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ESPN’s Loss of Faith in Hogs is a Blessing in Disguise

Simeon Blair, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

After last week’s disappointing loss to Texas A&M, the Arkansas football team understandably tumbled in the polls. The Razorbacks’ two-week stint in the top 10 ended and they fell all the way to No. 20 in the AP Poll, while checking in at No. 19 in the Coaches Poll.

The drop in the human polls was nothing compared to the computers. Arkansas fell significantly in ESPN’s Football Power Index, landing at No. 42 – just two spots in front of Western Kentucky. In the SEC, the Razorbacks are ranked ninth out of 14 teams, with Auburn the only SEC West team behind them.

It seems as though the FPI has written off Arkansas, anticipating it to have a tough remainder of the season. However, that isn’t the end-all, be-all. Despite what big sports media says, Arkansas could still potentially have a very good season, even improving on last year’s 9-4 record. This could be right where head coach Sam Pittman wants his team’s mindset.

What ESPN’s Algorithm Says 

The Football Power Index is ESPN’s predictive power rating algorithm that takes a team’s strengths and weaknesses and uses that to predict matchups played on a neutral field. This allows the system to simulate a team’s entire season, then rank them and set odds on specific records based on their performance in the simulation.

At the moment, Arkansas is projected to win only 6 games by the FPI. That’s just three more wins the rest of the season. On top of that, the FPI gives the Razorbacks a minuscule 0.3% chance to win the SEC West and a 0% chance to win the overall conference title.

The reason for Arkansas’ significant drop in the FPI isn’t just the loss to Texas A&M, but is also likely aided by its defensive woes this season. The Razorbacks have one of the worst pass defenses in the country, allowing 302.3 yards per game through the air. Only five FBS teams are giving up more, which is actually better than where they were entering last week – dead last. That is because of a better showing against the Aggies, but Arkansas still gave up large yardage plays in critical situations.

Regardless of those defensive woes, the FPI and AP drops feel like an insult to many Arkansas football fans. Throughout the offseason and during the first few weeks of the season, the hype around the program was real.

Arkansas was considered by some as the third-best team in the SEC. There were hopes and talks about how this could be the year that Arkansas snaps its 15-game losing streak against Alabama. Now it seems – after only one loss – the script has flipped for Pittman’s team. Many major sports outlets have lost faith in the Razorbacks, considering their season all but over.

Arkansas Football Brings the “Chips” 

According to the FPI, Arkansas has just a 6.9% chance to beat Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Despite the fact that the game will be played in front of a packed Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Vegas has installed the Razorbacks as a 17.5-point underdog.

Especially with the game being in Fayetteville, those are tough odds for an Arkansas team that was so highly praised by everyone going into the season. But this is where Arkansas shines the most – with its backs against the wall, written off and forgotten.

Although it’s tough to no longer be in the top 10, and the loss to Texas A&M still stings, this could be right where Pittman wants his team mentally. Arkansas has thrived under his leadership, and part of that is because of the underdog mentality that he instills in his players.

For the last two seasons, the Razorbacks have played with a chip on their shoulder. In 2020, that chip led them to their first SEC wins in 2 years. The chip also led Arkansas to a 9-4 season in 2021, resulting in Arkansas playing in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, beating Penn State.

This year things looked a little different. Arkansas was expected to win games and was expected to contend in the West. It was hard for Arkansas to have that underdog mentality when there was so much hype and expectations around the team. The “chip” may have been there, but it was not the same chip from the last two years.

Combine the team’s emotions from last week with the loss of faith in the Hogs nationally, and Pittman has the recipe for the largest “chip” he’s ever cooked up. It’s almost a guarantee that he’ll have his team ready to go this weekend, re-instilling that underdog mentality, and certainly bringing the chips to the game.

Looking Past the FPI

ESPN’s FPI is a very complex and intricate system. It’s capable of running tens of thousands of simulations of a single game or season, calculating every player, play call and almost every possible on-field variable.

However, this has always been deceptive because there is one thing the FPI does not consider. The FPI doesn’t take into account the human factor of the game. It is impossible for any algorithm to effectively calculate the effects of human emotions – the wild momentum swings, the emotions and passion of the fans, the motivation and heart of the players on the field. These things are impossible to quantify on a computer. Only living, breathing people can truly understand that.

The FPI plays games with 1s and 0s, Xs and Os. Arkansas plays games with living people, who have a drive and emotions, and a willingness to win. In college football, wild things can happen any given Saturday. Even if Arkansas loses this weekend, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Arkansas to finish the year 9-3 or even 10-2.

Pittman won’t let his team’s morale collapse. Arkansas will fight in every game they’re in. As we progress forward in the season, do not let the FPI and the big-time analysts scare you. Look past it all and remember that games are sometimes decided by the emotion and heart of the players, not ESPN’s million-dollar football algorithm.

Regardless of the results of this weekend’s game, assume a big bounce back from the Hogs.  Expect Pittman to have his players fired up and ready to roll against the Tide. As game day approaches, any Razorback fan should be excited, as we look past the FPI and bring the chips. Arkansas should hold on to its underdog mentality and prove to the nation that the Hogs should not have been written off. Look for the Razorbacks to keep this mindset not just for this game, but for the remainder of the season.

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More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

In-Depth Report on 10 of Razorbacks’ 19 Scholarship True Freshmen

Rashod Dubinion, Arkansas football
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

The Arkansas football team is a quarter of the way through the 2022 season, which means it has reached the important four-game mark.

While most of the attention this week is understandably focused on the top-20 showdown with No. 2 Alabama, the Razorbacks also have a few decisions to make regarding the redshirt status of a handful of true freshmen.

Seven of the 19 players Arkansas signed out of high school in the 2022 class have appeared in all four games, which means they would burn their redshirt by making one more appearance this season, while three others have also played in at least one game.

“You really don’t ever decide to redshirt somebody to be honest with you,” head coach Sam Pittman said this week when asked about the decision process. “I think it just kind of happens.”

Last season, the Razorbacks played 11 of their 21 scholarship true freshmen, but only five of them burned their redshirt by appearing in more than four games.

Now true sophomores, those five players — running backs AJ Green and Rocket Sanders, wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr., defensive back Jayden Johnson and kicker Cam Little — have played big roles on this year’s team, so tracking how Arkansas uses the four-game redshirt rule can give an idea of how Pittman and his staff view the players’ roles in the future.

Here’s a breakdown of the true freshmen for Arkansas football through the first four games of 2022…

On Verge of Burning Redshirt for Arkansas Football

LB Jordan Crook

  • Games played: 4
  • Snaps: 16 on D / 64 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 64.9 (D) / 66.2 (ST)
  • Stats: 2 tackles (2 solo)

No true freshman on the defensive side of the ball received as much praise throughout spring ball and fall camp as Jordan Crook. The talented linebacker from Duncanville, Texas, quickly asserted himself as a potential contributor and now seems to be the No. 4 linebacker on the team.

However, Drew Sanders and Bumper Pool have accounted for 87.5 percent of the Razorbacks’ total linebacker snaps so far this season and will likely continue to do so as long as they stay healthy. When they go to three-linebacker sets, Chris Paul Jr. is who usually enters the game. That doesn’t leave very many snaps to go around, but Crook has already played more than Paul did as a true freshman last year.

In addition to his defensive contributions, Crook also has a big role on special teams. He has played on the kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return and punt coverage units.

