FAYETTEVILLE — A common critique for Arkansas football over the years has been its lack of speed, especially compared to the rest of the conference.
The Razorbacks have had their fair share of fast and elite athletes, but not as many as the likes of Alabama, LSU, and others in the SEC.
In fact, former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones recently claimed on Halftime, ESPN Arkansas’ midday radio show, that every conference opponent on the 2023 schedule — except Missouri — will be faster than the Razorbacks.
However, that was a few days before strength and conditioning coach Ben Sowders met with reporters and revealed some encouraging statistics from the summer.
Not only had the team gotten stronger in his offseason program, but most of the players also improved their speed. According to the UA’s GPS tracking data, which is collected from vests worn by players during workouts, 61% of the team had reached 20 mph and 36% had even hit 21 mph.
“That’s everybody — I’m talking about O-line, D-line, tight ends and your skills,” Sowders said. “You’ve got over half your team being able to run 20 (mph), so we got faster.”
Sowders wasn’t sure what those percentages were when he first arrived, but he did know that the list of players who reached 21 mph had doubled. He also said there were now five players who hit 22 mph, compared to just one last year.
Three of those five players weren’t particularly surprising, as they came to Fayetteville with reputations as burners — running back AJ Green, wide receiver Isaiah Sategna and defensive back Malik Chavis.
The other two are wide receivers Tyrone Broden and Andrew Armstrong, who transferred in from lower levels of college football — the MAC (Bowling Green) and FCS (Texas A&M-Commerce), respectively — this offseason.
That number might actually be six because Sowders added that tight end Var’keyes Gumms, a transfer from North Texas, also hit 22 mph, but the staff believed it was the result of an equipment malfunction because he’d consistently been in the “high 21s” — which is impressive for a guy at his position who is now 243 pounds after adding 12 this summer.
“For our skill guys, we wanted to get them bigger and stronger, but obviously put an emphasis on speed,” Sowders said. “You know in this league, speed kills. Especially at your skill positions. Explosive plays, typically the team that’s got the most explosive plays in a game, are the most successful teams that end up winning the game. We put a big premium on that.”
Jones, who is now a radio personality, knows a thing or two about speed, so that should be music to his ears.
“You’ve gotta have speed to compete in the SEC,” Jones said. “You look every year at the teams that finish first, second and third, they’re the fastest teams. That’s just speed kills — it’s breaking a 7-yard run, breaking a 7-yard catch and taking it 60 to the house. There’s a difference you’ve gotta have.”
Encouraging Numbers at Wide Receiver
With the Razorbacks losing Matt Landers to graduation, Jadon Haselwood to the NFL Draft and both Ketron Jackson Jr. and Warren Thompson to the transfer portal, they had to completely overhaul their wide receiver room this offseason.
It was no secret that Sam Pittman would be exploring the portal to find replacements and he did just that – although he did so by bringing in three players from lower levels of college football.
As previously mentioned, Andrew Armstrong comes to Fayetteville from Texas A&M-Commerce, which was a DII school when he signed before moving up to the FCS ranks last year, and Tyrone Broden comes from Bowling Green, which is a Group of Five school in the MAC. The third transfer receiver Arkansas landed was Isaac TeSlaa, who played Division II ball at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Considering what they’ll be tasked with, a lot has been made about them jumping to the SEC, but a couple of numbers Ben Sowders revealed alleviate some of those concerns.
In addition to being tall targets, Broden (6-foot-7) and Armstrong (6-foot-4) have elite speed that should translate to the conference as members of the exclusive 22 mph club.
TeSlaa (6-foot-4) isn’t quite that fast, but is on the upper side of the 21 mph range. Despite weighing only 215 pounds, he’s also very strong – benching 350-355 pounds, power cleaning 335 and squatting 515.
“He’s a freak show,” Sowders said. “I’m glad we got him and nobody else did. … The best thing about that kid is he shows up and he works like it’s his last day every day, and what that does is elevates the whole room. Elevates not only his position group, but the DBs, everybody.”
Landon Jackson’s Transformation
Perhaps no one changed their body this offseason as much as Landon Jackson. Now in his second season with the Razorbacks after transferring in from LSU, the defensive end gained a whopping 45 pounds since the end of last season.
Sowders said Jackson played in the Liberty Bowl at 238 and then weighed in at 283 when players reported for fall camp.
“He was committed,” Sowders said. “He worked his butt off every day. He took his nutrition and recovery the right way and was just always looking to get better. He never stayed satisfied and I think that’s why he continued to see success in the offseason and all the way through the summer.”
Once a borderline five-star recruit who Arkansas recruited out of Pleasant Grove High on the Texas side of Texarkana, Jackson now has the physical attributes to match his mental attributes, which made him an easy pick for head coach Sam Pittman to bring to SEC Media Days in Nashville, Tenn., last month.
“He’s always been a really mature guy,” Pittman said. “He just puts his head down and goes to work. He had a great spring, and that’s where it kind of started. In the summer when he packed on another 25 (pounds) after he had packed it on in the spring, I thought he was a great choice to represent the team.”
Arkansas O-Line Weight Fluctuations
Sam Pittman has always liked big offensive linemen, but a couple of Arkansas’ latest signees up front were too big – especially when you factor in that it was because of “bad” weight.
Most notably, Devon Manuel was a three-star recruit from Louisiana in the 2021 class who was officially listed at 370 pounds as a true freshman, but was reportedly closer to 390.
