FAYETTEVILLE — If Saturday’s win was any indication, Sam Pittman hit a home run with his third crop of transfers since becoming the Arkansas football coach.
Seemingly every player the No. 19 Razorbacks added out of the portal this offseason delivered at one point or another in a 31-24 win over No. 23 Cincinnati at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
From forcing critical turnovers on defense to making tough plays on offense, the 10-man class — which ranked 10th nationally, according to 247Sports — did a little bit of everything to help Arkansas win the top-25 showdown.
“Man, I’m just happy for those guys,” tight end Trey Knox said. “They work just as hard as we do. It’s not easy to go to a new place and make new friends. It’s not easy to do it whatsoever. I just applaud those guys because they really came in and they made us a better team.”
Making the Razorbacks a better team might be an understatement considering their play Saturday afternoon, which also indicated the group was perhaps even underrated by the experts.
It’s never wise to jump to conclusions following just one game, but it does appear safe to say that Pittman’s hit-rate with this transfer class was higher than previous years.
Sure, the Razorbacks benefited greatly from guys like Feleipe Franks in 2020 and John Ridgeway, Tre Williams and Warren Thompson in 2021, but they also added transfers who never saw the field, struggled when they did play or otherwise made a minimal impact.
“I’m proud we have them and the coaches did a really good job of getting them ready to play,” Pittman said, shifting the credit away from himself as he so often does.
Here’s a closer look at just how important the transfers were in Arkansas’ first season-opening game between two ranked teams in 42 years…
Pair of Game-Altering Turnovers
Just as ESPN’s play-by-play announcer Dave Flemming was commenting about the Razorbacks’ apparent lack of a pass rusher early in the fourth quarter, defensive end Jordan Domineck put on a clinic on what was arguably the biggest play of the game.
The Georgia Tech transfer beat Cincinnati’s left tackle and hit quarterback Ben Bryant — a transfer himself for the Bearcats — just before he started to attempt a pass, knocking the ball loose. It was on the ground for a couple of seconds before Domineck also scooped it up for the recovery following the strip sack.
“Starting out, he goes upfield, hit them with a spin move back inside, strips the ball out, picks it up,” linebacker Bumper Pool said. “It was a textbook defensive end play. Just stuff like that is going to be a part of our DNA. I was excited to see that flash the first game.”
What made it such an important play was that Cincinnati was in Arkansas territory with a chance to tie the game, trailing 24-17. The Bearcats had just sacked KJ Jefferson on back-to-back plays to force a punt and got a 30-yard return. Momentum was fully on their side.
Instead, it quickly swung back in favor of the Razorbacks. Getting the ball near midfield, they needed just two plays to get in the end zone and push their lead to 14. Cincinnati never got the ball back with a chance to tie, and neither of ESPN’s announcers – Dave Flemming or Rod Gilmore – ever mentioned Arkansas’ supposed lack of a pass rush again.
“Anytime you go up two scores, there’s about — at least until you kick off — there’s about *this* much ‘whew,’ and that’s what it gave us,” Pittman said. “It was huge. I mean, they were on the 50, I believe.”
Earlier in the game, Dwight McGlothern came up with a potentially game-altering turnover of his own when he jumped in front of a Bryant pass and returned it for 51 yards.
“That’s a play that we watched in film,” safety Simeon Blair said. “We do a lot of film study together, whether that’s on our own, with the coaches or after in the hotel room. We watched that play 100 times and he saw the play, broke on it and set us up in a big position.”
The interception came on Cincinnati’s first possession after forcing an Arkansas punt and, had the LSU transfer not made the play, it very well could have scored to take an early lead and given the game a completely different feel.
The Bearcats had already converted three third downs and covered 59 yards. They were knocking on the door of the red zone and seemingly within field goal range — albeit with a shaky kicker who went 1 for 3 on the day. Instead, the Razorbacks got the ball back at the 29-yard line and scored three plays later to go up 7-0.
“Nudie picked it off and got us headed in the right direction — we went down and scored, I think, right after that,” Pittman said. “So that was big because they were converting third downs on us.”
Although he did get beat on a deep ball that likely would have been a touchdown with an accurate throw, McGlothern had another pass breakup on one of the Razorbacks’ three-and-outs and finished with four tackles.
A More Aggressive Defense
While there were stretches of the game it seemed like Ben Bryant had plenty of time to work in the pocket, there were others that Arkansas got into the backfield and pressured him. The Razorbacks even managed three sacks — a number they hit in just six of 13 games last year and two of 10 games in 2020.
Transfers were in on all three of those plays, with Domineck and linebacker Drew Sanders notching solo sacks and Landon Jackson being credited with half of a sack.
“I thought Barry (Odom) was really aggressive calling the defense,” Pittman said. “Jordan Domineck had his sack — his sack fumble…that was a big play — I think Landon Jackson had a sack, as well, and so did Drew Sanders, so those were maybe three more than he was getting last year.”
Jackson, an LSU transfer, combined with veteran Zach Williams on his sack, as they took down Bryant for a loss of 12 yards on the final play of the third quarter. It came after a big play got the Bearcats down to the 21 and put them behind the chains, eventually resulting in a punt.
Sanders actually had the first sack of the game, blowing past Cincinnati’s left tackle and bulldozing the running back on his way to a blindside sack of Bryant on third down, completing the three-and-out that included McGlothern’s pass breakup.
“He came outside on the fanned-out tackle and then the back came over to him too, but neither one of them had much success on him,” Pittman said. “He just ran over the back. He’s a key to our defense. I think he’s a really, really good player.”
That was the only time Sanders got home, but he got pretty close to a few other sacks and tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Instead, he had to settle for five total tackles with the one sack, which earned him a “monster” description from teammate Trey Knox.