DT Nico Davillier

  • Games played: 4
  • Snaps: 4 on D / 19 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 47.9 (D) / 59.8 (ST)
  • Stats: none

While Crook received the most attention among defensive true freshmen this offseason, Nico Davillier made a push for that title despite being a summer enrollee who didn’t go through spring ball. Largely thanks to injuries on the interior defensive line, the four-star recruit out of Maumelle shifted inside to defensive tackle from defensive end and immediately turned heads. Pittman went so far as to say he wouldn’t be redshirting.

Through the first four games, though, Davillier has gotten in on defense just once, playing four snaps against Texas A&M. He appears to be fifth in the pecking order at defensive tackle, behind Isaiah Nichols, Eric Gregory, Terry Hampton and Cam Ball. Where most of Davillier’s action has come is on special teams as a member of the field goal block unit.

RB Rashod Dubinion

  • Games played: 4
  • Snaps: 34 on O
  • PFF Grade: 69.7 (O)
  • Stats: 14 carries, 54 yards, 1 TD; 1 reception, 29 yards

On the other side of the ball, Rashod Dubinion showcased his skillset — which earned him a four-star rating coming out of high school — as soon as he stepped on campus back in January. His shiftiness seemed to set him apart in a loaded backfield and has earned him somewhat consistent playing time as a true freshman.

Just this week, Sam Pittman praised Dubinion for his toughness and said the Razorbacks would like to get him some more carries, even though Rocket Sanders leads the SEC in rushing and AJ Green and Dominique Johnson have also played well.

“I know we’ve talked about AJ and Dominque and of course Rocket, but that’s the one right there that I would like to see get more carries in a game,” Pittman said. “He certainly had a couple of really nice carries in the A&M game and that’s the one we probably need to learn a little bit more about.”

Those carries against the Aggies came in the fourth quarter and included an impressive 14-yard run that got Arkansas into the red zone, setting up the touchdown that pulled it within 23-21 with about 10 minutes remaining.

Dubinion’s impact was felt immediately, as he caught a screen pass and picked up 29 yards on his first collegiate snap against Cincinnati. The next week, against South Carolina, he found the end zone for the first time.

“It’s a little bit more of a change-up,” Pittman said. “It’s a guy who can cut on a dime and things of that nature. It’s just a different back. Of course that would change it up immediately, but his running style is very unique, and we trust him.”

P Max Fletcher

  • Games played: 4
  • Snaps: 18 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 76.1 (ST — punting)
  • Stats: 18 punts, 37.2-yard average, 7 fair caught, 6 pinned inside the 20, 1 touchback; 1 tackle (1 solo)

One of the position battles that went down to the wire was at punter and Max Fletcher eventually beat out the incumbent, fifth-year senior Reid Bauer. The Australian has got off some booming punts, but Pittman described him as “inconsistent” and said he still needs to punt like he does in practice.

That’s probably a fair description, as Fletcher has three punts of less than 30 yards that weren’t pinned inside the 20 and gave the opposing team excellent field position. Two of those were against Texas A&M. 

“He was trying to keep him from returning the ball so much that…it’s like a pitcher aiming the ball versus just throwing it,” Pittman said. “He had a couple of nice punts and they didn’t have any return yardage, but on two of them there was a reason, because they were 30-yard punts, 28-yard punts.”

It’s also worth noting that his lone 50-yard punt went into the end zone for a touchback. If that’s factored into his yardage, Fletcher’s average dips to just 36.1 yards. Even with a 37.2-yard average, Fletcher ranks 71st among 74 qualified FBS punters.

However, Fletcher’s 76.1 grade on Pro Football Focus is second among 16 SEC punters and tied for seventh among 88 Power Five punters. He is likely boosted by the fact that six of his punts have been pinned inside the 20 and only three have been returned.

OL Patrick Kutas

  • Games played: 4
  • Snaps: 34 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 63.5 (ST)
  • Stats: none

Originally recruited by the Razorbacks as a defensive tackle, Patrick Kutas eventually signed as an offensive lineman. Even though the other three offensive line signees enrolled early and went through spring ball, it was Kutas who established himself as the most ready-to-play freshman during fall camp.

That was illustrated by the fact that Sam Pittman moved him to center when there were some injuries at the position. The former offensive line coach said it was a strategic move. While he was likely pretty far down the depth chart at center and struggled with snaps, playing the position forced him to quickly learn the offense and prepare him for season.

Although he’s listed as the backup center on the depth chart, there would likely need to be numerous injuries before he played the position. It would be much more likely for him to play either of the guard positions. So far this season, though, Kutas has been limited to special teams, playing on the punt coverage and field goal units.

LS Eli Stein

  • Games played: 4
  • Snaps: 40 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 67.7 (ST)
  • Stats: 1 tackle (1 solo)

One true freshman who has started every game yet hasn’t had his name mentioned by anyone through four games is Eli Stein, and that’s a good thing considering he’s the long snapper.

The Wisconsin native has snapped for 18 punts, 18 extra points and four field goals, and has yet to have any issues. He has appeared on the stat sheet, though, as he is who finally knocked Tre Tucker out of bounds on his 30-yard punt return for Cincinnati in Week 1.

TE Ty Washington

  • Games played: 4
  • Snaps: 2 on O / 20 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 60.0 (O) / 60.2 (ST)
  • Stats: none

Although the media has seen him get more third-team reps at tight end than redshirt junior Hudson Henry, Ty Washington has seemingly been fourth in the pecking order as Arkansas has been conscious of his redshirt status.

Both of his offensive snaps came in the South Carolina game when Trey Knox was dealing with an injury and the Razorbacks went to a three-tight end set that also featured Nathan Bax and Henry on the field with him.

Other than that, Washington has been part of the kickoff return unit. That has given him 20 snaps, but only three of them resulted in any action because most kickoffs are touchbacks. Because of that, Pittman has made the decision to redshirt him, barring injury to the players in front of him.

“That would be the one guy that I told our staff, ‘Hey, listen, let’s take him off of special teams,’ and if we need him to play tight end to win a game, then we will go ahead and do that,” Pittman said. “If not, then his four games would be played.”

That’s probably a wise decision because he’s not exactly getting much use on the kickoff return unit and there aren’t a whole lot of tight end reps to be had. Knox has played 76.6 percent of Arkansas’ tight end snaps and Bax has played another 20.4 percent. That leaves only a handful of snaps for the rest and Henry has already used his redshirt.

Freshmen Who Have Played Fewer than 4 Games

WR Sam Mbake

  • Games played: 3
  • Snaps: 32 on ST
  • PFF Grade: n/a
  • Stats: none

It doesn’t show up in the box score, but Sam Mbake might have made the play of the season when his block of Missouri State’s gunner sprung Bryce Stephens’ 82-yard punt return. That play gave Arkansas its first lead of the game against Bobby Petrino and the Bears, helping it avoid an embarrassing upset loss to an FCS team.

Mbake opened the season as a member of just the kickoff coverage unit, but then joined the punt return unit in Week 3 after not playing against South Carolina and added punt coverage duties against Texas A&M.

(NOTE: His Pro Football Focus grade is unavailable because his snaps after Week 2 are credited to LaDarrius Bishop because he changed his jersey number from 17 to 11 after Bishop went down with a season-ending injury. It’s also worth noting that he’s credited with a tackle in the UA’s official stats, but it was actually Trey Knox — No. 7, not No. 17 — who made the tackle following KJ Jefferson’s interception against Missouri State.)

WR Quincey McAdoo

  • Games played: 2
  • Snaps: 8 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 38.7 (ST)
  • Stats: none

Although he’s played only eight special teams snaps as a member of the punt return unit and doesn’t have any official statistics, Quincey McAdoo has played a key role — both negatively and positively — on two plays.

