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A Letter to the Tennessee Titans Fans Who Dared Bash Burks

Treylon Burks

Dear Titans fans,

Look, we get it. Treylon Burks’ first little bit here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, wasn’t quite what we expected, either. But be patient. The man is one heck of a football player.

Signed,

Arkansas fans

If you’re a regular around here at Best of Arkansas Sports, you know that some folks over in central Tennessee and surrounding areas of Titans fandom have been, well, less than thrilled about Burks’ first several weeks on the roster. One Tennessee Titans writer in particular dragged not just Burks but Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, suggesting that the Titans front office should never deal with him again.

Which is, of course, ludicrous.

Slow Start With the Razorbacks

Burks has been gifted with raw talent, but even during his first year at Arkansas, that didn’t always shine through. He had a team-high 475 yards receiving and his 29 catches were only four shy of the team lead. But with zero touchdowns, it didn’t seem exactly predestined that his career with the Razorbacks would ultimately go the way it did.

Of course, last year, his junior season at Arkansas, resulted in 66 grabs for 1,106 yards and 11 touchdowns. It was the best single season of receiving the Hogs have had since Jarius Wright had 66 catches for 1,116 yards and 12 scores back in 2011. 

Point being: it took Burks some time. Pittman said as much during these most recent SEC Media Days when he was asked about his former star.

“It was the same thing when he was a sophomore,” Pittman said. “He wasn’t in great shape. He couldn’t last through practice. It’s not that he quit, he just couldn’t do it anymore. He was out of shape.”

See, Burks had played that first season under Chad Morris. Little to nothing went right in the two years of that regime. Sure, potential was there. Hope abounded that he, Trey Knox and Mike Woods could create a Wright-Joe Adams-Greg Childs-like trio in the future. Woods left for Oklahoma and Knox left for the doghouse (from which he has now exited). But that set of wideouts were being thrown passes from Ben Hicks, Nick Starkel, John Stephen Jones and Jack Lindsey. Oh, and for good measure, KJ Jefferson entered three games. Five different quarterbacks didn’t exactly allow for consistency and the Razorbacks hobbled to a 2-10 record.

But Pittman’s arrival motivated Burks to work harder, the same way that being dragged about his conditioning during mini camp probably did this year for the Warren native.

Burks Bounces Back in 1st Real Practice With Titans

So on Wednesday, in his first real practice in a Titans uniform, Burks showed why he was a first-round pick, going through full drills and the full session, catching three balls, including a deep one thrown by quarterback Ryan Tannehill that brought back memories of the catches he made with the Razorbacks.

It isn’t just the deep ball that the Titans are hoping Burks can add to the mix. After making that grab above, he caught one over the middle, too, showing he can be a complete wideout at the next level. In all, most of the Tennessee Titans media praised the rookie’s first-ever professional practice.

“Honestly, I just (need to) keep conditioning where I don’t feel it no more, making sure I am taking my inhaler before practice, after practice, just staying on top of everything,” Burks said after practice Wednesday.

He told Titans reporters he had lost five or six pounds since camp and was working even more to get himself into NFL-playing shape.

“I feel a lot different and I feel a lot healthier,” he said. “It just makes me feel good that I can come out here and play a role and be a part of this team.”

A Tennessee Titans Job for the Taking

Much of the criticism was ill-founded. Burks was dealing with asthma issues that kept him limited during mini-camp. Little was known about his medical condition during his time at Arkansas. The Razorbacks athletics department, even before the Pittman era, have been notoriously taciturn when it comes to players’ health. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it protects players, but it can be frustrating for fans and media members who often want to know the “why” someone is struggling or absent.

Likely, though, the fault-finding about Burks’ conditioning is rooted in fear. The Tennessee Titans lost last year’s leading receiver, AJ Brown, to the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason. And, in fact, the only player returning in the wide receiver unit who had any impact with the team last year is Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, whose 38 catches for 476 yards and four scores make him by far the most experienced player at the position. 

As for the quarterback situation, Tannehill is the passer Burks will have caught balls from in the last four years. No, the former Texas A&M wideout-turned-quarterback isn’t a star, but he’s been a constant starter in the NFL since the 2012 season and quarterback power rankings have him tabbed as the No. 12 signal-caller in the league.

