each other’s teams and get closer to how they really feel.

However, unless this is coming from Cody Kennedy, you can’t expect an opposing coach to have a deep wealth of knowledge about somebody else’s team. And Kennedy likely wouldn’t be on top of the in’s and out’s of what has happened at Arkansas since he was hired by Mississippi State in December, even if he still kept in touch here and there.

This lack of detailed knowledge comes through here when the coach brings up “a shaky situation” he feels is tied to “losses in the spring.”

If looking at outgoing transfers from the unit since early March, Arkansas isn’t exactly in dire straits here. For one, the most recent loss, redshirt freshman guard Paris Patterson, barely even played.

That wasn’t the case with Andrew Chamblee, who left the team in early March and has since landed with SMU. No doubt, Chamblee is a noteworthy loss as he was on the All-SEC freshman team this year. He split reps with Devon Manuel at left tackle last season and even started more games because of injuries to Manuel.

Devon Manuel transferred away in early December, within weeks of Petrino’s arrival. Given his strong PFF grades, he was among the best offensive linemen on the squad in 2024 but should not be considered a spring loss. He would not have had to time to assess the new scheme of Petrino and Mateos and how he would fit into it. It’s likely that this opposing SEC coach is mistakenly lumping in Manuel, who has since landed with Florida, with Chamblee as spring losses.

What the coach also apparently fails to consider is that Arkansas has picked up at least three starting caliber offensive linemen out of the portal in Addison Nichols (formerly at Tennessee), Keyshawn Blackstock (Michigan State) and Fernando Carmona (San Jose State).

Carmona, in particular, looks promising:

Even if considering Manuel as a spring loss, it’s very possible that the offensive line is still better off based on the projected contributions of the transfers in vs transfers out (Joey Su’a also left).

When taking out Manuel from the equation, there is nothing “shaky” about how the offensive line’s situation this spring outside of less-than-ideal depth. All things considered, however, less-than-ideal depth is preferable to having good depth with guys who don’t want to be together.

While this team doesn’t necessarily look like it will win more than 8 games this season, it’s very imaginable to see a rejuvenated effort across the board producing 6 or 7 wins and getting Arkansas back into a bowl game. Indeed, that’s the expectation when looking at Vegas, as you can see from college football best bets.

College Football News’ Pete Fiutak also expects this outcome. “Arkansas will be that team that will rise up and stun, say, an LSU or a Texas, and whiff on the road against a Mississippi State. Just about every game but three should take on a brawling life of its own,” he writes in his Arkansas football preview.

It’s fun and occasionally illuminating to see what opposing coaches really think about your team. But those coaches aren’t paid to keep tabs of the minutiae within camps across the battlefield.

The anonymous staffer talking to Athlon’s apparent misunderstanding of the timeline involving Devon Manuel’s departure serves as a reminder to take these quotes with a grain of salt.

Projected 2024 Roster (13 offensive linemen on scholarship)

  • ^Joe More — seventh-year super senior (transfer from Syracuse/Richmond)
  • Ty’Kieast Crawford — super senior
  • Joshua Braun — redshirt senior
  • ^Keyshawn Blackstock — redshirt junior (transfer from Michigan State)
  • ^Fernando Carmona Jr. — redshirt junior (transfer from San Jose State)
  • Josh Street — redshirt junior
  • Amaury Wiggins — redshirt junior
  • Patrick Kutas — junior
  • E’Marion Harris — redshirt sophomore
  • ^Addison Nichols — redshirt sophomore (transfer from Tennessee)
  • Luke Brown — redshirt freshman
  • ^Kobe Branham — freshman
  • ^Zuri Madison — freshman
  • *Tommy Varhall — redshirt junior
  • *^Tim Dawn — redshirt sophomore (transfer from Baylor)
  • *Brooks Edmonson — redshirt sophomore
  • *Kai Hamilton — redshirt sophomore
  • *Aaron Smith — redshirt freshman

^newcomer (high school, JUCO, portal commits/signees)

*walk-on

More from the anonymous SEC coach on Arkansas starting at 20:20 below:

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