Against Missouri State, he was flagged for holding to wipe out a 10-yard punt return by Bryce Stephens. The penalty — which essentially resulted in Arkansas losing 12 yards of field position — is likely the reason behind his low Pro Football Focus grade. The next week against Texas A&M, McAdoo made up for it by falling on the ball when Stephens muffed a punt.

LB Mani Powell

  • Games played: 2
  • Snaps: 10 on ST
  • PFF Grade: 62.6 (ST)
  • Stats: none

While he was a midyear enrollee, Mani Powell didn’t get to go through spring ball because he was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered early in his senior season at Fayetteville High. He was cleared for fall camp, though, and certainly looks the part of an SEC linebacker.

However, he is clearly behind five other players at the position — Pool, Sanders, Paul, Crook and Jackson Woodard — and likely won’t see any defensive snaps this season. He has played on the kickoff coverage unit against Missouri State and Texas A&M, though.

True Freshman Who Have Yet to Play for Arkansas Football

  • DB Anthony Brown
  • OL Andrew Chamblee — listed as backup left tackle, but did not travel for Texas A&M game
  • OL E’Marion Harris — listed as backup right guard, was on 70-man travel roster for Texas A&M
  • OL Eli Henderson
  • LB Kaden Henley — was on 70-man travel roster for Texas A&M
  • DE JJ Hollingsworth
  • RB James Jointer
  • DB Jaylen Lewis
  • WR Isaiah Sategna — been dealing with an ankle injury, did not dress vs. Missouri State or travel for Texas A&M game
  • QB Rykar Acebo*
  • WR Kamron Bibby*
  • OL Brock Burns*
  • DL Randall Dennis Jr.*
  • OL Brooks Edmonson*
  • K Blake Ford*
  • WR Kalil Girault*
  • OL Kai Hamilton*
  • DB Ethan Joseph*
  • LS Briggs Magee*
  • DB Landon Phipps*
  • DB John Paul Pickens*
  • LB Mason Schueck*
  • TE Hunter Talley*
  • DL Kyle Thompson*

*walk-on

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More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

Malik Hornsby and the One Box Sam Pittman Has Left Unchecked as a Head Coach

Malik Hornsby, Sam Pittman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

The statistics support that Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles is an effective play caller. 

The Hogs are ranked No. 6 in total offense in the 14-team SEC with 479 yards per game this fall and are No. 2 in rushing yards with 243.8 per game with the sensational Rocket Sanders leading the charge in the backfield. The Hogs are ninth in passing with 235.3 yards per game. That mark may be a little low considering Arkansas boasts veteran quarterback KJ Jefferson, but after losing the most dominant receiver in school history in Treylon Burks, a drop-off seemed likely. 

All in all, before last week’s upset loss to Texas A&M, Arkansas had won three straight games and was No. 10 in the nation and Briles looked to be manning the controls well. However, after the loss Saturday night at AT&T Stadium, some questioned Briles’ play calling. In particular, a trio of plays designed to get the ball to Malik Hornsby, a speedy quarterback-turned-receiver, drew the ire of fans.

Arkansas led 14-0 in the second quarter and was driving on the A&M 38-yard line. That’s when Briles decided to force the issue with Hornsby. First it was a batted pass intended for the Texas native, then an end around which lost a yard and a fumbled reverse that Hornsby managed to get back to the line of scrimmage with. 

The Hogs punted and A&M promptly answered with a touchdown. Jefferson fumbled on the next drive at the goal line, losing the ball while trying to jump into the end zone. The ball was retuned for a 97-yard score to tie the game. 

The fumble and resulting scoop-and-score really swung the pendulum of momentum. Arkansas didn’t score again until around 10 minutes to go in the game. However, the turning point may have come on the drive before. Instead of sticking to what was working and punching in another score to go up 21-0, Briles tried to get cute with Hornsby. That gave A&M new life, and they were able to score for the first time. If Arkansas went up 21-0, it’s doubtful A&M would have had enough spark to come back. 

Obviously, the fumble didn’t help and would have capped a solidly executed drive to put the Hogs back up by two TDs before the half. 

It is troubling that after those two disappointing drives, Arkansas’s offense was null and void for a good portion of the rest of the game.

Reflecting on the Malik Hornsby Conundrum

As I re-watched the game and scanned social media and listened to talk radio this week, a couple of things stood out. First, Hornsby’s name came up a lot. It seems like Briles can’t figure out how to work him in the offense. I’ve never been an offensive coordinator, but giving it to him three consecutive times doesn’t seem to be the answer.

The guy is a QB, so let him play the position. He was very effective running the ball against A&M last year and in the Outback Bowl win against Penn State. Have a package of plays that he can run for a few series or in the middle of a drive. Like many of these Wildcat formations, keep Jefferson in the game. The possibilities are limitless. 

It definitely appears Hornsby is more comfortable under center. That makes sense because he has been a signal caller since high school. If Briles really wants the ball in his hands so badly, snap it to him. His speed is lethal, and Arkansas needs to figure out a way to use him. The plays they ran with him don’t need to be scrapped, but the timing needs to be better. A play like that needs an element of surprise and needs to be flawlessly executed. Maybe more work needs to be done in practice?

Briles may also want to peek at what Kansas City Chiefs head coach did with Tyreek Hill. I am in no way implying that Hornsby is Hill or Jefferson is Patrick Mahomes, but Reid was masterful in working the duo together and calling plays that creatively used both players. One of the more innovative plays was the little shovel pass from Mahomes to Hill that is also used on occasion with star tight end Travis Kelce.

If Arkansas is going to use Hornsby at receiver, Briles needs to be more innovative and calculated and make sure the entire offense is prepared to run the play. Jefferson and Hornsby are both talented, and are capable of things that allow for the playbook to be wide open. 

The other take that stood out to me in a sea of opinions and rants this week was what I head from legendary Fayetteville TV personality Mike Irwin. The venerable anchor made some good points about the matter on his ‘Ask Mike’ segment, including if Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman should be more involved. He said Pittman’s ability to oversee play calling is the one box that Pittman, a longtime offensive line coach, hasn’t definitively checked since he’s been hired as a head coach.

Irwin’s point was that some head coaches such as Missouri State’s Bobby Petrino may not be calling plays, but they are managing the process. Irwin said the verdict may still be out on if Pittman has the ability to do that or not. 

Looking Ahead to Arkansas vs Alabama

My assumption is Pittman isn’t the micromanager type. But I imagine there was a conversation either at halftime or this week about not being too predictable with Hornsby. Briles has shown he is capable on his own, and I don’t think Pittman ever needs to interrupt the flow of the game, but definitely discussing how to use different players is an issue that needs input from him. I am confident he can add good insight and don’t buy into a notion that just because he coached the offensive line doesn’t mean he lacks some good offensive philosophy takes that could help Briles mold his game plan. 

The Hogs don’t have it easy this week as they try to rebound offensively with No. 2 Alabama coming to town Saturday afternoon, and if Arkansas isn’t in sync, it could be a long day. However, regardless of what happened in the A&M loss, Arkansas has a good football team and Pittman is a good coach with a good staff. Make no mistake, this is the best chance Arkansas has had to upset the Crimson Tide in a long time. 

Their chances will go up if Briles can call a solid game that includes a few wrinkles, Hornsby can get in the flow and if the execution is there.

More on Arkansas vs Alabama here:

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More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

5 Biggest Non-Conference Games on the 2022-23 Arkansas Basketball Schedule

Davonte Davis, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — The wait is finally over. With the SEC matchups and an exhibition game already set, the Razorbacks revealed their non-conference slate to complete the 2022-23 Arkansas basketball schedule.