That is to say, a job is there for the taking for Treylon Burks. Now, just like in his sophomore season, he looks ready to go grab it.

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More coverage from BoAS…

Arkansas Basketball Practice Observations: Ricky Council Will ‘Baptize’ You & Who Musselman Yelled At

Ricky Council IV

FAYETTEVILLE — The SEC has officially been put on notice: Stand between Ricky Council IV and the basket at your own risk this season.

One of Arkansas’ five portal additions this season, the Wichita State transfer brings elite athleticism to Fayetteville and the media caught a glimpse of when head coach Eric Musselman graciously opened up a 45-minute portion of Wednesday’s practice.

During a 5-on-5 scrimmage segment, Council caught a pass in the corner, drove baseline and took off, throwing down a thunderous dunk. The play actually bent the rim — much to the dismay of a graduate assistant, who had to knock it back in place by throwing a basketball at it.

Even on a roster loaded with athleticism, the 6-foot-6 guard from Durham, N.C., stands out and has caught the attention of his teammates.

“Ricky is unbelievable,” freshman Nick Smith Jr. said. “Ricky is crazy. I haven’t seen anything like that before. I’ve literally seen him walk under the basket and do a between-the-legs (dunk), literally under the basket, not even trying. That’s how crazy his athleticism (is). I thought I was athletic until I saw Ricky. … Whoever jumps with Ricky this year, it’s probably gonna be a problem.”

“(You’ll) get baptized,” fellow freshman Anthony Black chipped in, while Trevon Brazile provided a PSA: “Don’t jump with Ricky Council.”

That dunk may have been the highlight, but it wasn’t Best of Arkansas Sports’ only takeaway from the viewing period of practice…

  • Wednesday was the third of 10 full, two-hour practices the Razorbacks are allowed to have ahead of their foreign tour, which is an 11-day trip with stops in Spain and Italy. Previously, Arkansas was much more limited in their time together on the court. The team leaves Fayetteville on Aug. 6 and returns Aug. 16, playing four games in between.
  • Because they’re going overseas and playing by FIBA rules, the Razorbacks practiced with FIBA basketballs and a 24-second shot clock. They also practiced without air conditioning to simulate their upcoming games, as none of the gyms are expected to have A/C.
  • Early in the viewing period, Arkansas did a drill that involved three players running down the floor, with two of them taking a 3 from the wing and one going to the hoop for a layup/dunk. The goal was to hit 140 points in three minutes, but it came up short with 135, so Musselman made them do it again. The second time, it got to 138. Musselman called the team together and challenged them to hit 145 the third go-around. This time, the Razorbacks answered the call and actually hit 168.
  • That was just the first of several moments Musselman had to yell at the team for its hustle. At another point, he got on Makhel Mitchell for not running the floor on a fast break. It may not have been related, but immediately after that, Musselman made the entire team do a 2-minute drill that essentially consisted of players running up and down the court for fast-break layups.
  • As expected, Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black were the primary ball handlers for the two teams in 5-on-5 work and the both looked very comfortable running the show. Smith was particularly impressive, as he looked smooth in pretty much everything he did — from throwing passes ahead for a dunk by Jordan Walsh to pull-up jumpers and 3-point shots.

Watch 16 unedited minutes of Wednesday’s practice here:

Devo Davis Provides Leadership for Arkansas Basketball

A lot of the excitement surrounding this Arkansas basketball team has been centered on the 11 newcomers and understandably so, considering it brought in the No. 2 signing class and one of the best transfer hauls in the country.

However, the Razorbacks do return two scholarship players from last year’s squad in guard Davonte Davis and forward Kamani Johnson. Now a junior in his third season with the program, Davis knows Musselman and his expectations better than anyone else, making him the so-called “coach on the floor.”

It’s still early and the team has yet to play someone other than itself, but that leadership is already paying dividends.

“We were doing a defensive drill and Devo was kind of coaching everybody from the side,” Musselman said. “It was just a shell defense. I kind of stopped everything and said, ‘Do you guys understand why Devo is on the sideline barking out instructions?’”