It wasn’t a sack, but one of Arkansas State transfer Terry Hampton’s three tackles was for a loss. That stat line doesn’t do his performance justice, though, as he “was a force,” Knox said, with generating a nice push in the middle of the Razorbacks’ defensive line. He also had to play a larger role that probably expected because starter Isaiah Nichols missed time with an injury.
Impact in the Arkansas Football Passing Game
Arkansas football used scholarships on only two offensive transfers, but both played a huge role in Saturday’s win. Jadon Haselwood and Matt Landers put up nearly identical stat lines, combining for six receptions and 85 yards.
Early on, Landers — who began his career at Georgia before playing at Toledo last year — was KJ Jefferson’s go-to target. In fact, he caught a tough pass over the middle for 17 yards on the first play of the season. Later in the quarter, his 20-yard catch set up the game’s first touchdown.
The only time Arkansas targeted him and he didn’t come up with it came on a deep ball in the second quarter immediately after Cincinnati’s second missed field goal. He had a chance to catch it, but the Bearcats’ cornerback, Ja’quan Sheppard, made a great play to break it up. Landers’ final catch was for 6 yards and a first down in the fourth quarter, giving him three receptions for 43 yards.
“We opened up the game with him and he caught a couple of balls early,” Pittman said. “I think he had one more during the game, but Matt Landers I thought showed them he’s a hard guy to cover.”
The most memorable play by the transfer receivers, though, came courtesy of Haselwood. The Oklahoma transfer made a tremendous catch on a back-shoulder throw from Jefferson for a 19-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter that put Arkansas up 21-7.
“When I brought him in motion and I saw it was man, I actually told him, like, ‘Go in,’” Jefferson said. “It was one-on-one, one high safety, I just wanted to make sure I established and give him space to work and give a good ball. He made play on the ball and it resulted in a touchdown.”
Pittman also praised Haselwood for taking a pop pass 17 yards on the play immediately after Jordan Domineck’s strip sack. That was his third and final reception, giving him 42 yards in his Arkansas football debut.
Latavious Brini Fills In for Jalen Catalon
Despite starting several games for one of college football’s all-time best defenses at Georgia last year and being considered an NFL Draft prospect, Latavious Brini didn’t find himself in the starting lineup Saturday.
However, the Razorbacks clearly value him as a safety because he rotated in for Jalen Catalon on a couple of series in the first half and he’s the extra defensive back who comes in when they go to their dime package. That said, he probably didn’t expect to have as big of a role as he did against Cincinnati.
That’s because Catalon, a team captain and preseason All-American, went down with an injury early in the third quarter. Brini stepped in to his spot and finished the game with five tackles.
“I feel like he did a great job,” fellow safety Simeon Blair said. “Stepping in for Cat is no easy duty. Cat makes a lot of plays for our defense. He’s the leader. He’s our captain. Brini came in and he did what he was supposed to do. He kept his eyes on his keys. We all made mistakes back there, which we’re going to clean up, but I feel like he did a wonderful job for us.”
Depth, Versatility Allows Razorbacks to be Truly Multiple
Coaches across the country, particularly defensive coordinators, like to talk about being “multiple” on defenses — meaning using a variety of fronts and formations.
The Razorbacks did mix it up some last season, using both three- and four-man fronts, but it was typically one or the other from game to game and they almost always had just two linebackers on the field at any given time.
On Saturday, they switched seamlessly between 4-2-5 nickel, 3-2-6 dime and 3-3-5 nickel packages, with the latter being something previously only seen in practice. It involved bringing in Chris Paul Jr. as the third linebacker and essentially using Drew Sanders as an edge rusher.
Sanders, the former five-star recruit and transfer from Alabama, has a unique skillset that Barry Odom hasn’t had at his disposal the last two years at Arkansas. Even Jordan Domineck is a valuable pass rusher at the defensive end spot when it comes to mixing up fronts.
“Jordan Domineck, he plays kind of the same spot when we go in our three down with Drew up on the line,” Pittman said. “He’s got a lot of value. We really didn’t have that guy to get into that front in the past. I think it helped us. … Those guys make us a little more versatile. I mean, obviously today we did a lot of things we didn’t do last year.”
Having a guy like Terry Hampton at defensive tackle also gives Arkansas more depth to use four-man fronts, as one reason it used so many three-man fronts last season was because they lacked the numbers at that position.
Walk-Ons Make Presence Felt
It may have gone unnoticed by the average Arkansas football fan, but Jake Bates won the battle with Cam Little to be the Razorbacks’ kickoff specialist and had a solid debut.
The Texas State transfer — who actually began his career as a soccer player at Central Arkansas, where he won a national player of the week award — booted five of his six kickoffs for touchbacks, with several of them sailing through the back of the end zone with no chance of a return. At 83.3 percent, that is just under Vito Calvaruso’s impressive 85.1 percent mark last season.
Of course, the one time Bates failed to kick it at least several yards into the end zone, Tre Tucker fielded it at the goal line and returned it 29 yards, essentially giving Cincinnati an extra four yards of field position compared to a touchback.
The only transfer who didn’t play at all Saturday was walk-on quarterback Cade Fortin, the South Florida transfer who began his career on scholarship at North Carolina. However, it’s worth noting that his performance this spring and in fall camp is what gave the coaches a certain level of comfort with Arkansas’ quarterback depth, allowing them to give backup quarterback Malik Hornsby some run at wide receiver.
That package got some use against Cincinnati, as Hornsby was the fifth wide receiver the Razorbacks used. He split out wide and ran routes, took one snap from under center and handed it off, and also caught a backward pass to start what was drawn up as a double pass, but he ultimately tucked it and picked up 13 yards.
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