According to The D1 Docket, a Twitter account that tracks such announcements, Arkansas was the 332nd Division I team — out of 363 — to release its non-conference basketball schedule. It comes after the 2023 SEC baseball schedule was released and recalled, and following the unveiling of the 2023 football schedule.

The delay likely won’t diminish the excitement surrounding this year’s squad, which is widely considered a preseason top-10 team and features a trio of McDonald’s All-Americans.

As usual, the Razorbacks are scheduled to play 13 non-conference games and an 18-game SEC slate, giving them 31 games in the regular season.

Not included in that number is arguably the most anticipated exhibition game in UA history, as Arkansas recently announced it would travel to Austin, Texas, for a matchup with former SWC rival — and future SEC foe — Texas on Oct. 29.

It will mark the opening of the Longhorns’ new Moody Center and tip off at 3 p.m. CT on the Longhorn Network. While the gridiron Longhorns are off that day, the Arkansas football team is playing at Auburn and the kickoff time has yet to be announced, so there could be conflict.

Without that conflict, and had it been added to the regular-season schedule, Texas would have a case to be the Razorbacks’ biggest non-conference game of the 2022-23 season. Not only are the Longhorns still considered a rival by many fans, but Arkansas’ Eric Musselman and Texas’ Chris Beard also have a coaching rivalry.

In the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Musselman and the Razorbacks won a thriller of Beard’s Texas Tech squad to clinch a spot in the Sweet 16. Back in 2017, Musselman’s Nevada team blew an 11-point second-half lead in Lubbock. He has since criticized the officiating in that game as helping Beard’s Texas Tech team win in overtime.

Alas, though, Arkansas vs Texas is an exhibition and won’t factor in to either team’s tournament resume come March. That will probably have to wait until Texas officially joins the SEC. However, the Razorbacks are getting another crack at another future conference foe, which leads off our list of their biggest non-conference games of 2022-23…

Dec. 10 — vs. Oklahoma (Tulsa, Okla.)

College basketball fans are getting an early glimpse of the Arkansas-Oklahoma rivalry thanks to the two teams agreeing to a non-conference series played in Tulsa, which is almost exactly halfway between the two campuses.

The series actually began last year, although Eric Musselman and the Razorbacks would probably like to forget the game ever happened. Heading to Tulsa with an undefeated 9-0 record and No. 12 ranking, Arkansas got obliterated 88-66.

The Sooners knocked down a whopping 13 of 22 (59.1%) attempts from beyond the arc and led by as many as 26. It was so ugly that Musselman decided to watch the final 3:30 from the locker room, as he was ejected after an animated argument with the officials.

It was the first of back-to-back embarrassing losses — more on the second loss below — but Arkansas eventually figured things out and made it back to the Elite Eight. Oklahoma went the other direction and ended its season with a home loss to St. Bonaventure in the second round of the NIT.

The second matchup in the series will provide Arkansas an opportunity for payback, even though only Dev Davis and Kamani Johnson are back from last year’s team. But rest assured, Musselman won’t forget how it went down and will have the team ready to go Dec. 10.

Jan. 28 — at Baylor (Waco, Texas)

Another game with rematch implications, Baylor ended Arkansas’ first Elite Eight run under Eric Musselman two years ago on its way to winning the 2021 national title.

It was probably the Bears’ toughest game during the NCAA Tournament and might have been closer had JD Notae stayed out of foul trouble and not fouled out with 13:38 remaining. Alas, it ended up being a 81-72 loss for Arkansas.

This year’s game has the potential to be a top-10 matchup, something the Razorbacks haven’t had in the regular season since their famous Super Bowl Sunday win over Kentucky in 1995.

Nov. 21-23 — Maui Invitational (Lahaina, Hawaii)

Could grouping three games together for a list of the biggest games be considered cheating? Sure, but we make the rules and it makes sense considering it’s not yet clear who Arkansas will be playing in each game.

What’s known so far is that the Razorbacks will open up the Maui Invitational against Louisville on Nov. 21. That sounds like a sexy matchup, but the Cardinals are coming off a 13-19 season and they aren’t expected to immediately return to relevance this year.

The much more intriguing matchups are in the next couple of games, but they won’t be determined until the bracket plays out. Arkansas will face either Creighton or Texas Tech in its second game — teams ranked No. 7 and No. 24, respectively, in ESPN’s latest “Way-Too-Early Top 25.”

The opposite side of the bracket, where the Razorbacks’ third opponent in Maui will come from, features No. 16 Arizona, No. 23 San Diego State, Cincinnati and Ohio State.

Nov. 7 — vs. North Dakota State (Bud Walton Arena)

It’s cliche to say one of the biggest games of the season is the first one on the schedule, but that is the case this year.

North Dakota State is a solid basketball program coming off a 23-10 season in which it was No. 152 in the KenPom ratings. It was the sixth time in 10 years that the Bison have won 20-plus games. They last made the NCAA Tournament in 2019, but were also going in 2020 before it was canceled.

The Summit League is nothing to scoff at, either, as it has proven to be a solid low-major conference in recent years. Just two years ago, Oral Roberts reached the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed. It’s also where Stanley Umude played — at South Dakota — before transferring to Arkansas.

It’s a game the Razorbacks should still win, but not one they can sleep-walk through and expect to avoid being upset.

A case could also be made for their third game of the season, as they’re set to host South Dakota State on Nov. 16. Another team out of the Summit League, the Jackrabbits actually went 30-5 last year and were No. 81 on KenPom.

That likely would have been the game we mentioned here, but South Dakota State did lost its start player. Baylor Scheierman was one of the top transfers of the offseason and, after considering Arkansas, landed at Creighton.

Dec. 17 — vs. Bradley (North Little Rock)

Again, this doesn’t seem like an attractive non-conference matchup, but it’s the annual game at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock — where the Razorbacks have traditionally struggled — and Bradley is a solid team.

Despite a 17-14 overall record, the Braves cracked the top 100 on KenPom last year. They went 11-7 in conference play, which was good for fifth in the 10-team Missouri Valley, another solid mid-major conference.

It’s a similar resume to Hofstra last season, which went 21-11, ranked No. 120 on KenPom and finished third in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association. The Pride, of course, handed Arkansas its second straight loss by winning 89-81 in North Little Rock.

That loss dropped the Razorbacks’ record to 12-10 all-time inside the building formerly known as Alltel and Verizon Arena. They have also lost to the likes of Mercer, UAB and Appalachian State at the venue.

Bradley will enter the game on an 11-day layoff, while Arkansas has a 7-day layoff. With star freshman and North Little Rock product Nick Smith Jr. leading the way, the Razorbacks will be trying to avoid another embarrassing loss in the central part of the state.

What is Arkansas' biggest non-conference game of 2022-23?