“Everybody had their own thoughts and reasons. I said, ‘No, it’s because he knows what it’s like to get to an Elite Eight. That’s why he’s doing that. And he knows that this is a necessary piece to be a successful team. Some of you other guys don’t know that, that haven’t won at a high level.’”

Updated Preseason Projections

A couple of national media member recently updated their preseason projections and expectations are still pretty high for the Razorbacks.

ESPN’s Jeff Borzello refreshed his “way-too-early” top-25 rankings Tuesday and moved Arkansas up one spot to No. 10, while CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein released his SEC offseason breakdown and has the Razorbacks picked to finish third in the league behind Kentucky and Tennessee.

It seems like most outlets are in agreement that Arkansas will be ranked pretty high nationally and finish near the top of the SEC, but there’s much less agreement on who Musselman will start.

Borzello and Rothstein each included their projected starting five and both have the trio of five-star freshmen — Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh — included, but they differ on the final two spots.

A pair of transfers, Rickey Council IV from Wichita State and Makhel Mitchell from Rhode Island, are in Borzello’s projected lineup, while Rothstein includes returner Davonte Davis and transfer Jalen Graham from Arizona State.

If that’s not enough to show how much is known right now, a local media member — HawgBeat’s Jackson Collier — has the three freshmen, Mitchell and Missouri transfer Trevon Brazile in his projected lineup. He also didn’t rule out Graham or Rhode Island transfer Makhi Mitchell (Makhel’s twin brother) starting.

Arkansas Basketball’s Season Opener Scheduled for 2022-23

The first time this ultra-talented version of the Razorbacks takes the floor in a real game will be Nov. 7 against North Dakota State. The opener was first reported by WholeHogSports and then confirmed Tuesday morning when the Bison released their non-conference slate.

North Dakota State has won The Summit League Tournament five times since 2009 and most recently played in the NCAA Tournament in 2019. It has won 20-plus games seven times in the past 14 seasons and has finished under .500 just once in the last 11 seasons.

With that news, Arkansas’ 2022-23 non-conference schedule comes more into focus. WholeHogSports has reported the Razorbacks will host San Jose State (Dec. 3) and UNC-Asheville (Dec. 21) in Fayetteville.

They have a neutral-site matchup with Oklahoma at the BOK Center in Tulsa set for Dec. 10 and they’ll travel to Baylor on Jan. 28 for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, as well.

Arkansas is also part of the 2022 Maui Invitational. Matchups haven’t been announced, but the event includes Arizona, Cincinnati, Creighton, Louisville, Ohio State, San Diego State and Texas Tech, and the Razorbacks will play three games from Nov. 21-23.

Layden Blocker Recognized for EYBL Performance

There is a clear path for Arkansas to pull off a rare “triple double” by landing three five-star recruits in back-to-back classes, but for now, the Razorbacks have only one commitment for 2023 and he’s currently a four-star.

However, Layden Blocker put on a show the last couple of months with Brad Beal Elite in the Nike EYBL and is likely knocking on the door of being bumped up to five-star status. The Little Rock native capped the summer with a strong showing at Peach Jam last week, averaging 14.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists to earn second-team All-Circuit honors.

Blocker also earned first-team honors at the sessions in Orlando and Louisville and third-team honors at the Kansas City session, plus got honorable mention recognition in Indianapolis. Playing against top competition, he averaged 16.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 47.3% from the floor, 34% from beyond the arc and 75.7% from the free throw line this summer.

Watch Eric Musselman’s full press conference:

Watch the full interview with Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Trevon Brazile:

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

Titans Writer Takes Cheap Shot at Sam Pittman While Making Nutty Claim

Sam Pittman

Practically every SEC football coach has his haters. Given the big-time exposure that comes along with the job, that’s no surprise.

Success breeds contempt, so it’s also no surprise to see guys like Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Brian Kelley get consistently ridiculed by influencers and media members alike (in the haters’ defense, Kelley shouldn’t have tried to impress recruits by dancing on camera).

Sam Pittman, meanwhile, has mostly been able to avoid the slings and arrows. It helps that his Arkansas football program, perhaps with the exception of a three-game losing streak last season, has been on an upward trajectory since he took over in December 2019. Even more significantly, he comes across as a genuine, likeable guy. If ever there was a major college football coach whose brand is “not a jerk” and “not a nut job,” it’s the 60-year-old out of northeast rural Oklahoma.