He got down to 334 last year and then bottomed out around 282 this offseason before building his way back up to 310 by adding “good” weight. Sowders said the goal is for Manuel – who’s currently the projected starting left tackle – to play around 315-318 pounds.
“He had some stuff going on with his body,” Sowders said. “We had to figure some things out that was kind of irritating his stomach and he wasn’t resting very well, too. We got that figured out.”
Last year, Arkansas brought in E’Marion Harris as a heralded four-star in-state recruit from Joe T. Robinson in Little Rock. He was listed at 340 pounds last year, but experienced a similar dip in weight as manuel.
Sowders said he dropped into the low 280s, but is now back up to 293 pounds. He’s still got room to add more, though.
“We’re making it very, very demanding for him as we check all his meals, make sure he’s eating, force some stuff down him although I know he doesn’t like it,” Sowders said. “He showed in the bowl game his ability — played really, really well for us in the bowl game.
“I think that gave him a lot of confidence. Now we’ve got to take his confidence along with his performance and build it.”
Limmer Squats 700 Pounds
One of the most memorable moments from the summer weight program came when offensive lineman Beaux Limmer squatted 700 pounds. Video of the accomplishment, which Ben Sowders shared on Twitter, went somewhat viral.
What makes it even more incredible is the fact that Limmer likely could have squatted an even heavier weight. He had to beg Sowders to let him try 700 after he did 675 so easily.
“Beaux could have done more, but at the end of the day I need Beaux to be the starting center,” Sowders said. “It comes to a point where, ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’”
Sowders described the 6-foot-5, 307-pound center as a “workout warrior” and said he loves having guys like that because he leads by example. He’s just the kind of guy he said needs to be in the trenches.
“I know the goal for us when I sat down with Beaux when I got the job, is obviously he’s a strong guy and he wanted to continue to get stronger,” Sowders said. “Last year, I think he hit around 650, 660… He’s played a lot of plays for the Hogs, but to be able to come back, do the amount of volume of running that did — because I ran them a lot — but to still hit that is very impressive.”
A few other guys who Sowders mentioned as particularly heavy squatters include Maryland transfer defensive tackle Anthony “Tank” Booker Jr. (645-655 pounds) and walk-on offensive lineman Brooks Edmonson (625). He also said projected starting right tackle Patrick Kutas is a 600-pound squatter.
His numbers aren’t quite that high because he’s a linebacker, but Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. is another player who stood out in the weight room. He squads in the mid-500s, power cleans 340-345 and benches more than 365. Paul’s gains resulted in him bulking up from 215 to 231 (16 pounds), all while still running 21-plus mph.
“You can’t play linebacker at 215 and run 20 mph and only be a subpar squatter,” Sowders said. “You have to check all the boxes. We’re trying to push that envelope every day.”
Bigger, Stronger AND Faster
Rocket Sanders burst onto the scene last season by rushing for more than 1,400 yards. He did that as a relatively big back, listed at 227 pounds.
Now considered one of the top returning running backs in the country, Sanders is listed at 242 – an increase of 15 pounds – but Sam Pittman said he wasn’t concerned about the additional weight.
“Can’t do nothing about it – you’d have to cut skin,” Pittman said with a laugh. “I mean, you pinch him and nothing moves. There’s nothing you can do about it. We talked to the nutritionist about it and we talked to Ben about it. He’s 242 and there’s no fat there.”
Sowders detailed some of his incredible strength on Friday, revealing that he squats in the mid-500s (and – like Beaux Limmer – probably could have done more if they really pushed it) and increased his power clean from around 305-310 pounds to 350 in a span of just 9-10 weeks.
Those gains not only had no negative impact on his speed, but Sanders went from running about 20.03 mph last year to now running 20.93 mph – an increase of nearly 1 mph.
“That’s the difference between a 25- or 30-yard run or a 50-yard touchdown, which goes back to explosive plays,” Sowders said. “But Rocket, man, unbelievable kid, unbelievable human being.
“If you could model a guy that you’d want your son to be after, that would be the guy. I mean, he just does everything right. Class act. Wish we had more of him.”
Standout Freshmen for Arkansas Football
Among the group of true freshmen, Ben Sowders said the midyear enrollees at defensive back – Jaylon Braxton, Dylan Hasz, RJ Johnson, TJ Metcalf and Dallas Young – were impressive, but didn’t mention any of them by name.
The one defender he specifically named was defensive end Quincy Rhodes Jr. Despite not arriving on campus until this summer, the North Little Rock product gained about 15 pounds, now weighing 289, and “looks the part.”
On the other side of the ball, Sowders singled out running back Isaiah Augustave for how well he can move and his strength at his size, as well as wide receiver Davion Dozier for how well he can run.
Since going through spring ball, tight end Luke Hasz has put on about 20 pounds and Sowders said you can see it in his legs and upper body, which is important at his position.
He hasn’t been here long enough to experience that kind of weight gain yet, but the other tight end in Arkansas’ 2023 class, Shamar Easter, impressed Sowders with his sheer speed.
“I didn’t know how he could really run,” Sowders said. “I mean, kid ran like 21.7 (mph). Pretty good as a tight end, right? Because in this league, it’s typically going to be a safety or a ‘backer on a tight end, so that creates an advantage for us.”
Watch Arkansas strength and conditioning coach Ben Sowders’ full interview here:
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