Full 2022-23 Arkansas Basketball Schedule

DateOpponentLocationTime (CT)TV
Oct. 16Red-White GameBarnhill ArenaTBATBA
Oct. 29Texas (exhibition)Austin, Texas3 p.m.Longhorn Network
Nov. 7North Dakota StateBud Walton ArenaTBATBA
Nov. 11FordhamBud Walton ArenaTBATBA
Nov. 16South Dakota StateBud Walton ArenaTBATBA
Nov. 21Louisville^Lahaina, Hawaii4 p.m.ESPN2
Nov. 22Texas Tech or Creighton^Lahaina, HawaiiTBAESPN or ESPN2
Nov. 23TBA^Lahaina, HawaiiTBAESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU
Nov. 28TroyBud Walton ArenaTBATBA
Dec. 3San Jose StateBud Walton ArenaTBATBA
Dec. 6UNC GreensboroBud Walton ArenaTBATBA
Dec. 10OklahomaTulsa, Okla.NoonESPN
Dec. 17Bradley (&)North Little Rock3 p.m.n/a
Dec. 21UNC AshevilleBud Walton ArenaTBATBA
Dec. 28LSU*Baton Rouge, La.8 p.m.ESPN2 or ESPNU
Jan. 4Missouri*Bud Walton Arena7:30 p.m.SEC Network
Jan. 7Auburn*Auburn, Ala.7:30 p.m.SEC Network
Jan. 11Alabama*Bud Walton Arena6 p.m.ESPN2 or ESPNU
Jan. 14Vanderbilt*Nashville, Tenn.1 p.m.ESPN2 or ESPNU
Jan. 18Missouri*Columbia, Mo.8 p.m.SEC Network
Jan. 21Ole Miss*Bud Walton Arena11 a.m.ESPN2
Jan. 24LSU*Bud Walton Arena6 p.m.ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU
Jan. 28Baylor (#)Waco, Texas3 or 5 p.m.ESPN
Jan. 31Texas A&M*Bud Walton Arena6 p.m.ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU
Feb. 4South Carolina*Columbia, S.C.2:30 p.m.SEC Network
Feb. 7Kentucky*Lexington, Ky.8 p.m.ESPN or ESPN2
Feb. 11Mississippi State*Bud Walton Arena5 p.m.ESPN2 or ESPNU
Feb. 15Texas A&M*College Station, Texas8 p.m.ESPN2 or ESPNU
Feb. 18Florida*Bud Walton Arena1 p.m.ESPN or ESPN2
Feb. 21Georgia*Bud Walton Arena8 p.m.SEC Network
Feb. 25Alabama*Tuscaloosa, Ala.1 or 3 p.m.ESPN or ESPN2
Feb. 28Tennessee*Knoxville, Tenn.8 p.m.ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU
March 4Kentucky*Bud Walton Arena1 p.m.CBS
March 8-12SEC TournamentNashville, Tenn.TBATBA
March 16-
April 3
NCAA TournamentTBA
(Final Four: Houston)
TBATBA
HOME | Neutral | *SEC game | ^Maui Invitational | & – Simmons Bank Arena | # – Big 12/SEC Challenge

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

Mike Irwin Addresses Hunter Yurachek/Greg Sankey Rumor On Air

Greg Sankey

Last Saturday, Arkansas football fans gritted their teeth as they saw their favorite team repeatedly beat themselves and essentially hand the game over to Texas A&M. While such self-immolation is worse than seeing the other team win because they simply played a better, cleaner and more inspired game, things actually could have gone to a lower ring of Hell for the Razorback faithful. 

In a more egregious world, the SEC office could have played a role in the loss. Of all the conspiracy theories to which Arkansas fans most tenaciously cling, after all, the idea that the SEC has it out for them is perhaps the most persistent. Just going back to 2020, we see a host of events that have set off three thousand smashings of keyboards and 30,000 furious Tweets. They include:

Even last year, during the Arkansas vs Alabama game, a controversy erupted when it appeared that the SEC referees were trying to stymie one of Arkansas’ early drives in the red zone. “Hell they aren’t even trying to hide the crap today,” longtime Arkansas football reporter Otis Kirk Tweeted. “This is beyond obvious. Pass those hats at the tailgates after the game and give it to the refs. Bonus money today in Tuscaloosa.”

Given how often these issues arise, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more referee-related hubbub erupt during this Saturday’s game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 20 Arkansas in Fayetteville. The frequency of these perceived slights is enough to make some fans wonder if such decisions seemingly against Arkansas (and often in favor of a school much closer to the SEC’s Birmingham office) will ever diminish and, if so, how?

“I don’t think it’s going to change until you get somebody in that office that has some pull who is a Razorback fan,” says Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin, the longtime Razorback sportscaster.

In order to lay out how this theoretically would happen, Irwin touched on a rumor he says is circulating in SEC football circles. 

Hunter Yurachek and Greg Sankey 

Yurachek’s track record as a successful athletic director is no secret. 

He has made stellar hires in Sam Pittman and Eric Musselman after a no-brainer firing of Chad Morris, but a much more difficult firing of Mike Anderson. In 2021-22, the 53-year-old also presided over the most successful season in Arkansas athletics since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1991.

Recent athletic success, combined with high graduation rates among student-athletes, is a big reason Yurachek received a national athletics director of the year award awarded by his peers in March. 

The honors may not stop there, according to Irwin. In a recent “Ask Mike,” Irwin refers to a rumor that Yurachek is slated to replace Greg Sankey as SEC commissioner if and when Sankey leaves in the coming years to take over as the leader of a still-hypothetical association over the biggest Power 5 schools that would supplant the NCAA as college football’s chief governing body (the College Football Playoff’s board of managers have already discussed this possibility).

Irwin said he’s asked Razorback representatives about this rumor but was told “they don’t know anything about it,” which isn’t surprising in the least considering the multiple pieces at play and there’s no reason to acknowledge something that may not happen until many years out anyway. 

Still, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine Greg Sankey rising to fulfill such a national leader role given the SEC’s primacy among conferences and his experience as “the most powerful man in college sports.” 

Although Sankey had been an associate athletic director before taking over for his predecessor, Mike Slive, in 2015, previous SEC commissioner rose from athletic director ranks. The most notable example is Roy Kramer, who rose from Vanderbilt AD to that position in 1990 and oversaw the inclusion of Arkansas and South Carolina into the SEC.

Sankey is asked about becoming a national leader at 16:50

Case for Hunter Yurachek as SEC Commissioner

Whoever takes over as the next SEC commissioner needs to be innovative and forward-thinking in an increasingly complex and professionalized college sports landscape. Yurachek has already checked off those boxes in a few ways.

For one, he has pioneered that “One Razorback” movement to build strength across the athletic department. The head coaches of almost all of the Arkansas sports are regularly seen at each other’s games and support each other on social media. Take Sam Pittman, for instance, who has helped Courtney Deifel recruit for the Arkansas softball team.

That sort of collaboration-first mindset is one reason Yurachek is widely regarded among the nation’s best athletic directors and could also potentially make a good commissioner. 

He’s also shown a desire to learn about pro sports and think about how principles from that realm could be applied to a college sports world where players more and more resemble professional athletes. No question, Yurachek foresaw how Eric Musselman’s experience coaching in the NBA and G-League could benefit an Arkansas basketball program in an age where the transfer portal becomes increasingly important. 

Yurachek has also repeatedly criticized the hefty contract amounts – and especially the buyout clauses –  for relatively unproven head college football coaches. That’s why Yurachek made sure, in Pittman’s first contract, Pittman would only get paid big-time money if won at a big-time level. 

Hunter Yurachek and the Future of SEC Football?

“I think we have done a subpar job as administrators in college athletics and managing contracts,” Yurachek said at a recent Little Rock Touchdown Club. “Think of NFL, NBA, major league baseball coaches. You don’t hear about them revisiting their contracts every two or three years when they have some success. When they have incentives in their contracts and they have a five year contract, they’ll start renegotiating that after year four. And because you can’t tamper – you can’t play another NFL team off of another NFL team – because you’ll get in trouble for tampering as an organization.” (At this point, most Arkansas football fans are already thinking about Gus Malzahn’s flirtation with Arkansas and leveraging that for bigger money at Auburn.)

Yurachek continued: “Well, we don’t have that in college athletics, where a coach or their representative can threaten ‘Hey, this coach is going to go to this school if you don’t pay him this.’ And we have caved to that form of negotiation in college athletics and that has been bad for us, in my opinion.”