Most of Pittman’s criticism has come from fringe fans and weird wannabe media. In November 2020, Pittman went off on Twitter against a fan who insulted his integrity in the wake of an LSU game ruling against Jalen Catalon. Then, in October 2021, something called Cable News Watch dared to a) comment on sports and b) call him an “idiot.” That didn’t end up going well for whatever incel was working behind the curtain of that outlet’s Twitter account.

Sam Pittman vs Tennessee Titans Media

When it comes to more mainstream media, Sam Pittman got plenty of early flak after his initial hiring at Arkansas that questioned his ability to be a head coach after decades of offensive line coaching. That criticism, however, was focused on his inexperience, not character.

In the last few days, however, a Tennessee Titans writer took a cheap shot at Pittman’s character on the heels of an SEC Media Days in which Pittman came across as one of the most beloved coaches around.

Jimmy Morris, the editor-in-chief of SB Nation’s Tennessee Titans site, apparently woke up with an axe to grind in the wake of an interview that Pittman gave last week about Titans rookie Treylon Burks, the former Razorback star. Burks has had issues with conditioning in the spring, missing the last three open practices while not being able to finish the first day of rookie minicamp in May, laboring through individual drills and needing an inhaler, according to the Nashville Tennessean.

Pittman provided some background in a radio interview:

“The community is going to be proud of him once he gets in shape,” Pittman said on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville. “I’m assuming he didn’t show up in great shape. It was the same thing when he was a sophomore. He wasn’t in great shape. He couldn’t last through practice. It’s not that he quit, he just couldn’t do it anymore. He was out of shape.” Then, with typical Pittman wit, he quipped: “I don’t know what hunting hogs does for your cardiovascular, but evidently, not a whole lot.”

“I remember last year against Rice, he had dropped some passes and wasn’t playing well,” Pittman added. “He wasn’t a major factor in that game. He got some confidence as the game went on, and the next game started showing what was [worthy of] a first-round draft pick. You’re going to get a great team leader.”

The combination of Burks’ lack of conditioning, combined with Pittman’s foreknowledge (to a degree) and the case of another Pittman-coached player we’ll address soon, was too much for SB Nation’s Jimmy Morris to handle. He essentially wrote that Pittman was untrustworthy: “Jon Robinson [Titans’ general manager] should never trust Sam Pittman again.”

“It sure seems the Tennessee Titans didn’t have all of the information when it came to Treylon Burks. You know who the last player the Titans drafted coached by Pittman was? Isaiah Wilson. Pittman was his offensive line coach at Georgia. As Michael Scott would say, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, strike three.'”

Isaiah Wilson and Treylon Burks

Wilson, coached by Pittman at Georgia, is a name that gives Tennessee Titans fans the twitchy eye. The big lineman was the franchise’s first round pick in 2020 and proceeded to have a spectacularly unsuccessful rookie season, playing a total of three snaps on offense and one on special teams. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. Wilson also got a citation from Tennessee State University campus police during training camp, a DUI arrest during the first week of the regular season, a one-game suspension for violation of team rules

Is Pittman, however, to blame for the unwise choices that Wilson made once he left college? I don’t think so. The best college coaches treat their players like grown men, and part of learning to be an adult is exercising the freedom to make decisions that are not always the best. Clearly, Wilson didn’t do well with that in his rookie season, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn from his mistakes going forward.

And that kind of growth, apparently, is what Burks is already on track to do, according to ESPN NFL reporter Diana Russini said.

“Everything I’ve heard since then (minicamps) has been awesome,” Russini said on The Athletic’s Football Show. “I’ve heard he’s in shape. “I’ve heard he’s lost weight. I’ve heard there’s been so much growth already.”

Arkansas football fans would love to see this the start of a wonderful debut season for the most talented receiver to ever play for the Razorback program. The hope is that the last few months have simply been a wake-up call for Treylon Burks. Yet while Roussini is clearly a Tennessee Titans insider, her words may need to be taken with a grain of salt, says Locked on Titans’ Tyler Rowland.

“Clearly she is the sounding board when the Titans organization wants to put something out into the national narrative, and the Titans organization felt they needed to put this report out from Roussini,” Rowland says. “So the Titans organization felt the need to put out there this weekend, that Burks has lost weight, is in shape and is ready to go. I hope Roussini is right. She was right about Derrick Henry’s timeline, but she called the Titans a long shot to get Julio Jones when it felt like they were the only team seriously in it, after it happened.”

“And then she also said that AJ wouldn’t be traded. And she sent out all of the messages for the Titans organization that he wouldn’t be traded. And then he was. So while I do want to believe this report from Roussini and clearly it would be a positive report for the Titans, I do have to take it with a grain of salt because maybe after the PR nightmare within the fan base, that was the AJ Brown trade the Titans organization feels they need to talk more into the media to calm their fan base.”

That may be the case, but whatever situation is going on with the Tennessee Titans media and questions about Burks’ conditioning, Sam Pittman doesn’t deserve to take cheap shots concerning his trustworthiness. Sure, the Isaiah Wilson situation in Tennessee was unfortunate, but the sample size is way too small to merit these kinds of pot shots from those who want to be taken seriously as sports media members.

Pittman’s interview about Burks is here:

Mike Vrabel on Treylon Burks

On Tuesday, the Tennessee Titans held their first day of mandatory minicamp. Both Robinson and Mike Vrabel, the Titans’ head coach, said Burks has improved his conditioning over the last couple months. Robinson, for instance, said Burks did a “nice job” in his conditioning test, according to the Tennessean.

Vrabel added that Burks has improved through embracing the “little things.”

“That you understand where to go as we continue to add installation,” Vrabel explained. “There’s a lot of information that we give him. That you can come out and compete. The biggest thing for training camp is earning the trust of teammates and coaches, not only developing. … It’s also about trust and where you’re supposed to be for the quarterback. Doing those things day in and day out with some consistency.”

Arkansas Not Far from Surpassing UCLA, Kansas and UNC in Major Recruiting Achievement

Arkansas basketball

In return for inking its 2022 recruiting class, the Arkansas basketball program got a V.I.P. pass to quite an exclusive club.

By landing the trio of Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh in his latest class, Eric Musselman helped the Razorbacks become just the 12th different team in the two-decade history of the 247Sports Composite ratings to sign at least three five-star prospects in the same class.

In fact, Arkansas is the first team outside of Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas — four of college basketball’s traditional blue bloods — in 10 years to secure signatures from three such recruits.

If the dominoes fall just right involving the likes of 2023 recruits Layden Blocker, Baye Fall and Ron Holland, the Razorbacks could stack back-to-back classes with a trio of five-stars. That means Arkansas would join those four schools in the ultra-exclusive club of programs to accomplish the feat twice, with only the Wildcats and Blue Devils doing it in consecutive years.

However, that is still several months away from potentially happening. In the meantime, excitement surrounding Arkansas basketball is at a level not seen since Nolan Richardson had the team competing for national titles in the early-1990s.

Throw in the group of four-star prospects that completes the 2020 recruiting class, which is ranked second nationally, plus the crop of transfers Musselman is bringing to Fayetteville, and the thought of the Razorbacks taking that next step after back-to-back Elite Eight appearances is more than usual fan optimism — it’s a legitimate possibility.

Just how far Arkansas makes it next March will hinge on how quickly the 11 newcomers and two returners (Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson) mesh as a unit, with the three blue-chip freshmen carrying the most weight on their shoulders.

Using History to Predict the Future for Arkansas Basketball

Over two decades, there have been 33 instances of teams landing three or more five-star recruits in the same class, including Arkansas in the most recent cycle. Kentucky and Duke account for nearly two-thirds of that, having landed 13 and 8 such classes, respectively.

The Wildcats have done it in 12 of the previous 14 cycles, while the Blue Devils have done it in eight of the the last nine. For the sake of this piece, we’re going to exclude the last 11 Kentucky classes and last seven Duke classes because after the first group, both John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski had experience managing such a large influx of young talent and the classes built on top of each other, making it less of an apples-to-apples comparison to what Arkansas and Musselman are doing this year.