In an interview with David Bazzel, Yurachek then pointed out the lack of extreme buyouts in pro sports: “The Cowboys, I think, gross over $900 million as an organization. They pay their head football coach $4 million. I asked [Jerry] Jones a question: “Why do you pay your coach $4 million?” He said “Because that’s coming out of my pocket.” And that’s a great answer. Why is the Cowboys’ coach making $4 million but we have college coaches making over $10 million? Doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Just as the Razorbacks’ pull with Jerry Jones, a UA alum, has helped the Arkansas football program over the years, it’s interesting to ponder the effect of Yurachek as SEC commissioner on the team’s fortunes.

In that scenario, “you’re losing probably the best AD you’ve had certainly since Frank Broyles left, and maybe as good as Frank in different ways,” Irwin says. “Would you be willing to give a guy up that’s done all that to have a guy that you would have influence with at the SEC office? I don’t think it would be a good trade. He might be able to help you some, but he couldn’t be totally biased. It would just eliminate the bias against Arkansas.”

While keeping Yurachek as Arkansas AD for another decade or more would be the best case scenario for many fans, “losing” him to the SEC office would be much better than Yurachek leaving for some bigger, more prestigious school. 

Finally having someone who can stick up for Arkansas among all the Auburn and Alabama graduates at the SEC headquarters would go a long way toward no more getting the short end of the stick.

See Irwin talk about the rumor around 26:00 here:

More on Arkansas vs Alabama here:

Hogs Seek to Impress Dominique Johnson’s Blue-Chip Cousin vs Bama + More Recruiting Nuggets

Dominique Johnson, Corian Gipson, Arkansas recruiting
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Twitter/@CorianGipson

In addition to it being a top-20 showdown with SEC West implications, Arkansas’ matchup with Alabama on Saturday is also big from a recruiting perspective. The Razorbacks are expected to host numerous prospects — both committed and uncommitted — this weekend, including a pair of blue-chippers with family ties to Arkansas football.

His connection may not be as well-known as the other recruit who’ll be on campus, but Corian Gipson is a consensus four-star recruit in the 2024 class who just happens to be a cousin of current Arkansas running back Dominique Johnson.

According to On3, the Lancaster, Texas, native is ranked No. 29 overall and as the No. 2 safety in the class. He is also an Under Armour All-American and has offers from Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Oregon, USC and many others.

The other recruit with family ties to Arkansas football who’s visiting this weekend is five-star wide receiver Ryan Wingo, the younger brother of former Arkansas running back Ronnie Wingo Jr.

Wingo has already showcased his own playmaking ability and is being heavily pursued by colleges across the country. This will be his third time on campus since last season and it will be to see Arkansas play the team his brother famously scored against on a wheel route back in 2010.

A trio of in-state recruits have also already shared that they’ll be in Fayetteville for the Alabama game: 2023 offensive line commit Joey Su’a from Bentonville, 2024 linebacker target Brian Huff out of Valley View in Jonesboro and 2025 lineman Bradyn Cobain King from Gurdon.

BoAS Checks Out 4-star LB Carson Dean

It took him a half to really get going, but Carson Dean eventually showed why he was a four-star prospect in the second half of last Friday’s loss.

With assistants Michael Scherer and Dowell Loggains looking on, the 2023 Arkansas football commitment was the centerpiece of a defense that gave up a touchdown on the opening drive and then kept Flower Mound Marcus out of the end zone the rest of the night in a losing effort, as Hebron coming up short, 23-21.

Best of Arkansas Sports credited him with 13 total tackles, many of which came after halftime, when he seemed to pick it up a notch and really track the football well. On the flip side, most of Dean’s missed tackles came in the first half.

“I just had to be more patient,” Dean said afterward. “In the first half, I was getting to the right spot every time, I was just too quick and over running it. In the second half, I had to slow down and be patient, because if I’m patient, I’m fast enough to still get to the play.”

Unfortunately, his future coaches didn’t get to see him flip the switch in the second half, as they left at halftime. Dean said he knew Scherer, who coaches his position at Arkansas, and Loggains would be there and that he enjoyed getting to play in front of them.

“It was good, it was fun (for) my coaches to finally see me play in person,” Dean said. “They’ve been at practices and watched my film, but seeing it in person is a whole different thing.”

After spending all of last season as an edge rusher and opening the 2022 season there, Dean shifted to middle linebacker following a 38-7 loss to Dallas Jesuit in the season opener. He said it was obvious that opponents were running away from him, effectively taking him out of the game.

“He could do whatever he wants,” Hebron head coach John Towels III said. “We had him at defensive end rushing the passer at the beginning of the year, but for us, we get more out of him with him being in the middle of the field.

“He can see it and then go get the ball instead of just being on one side of the field. We don’t have the luxury like Arkansas of having another one of him on the other side, so we have to utilize him the best way we can.”

If that diverse skillset sounds familiar, that’s because it’s similar to current Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders. An outside linebacker at Alabama, he’s moved inside with the Razorbacks, but can still line up on the edge and get after the quarterback.

Sanders is also from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, coming out of Denton Ryan as a five-star prospect in the Class of 2020. Dean said he’s actually followed him since his senior year of high school and looks up to him, so it was an easy selling point when the coaching staff told him he’d have a similar role.

“They’ve already told me I’ll be like Drew,” Dean said. “I’ll come off the edge, I’ll do all sorts of things because I played edge all last season, so I can do multiple things.”

A couple of factors — Hebron’s homecoming dance and the fact that it was a road game for Arkansas — prevented Dean from attending the Razorbacks’ 23-21 loss to Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium the next day, but he was in Fayetteville for the Cincinnati win and will be again for Saturday’s showdown with Alabama.

Dean mentioned he might make it to another game later this season, but wasn’t sure which one. While it’s clear he’s excited about playing in an Arkansas defense that features linebackers, he still has the rest of his senior season ahead of him and Towels is hoping to make the most of it.

“He’s just a leader,” Towels said. “He leads by actions, so he’s in the middle of our defense for a reason because everyone’s going to follow him. … When you have a guy like that, who’s that special, you put him where he can make plays and that’s what he does.”

Check out Carson Dean’s highlights from last Friday’s game, shot by Best of Arkansas Sports:

Kaleb James Shines in Front of Future Coach

With the Razorbacks in town for their annual matchup with Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium, Michael Scherer and Dowell Loggains weren’t the only assistant coaches taking in some Friday Night Lights.

Defensive line coach Deke Adams made his way to Mansfield and was in attendance for Kaleb James’ impressive performance in a 49-34 win over Mansfield Lake Ridge.

The 2023 Arkansas football commit and ESPN four-star recruit racked up nine tackles, including two for a loss, and five hurries, plus blocked a field goal, earning him a DFW Defensive Player of the Week nomination from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Much like Dean, James has already announced he’ll be back in Fayetteville for Saturday’s game against Alabama.

Other Arkansas Recruiting Nuggets

  • Twin brothers and 2023 Arkansas football commits Luke and Dylan Hasz helped Bixby crush Norman North 63-7 last Friday. It was the Spartans’ 53rd consecutive win and they have now outscored opponents 238-24 through four games this season.
  • Ashtyn Reichardt, one of the heralded softball prospects Sam Pittman went out of his way to help Courtney Deifel recruit before the Cincinnati game, announced her commitment to the Razorbacks on Wednesday. An outfielder from Katy, Texas, she is ranked as the No. 28 overall recruit in the 2024 class by Extra Inning Softball and coming off a summer in which she hit .450 and posted a 1.092 OPS.
  • Fresh off being bumped up to five-star status, Little Rock Central’s Annor Boateng was one of 62 players invited to USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team minicamp next month in Colorado. He is one of only nine players in the 2024 class who are participating.
  • Five-star shooting guard Wesley Yates, the No. 23 overall player in Class of 2023, according to Rivals, is set to announce his college decision next Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. CT. Arkansas is among his nine finalists, along with Auburn, Baylor, Gonzaga, Houston, LSU, Stanford, Texas and Washington. He plays at Beaumont United in Texas. According to Rivals’ Rob Cassidy, though, it appears to be a two-team race between LSU and Washington.