North Carolina and Kansas have each done it twice, but their two classes were pretty spread out, plus Kentucky did it once during the Tubby Smith-era. Including each of those groups and the first by Calipari and Krzyzewski that started their schools’ current runs, Best of Arkansas Sports examined 14 instances of teams signing a trio of five-star recruits in the same class in an attempt to project the most likely range of success for the Razorbacks this upcoming season with Smith, Black and Walsh.

We have grouped those classes into five categories that illustrate the scope of possibilities for Arkansas basketball in 2022-23:

The Perfect Storm

2014-15 Duke

  • Head coach: Mike Krzyzewski
  • Record: 35-4 (15-3 ACC)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, National Champion
  1. Jahlil Okafor — No. 1 overall recruit
  2. Tyus Jones — No. 8
  3. Justise Winslow — No. 13

It’d be hard to top what the Blue Devils did when Coach K finally dove head-first into the one-and-done world. Led by the No. 1 overall player in the 2014 class, Jahlil Okafor (who was actually born in Fort Smith), Duke was in the top five all year and, despite finishing second in the ACC behind Virginia, earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Mostly cruising through March, the Blue Devils beat Wisconsin to win the national title. Okafor, who won ACC Player of the Year and National Freshman of the Year honors, was selected third overall in that summer’s NBA Draft and the other two five-stars — Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones — were first-round one-and-dones, too, going 10th and 24th overall, respectively.

2006-07 Ohio State

  • Head coach: Thad Matta
  • Record: 35-4 (15-1 Big Ten)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, National Runner-Up
  1. Greg Oden — No. 1
  2. Daequan Cook — No. 14
  3. Mike Conley — No. 22

The Buckeyes’ 2006 signing class mostly closely resembles what Arkansas put together from a rankings perspective, as they landed a top-tier five-star (Greg Oden, No. 1/Nick Smith, No. 1 on 247Sports), mid-tier five-star (Daequan Cook, No. 14/Anthony Black, No. 15) and a lower-tier five-star (Mike Conley, No. 22/Jordan Walsh, No. 20). A top-10 team from start to finish, Ohio State was No. 1 entering the NCAA Tournament and ultimately lost to Florida in the championship game. All three five-stars were one-and-done players: Oden was the NABC Defensive Player of the Year and was taken No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, Conley — whose dad and uncle were Razorbacks — went fourth overall, and Cook was the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year and went 21st overall.

2009-10 Kentucky

  • Head coach: John Calipari
  • Record: 35-3 (14-2 SEC)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, Elite Eight
  1. John Wall — No. 2
  2. DeMarcus Cousins — No. 3
  3. Daniel Orton — No. 18

Strictly from an NCAA Tournament perspective, replicating 2009-10 Kentucky’s success would probably be a disappointment because Arkansas has already been to back-to-back Elite Eights and fans are hungry for more. However, the Wildcats rose to No. 1 in the AP Poll, won the SEC’s regular-season and tournament titles, and earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a 32-2 record. On top of that, John Wall (No. 1) and DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5) went on to the top-five picks, while Daniel Orton (No. 29) was a first-round pick despite not playing a ton, proving that Calipari could have success with loaded rosters. That set the stage for a run of four Final Four appearances in five years, including a national title in 2012. If it meant winning a championship in two years, Arkansas fans probably wouldn’t mind sacrificing a Final Four appearance this year.

2006-07 North Carolina

  • Head coach: Roy Williams
  • Record: 31-7 (11-5 ACC)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, Elite Eight
  1. Brandon Wright — No. 3
  2. Ty Lawson — No. 7
  3. Wayne Ellington — No. 9

Another group of freshmen that came up short of the Final Four in their first year together, North Carolina’s trio of top-10 players did guide their team to a 1 seed and an Elite Eight. Brandon Wright was still a one-and-done who went eighth overall in that summer’s draft, but Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington stuck around for three years. Combined with Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green, heralded recruits who came in the year before them, they helped the Tar Heels to a Final Four the next year and then a national championship the year after that before becoming first-round picks. Of course, getting players of their caliber to stay in college that long is virtually unheard of in today’s game.