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More coverage of Arkansas recruiting from BoAS…

Poised to Break a 40-Year-Old Drought for Hogs, Drew Sanders First Faces Drought of a Different Kind

Drew Sanders, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

If the Arkansas football team is going to snap a 15-game losing streak Saturday, it will likely need a big performance from the player who could end an even longer drought for the Razorbacks next April.

Just four games into his first season in Fayetteville, linebacker Drew Sanders has established himself as one of the nation’s top pass rushers and, at least according to one well-known analyst, a potential first-round pick.

In his latest Big Board, which was released a couple days ahead of the Texas A&M game, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. not only included the Alabama transfer among his top linebackers, but slotted him as the 14th overall prospect for the 2023 NFL Draft.

Although Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. and Army’s Andre Carter II are ranked ahead of him, they are classified as outside linebackers, making Sanders the No. 1 inside linebacker.

“He’s playing all over the field for the Razorbacks, showing off his burst and range to chase down ball carriers,” Kiper wrote. “He’s a hit, lift and drive tackler who can fill a hole in the run game. He plays super hard and has great size for the position.”

The Razorbacks haven’t had a linebacker taken in the first round since Billy Ray Smith Jr. went fifth overall to the San Diego Chargers in 1983. In the nearly four decades since, only 11 Arkansas linebackers have been drafted, with the highest being Quinton Caver going 55th overall — in the second round — in 2001.

It’s easy to see why Sanders could finally end that lengthy drought. His 5.5 sacks through four games are tied for the most in the country and put him well on pace to become the first Arkansas player to notch double-digit sacks in a season since Jake Bequette had 10 in 2011.

Even head coach Sam Pittman has admitted Sanders has been better than he expected when landing him out of the transfer portal, despite his five-star accolades. His former coach seemed less surprised, though.

“Drew was a good player when he was here,” Alabama football coach Nick Saban said earlier this week. “He’s certainly playing well for them. It’s good to see that he’s doing a good job for them. We’re happy for him and his family.”

Alabama Football’s Loss is Arkansas’ Gain

Had it not been for what Nick Saban has described as an “unfortunate injury” that held him back last year, Drew Sanders might never have entered the transfer portal.

However, after starting three of the first five games of the season, a wrist/hand injury forced him out of the lineup and allowed another one of Alabama’s five-star freaks, Dallas Turner, to fill in. By the time Sanders was healthy a few weeks later, he had been Wally Pipped.

Had he stuck around in Tuscaloosa, the overriding thought was that he’d have a significant role on this year’s defense, with Saban saying before the season that he likely would have been a starter for the Crimson Tide.

Based on his comments to the media, it sounds like Saban feels Sanders is the one who got away. He even said a plan to move him from outside to inside linebacker — one reason he wanted to come to Arkansas — was in the works.

“That was probably what we were going to do, but it never worked out,” Saban said. “It is what it is. It’s good for him that he can play both positions and that he’s doing well.”

That could be chalked up as coach-speak, but there may be some truth to it. Tony Tsoukalas, the managing editor of Tide Illustrated, said he’d likely be starting at Alabama’s Will linebacker spot, assuming he was playing at the same level as he’s shown at Arkansas.

“I believe Saban in that Drew Sanders would have been a starter in this year’s defense,” Tsoukalas said. “To be fair, the way he’s been playing, he’d be a starter anywhere in the country.”

Instead, fifth-year senior Jaylen Moody, who also briefly entered the transfer portal this offseason, is finally getting an opportunity to start for Alabama football. Moody has a team-high 25 tackles and solid 71.8 grade from Pro Football Focus, but isn’t the same caliber of player as Sanders.

“Jaylen Moody has been playing pretty well,” Tsoukalas said. “That being said, he isn’t at the same level as Sanders. Right now, there aren’t many college defenders who are.”

In addition to his 5.5 official sacks, PFF credits Sanders with a whopping 18 total pressures, which is tied for the most among FBS linebackers. Moody has generated only four total pressures.

Also, Sanders likely would have given Alabama the undisputed best linebacker corps in the country.

Will Anderson finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting after leading the country in sacks last year and is viewed as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Turner is viewed as a possible first-round pick in 2024, while Henry To’oTo’o — the inside linebacker Sanders would be playing beside — is an early second-round prospect who could sneak into Day 1.

Rather than giving Alabama three — or arguably four — potential first-round linebackers, which it has had five of since Saban took over in 2007, Sanders could be the Razorbacks’ first such player in 40 years.

“He’s getting what he deserves,” Anderson said. “He’s been playing extremely well. I’m happy for him, very proud of him. … Both of us came in here and we worked extremely hard. We were roommates, actually, and we talked about things all the time, like, ‘Hey, we got this, just keep going.’ We motivated each other. To see him doing well at Arkansas, I’m very proud of him.”

Drew Sanders Dominant for Arkansas Football

There is a reason Drew Sanders was a five-star prospect and ranked No. 13 overall in the Class of 2020 by 247Sports.

Playing all over the field at Denton Ryan, he likely could have played on either side of the ball in college, but linebacker/edge rusher is where he ended up. Gabe Brooks, a recruiting analyst at 247Sports, compared him to linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who was in the midst of an All-Rookie season with the Cowboys at the time.

“We could not put that guy up against our starting offensive tackle,” Sanders’ high school defensive coordinator, Shane Tolleson, told Tide Illustrated in 2020. “I jumped his butt so many times because he didn’t have a three-quarter speed… ‘I said, ‘Drew, what the hell is wrong with you? We need that kid. What are you doing?’ When he has that helmet on, he’s different. Every time he tackles a guy, he tries to break them.”

While at Alabama, the difference in talent wasn’t as great, but it was still very evident. Last season, JC Latham — the Crimson Tide’s current starting right tackle — got a taste of that in practice.

A heralded prospect in his own right, ranked as the No. 3 overall player in the country for 2021 by the 247Sports Composite, Latham described Sanders as “a great player, a great athlete.”

“I went against him a lot in fall camp last year as a freshman, so I know a little bit about him and we did get to watch a little of the Texas A&M game,” Latham said. “He plays really physical and he has a nose for the football, so he really likes to go for the ball. It’ll be a great matchup.”

Even though he was used primarily as an edge rusher at Alabama, there were times Sanders showcased an ability to do the things he’s doing now with the Razorbacks — something Will Anderson Jr. admitted he probably couldn’t do.

“A couple of instances last year when we were playing a couple different teams, he was kind of stacked back a little bit or he was in coverage,” Anderson said. “He can break out and go make plays in space and I think that’s where he’s comfortable at, but he can also get to the quarterback if you need him to. Drew’s a very good athlete.”

The results have been amazing. Sanders has at least half of a sack in each game this season and had multiple against South Carolina and Missouri State. In the opener against Cincinnati, he notched his first sack when he ran by an offensive lineman and through a running back before bringing down quarterback Ben Bryant.

Sanders is officially credited with 31 tackles, including a team-high 16 solo stops, plus he leads the team in tackles for loss (6.5), sacks (5.5) and forced fumbles (2) He also has two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.

All of his former Alabama teammates have spoken highly of Sanders, including reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young.

“On the field, (he was a) very fierce competitor,” Young said. “He always wanted to win. He’s always giving extra in practice, always working hard. I just think that fierce competitive nature that he has is what makes him as great of a player as he is.”

If the Razorbacks are going to slow down Young and beat the Crimson Tide for the first time since 2006, they probably won’t be able to count on someone like Leigh Tiffin missing multiple kicks. It will likely take superstar efforts from superstars just like Drew Sanders.

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More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

Lozenges Becoming Eric Musselman’s Best Friend as Arkansas Basketball Practice Begins

Eric Musselman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

FAYETTEVILLE — Although he was a little hoarse during Monday’s press conference, Eric Musselman assured reporters he wasn’t sick. His raspy voice’s real cause wasn’t revealed until a few minutes later.

It may have been Day 1 of training camp, but it was far from the first time the Arkansas basketball team was on the Eddie Sutton Practice Gym floor. If the media’s 30-minute viewing window of their first extended practice was any indication, the Razorbacks’ fourth-year coach has likely done quite a bit of yelling in the shorter workouts leading up to Monday’s first official practice of the 2022-23 season.

After all, Musselman admitted that when he leaves the house each day, his wife, Danyelle, reminds him that there will be turnovers at practice and that he must have patience with his team, which features only two returning players from last year’s Elite Eight squad.

“I’ve got to have a little more patience with this group maybe than some other groups,” Musselman said. “With younger players and with a younger group and a newer group, we’re repeating ourselves a lot, more so than any team I’ve ever coached. With that comes a little bit of patience.”

Such is life with six freshmen and five incoming transfers. Even during the short portion of practice open to the media Monday, Musselman had to stop drills several times to get on his team for various things — not talking enough on the court, not getting their hands up on defense, not executing a proper dribble handoff. When he wasn’t yelling, the frustration was obvious on his face.

It’s the youngest team he has ever assembled, a fact CBS Sports analyst and former NBA player/coach Avery Johnson observed in a recent phone call with Musselman, and there have certainly been growing pains despite the signing class ranking No. 2 nationally for 2022 and the portal haul being considered one of the best this offseason.

Luckily for him, Musselman has a staff that is helping him navigate an unprecedented set of challenges for someone who’s been coaching basketball at various levels since 1989. He leans heavily on Keith Smart, whom he described as one of the most patient men he’s ever been around, to put things in “perspective,” while Gus Argenal’s “California, laid-back approach” and Anthony Ruta’s youth also help in that regard.

As the Razorbacks shift from practicing only four hours per week to 20, as allowed by the NCAA, Musselman said he expects to see much quicker growth from the team.

“When something gets taught, we’ve got to take from the chalkboard to the practice to the drills to live action,” Musselman said. “They can’t just go from the chalkboard to drills, then when we go live we fall back into other habits. We’ve got to grow.”

Check out some clips from the first official Arkansas basketball practice of 2022-23:

Areas of Emphasis for Arkansas Basketball

Unlike his first three seasons at the helm, Eric Musselman actually has a body of work from which to base the upcoming Arkansas basketball practices.

The Razorbacks played four games during a European tour last month and got an additional 10 practices leading up to the trip. They won both games in Spain and both games in Italy, but were far from perfect.

According to unofficial stats compiled by the media and distributed by the UA, Arkansas committed 80 turnovers and shot just 28.6 percent (16 for 56) from 3-point range. Those areas have been major points of emphasis for Musselman and he’s already implemented things in practice to remedy them.

He also said that he’s hopeful the percentage will improve when Arkansas faces zone defenses because it will give the players more time to get their feet set compared to facing man-to-man – but it’s worth noting that teams play more man than zone, including the Razorbacks.

“I think overall from three-point, it’s got to be a group attack on that,” Musselman said. “Hopefully teams don’t defend like we do, which will also help because of the way we defend threes. If teams zone us, I actually think we’ll be a better three-point shooting team.”

With the turnovers, Musselman has been preaching the importance of valuing the ball because of how much each possession matters. To help with that, he’s implemented some situational work to simulate “mojo moments” — such as being down two with 13 seconds left — in practice.

There’s also reason for optimism that the turnovers will dwindle as the team gets more and more comfortable playing with each other.

“Playing overseas was really our first time really playing together with so many different lineups,” Ricky Council IV said. “I feel like that was definitely a big part — just getting the chemistry, knowing what people can and cannot do, knowing where to throw the ball, knowing who to throw it to at the right time.”

From an individual perspective, the trip to Europe provided each player a glimpse of things they need to focus on, too.

Kamani Johnson is an “incredible” offensive rebounder, but Musselman said he needs to get better on the defensive boards. Council needs to finish better at the rim than he did overseas. Trevon Brazile was incredibly efficient in the paint (28 of 30), but could be more aggressive with shooting 3s. The list could go on.

“The good thing is we had that foreign tour in August,” Brazile said. “There’s a lot of time between then and the season to get better, improve our 3-point shooting, getting stronger with the ball.”

Film Don’t Lie

It also doesn’t hurt that Eric Musselman has film from actual games to point to when coaching up individual players or the team as a whole.

“We’ve probably watched every clip a couple of times since we’ve got back,” Brazile said. “It was really good to go over there and see how guys play in an in-game situation. We watch film over that probably every other day in practice, so it’s just good to have that film.”

Some of the mistakes the Razorbacks made were “embarrassing,” Council said, and seeing it on film helps ingrain it in their minds.

“For me a couple of times, I’d be jumping from the free throw line to attempt a layup,” Council said, invoking memories of KJ Jefferson’s disastrous leap from the 3-yard line against Texas A&M. “Like, why am I doing that? So just putting that in my head so I know not to do that anymore.”

Of course, learning from the film requires watching it. In addition to individual film sessions with assistant coaches and group film work, players are expected to do some on their own via their Hudl accounts.

That has led to some Razorbacks constantly texting Musselman about the things they see, while others haven’t. He is hopeful that the extended practices will increase that because it’ll be fresh tape on top of what they got in Europe.

“If you really care about your game, you’re probably logging onto Hudl,” Musselman said. “The cool thing with our Hudl system is we know who logs in and who doesn’t. So there has to be great growth in your own login to Hudl to invest in your career and watch how your game is being played.”

Check out what Ricky Council IV and Trevon Brazile said before the first Arkansas basketball practice:

Arkansas Basketball Moving Forward

When the frustrations of coaching such a young team get too much for Eric Musselman, he heads over to strength coach Dave Richardson and gets updates on how many miles the team has run — something tracked by vests worn by the players.

That helps him get his mind off things. But even he acknowledged that what he’s seeing now is an incomplete picture. The team will look different at the beginning of the season in November or when March Madness arrives a few months after that.

Davonte Davis and Jaylin Williams, for instance, went from fringe contributors to starters by the NCAA Tournament as freshmen two years ago. The story was the same for Trey Wade as a transfer last season.

“I think if you look back at rotations and stuff, where was Trey Wade as far as his rotation, the responsibilities…in November, and then where was he against Gonzaga?” Musselman said. “You’re guarding Chet (Holmgren). You’ve got to make a three in the corner when they don’t want to guard you and (Drew) Timme is standing in the lane and you’re 35 feet wide open and you’ve got to make that shot.”

Who emerges between now and then remains to be seen. For the time being, though, Musselman is simply focused on his team getting better as they enter training camp.

“I don’t really feel any heightened awareness of anything, because we’ve been practicing,” Musselman said. “Now we’re able to go longer…but I don’t really feel any difference — especially because we were in those 10 practices leading up to the European Tour, where we got some good timeframe in.

“That first game is still a ways away. So we’ve just got to get better in all facets, not just one area.”

Watch Eric Musselman’s full press conference here:

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