Solid, but Better After Seasoning

2004-05 Texas

  • Head coach: Rick Barnes
  • Record: 20-11 (9-7 Big 12)
  • Postseason: 8 seed, first round
  1. LaMarcus Aldridge — No. 13
  2. Mike Williams — No. 19
  3. Daniel Gibson — No. 20

Midway through the 2004-05 season, Texas a was borderline top-10/top-15 team with a 13-3 record and a clear path to a solid seed for the NCAA Tournament. Instead, LaMarcus Aldridge went down with a season-ending hip injury and the Longhorns sputtered to a 7-8 finish that included a first-round exit. Luckily for the Longhorns, he came back healthy as a sophomore and, coupled with Daniel Gibson, led them to a 30-7 record, 2 seed and Elite Eight appearance. Aldridge went No. 2 overall in that summer’s NBA Draft and Gibson was a second-round pick. Mike Williams, the third five-star in that class, also spent two years at Texas, but didn’t play much and ultimately finished his career at Cincinnati.

2012-13 UCLA

  • Head coach: Ben Howland
  • Record: 25-10 (13-5 Pac-12)
  • Postseason: 6 seed, first round
  1. Shabazz Muhammad — No. 2
  2. Kyle Anderson — No. 3
  3. Tony Parker — No. 24

Landing two of the top-three players in the 2012 class, expectations were high for UCLA and the pressure was on Ben Howland, who was now four years removed from three straight trips to the Final Four. The Bruins managed to win the Pac-12 regular-season title, but lost their last two games — including a first-round exit as a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Shabazz Muhammad was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and was a one-and-done, but slipped to No. 14 overall in the NBA Draft after being the No. 2 overall recruit. The other two — Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker — returned and led UCLA to the Sweet 16 as sophomores. Anderson was a first-round pick after that season, while Parker went undrafted after his four-year career with the Bruins.

2012-13 Arizona

  • Head coach: Sean Miller
  • Record: 27-8 (12-6 Pac-12)
  • Postseason: 6 seed, Sweet 16
  1. Kaleb Tarczewski — No. 8
  2. Grant Jerrett — No. 9
  3. Brandon Ashley — No. 18

That same year, Arizona finished in a three-way tie for second in the Pac-12, one game behind UCLA. However, the Wildcats had more success in the postseason, reaching the Sweet 16. Despite starting only two games in a sixth-man role, Grant Jerrett was still a one-and-done player who got picked in the second round. Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley stayed at Arizona for four and three years, respectively, and even though they were ultimately undrafted, they helped the Wildcats win a Pac-12 regular-season title, earn a 1 seed and reach the Elite Eight in their second year together.

Legend in the Making

2005-06 Kansas

  • Head coach: Bill Self
  • Record: 25-8 (13-3 Big 12)
  • Postseason: 4 seed, first round
  1. Julian Wright — No. 8
  2. Mario Chalmers — No. 15
  3. Micah Downs — No. 24

Entering his third season replacing the legendary Roy Williams, Bill Self landed three five-star recruits that would hopefully help him avoid a first-round embarrassment like he suffered the year before. However, the Jayhawks still lost to Bradley in a 4-13 upset. Micah Downs transferred to Gonzaga after that season, but Julian Wright and Mario Chalmers returned. They helped Kansas earn a 1 seed and reach the Elite Eight, after which Wright was a late lottery pick. Chalmers came back for a third season and cemented his place in college basketball history by knocking down the last-second 3-pointer to force overtime in an eventual win over Memphis in the national championship game. He was an early second-round pick after that season.

2020-21 North Carolina

  • Head coach: Roy Williams
  • Record: 18-11 (10-6 ACC)
  • Postseason: 8 seed, first round
  1. Caleb Love — No. 14
  2. Day’Ron Sharpe — No. 15
  3. Walker Kessler — No. 22

A preseason top-20 team, North Carolina was very inconsistent in Roy Williams’ final season, earning an 8 seed and getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. Day’Ron Sharpe played the sixth-man role for the Tar Heels and was a one-and-done who snuck into the first round by going No. 29 overall in that summer’s NBA Draft. Walker Kessler hit the transfer portal and landed at Auburn, which he helped lead to a No. 1 ranking and regular-season SEC title before becoming a first-round pick. Caleb Love, however, was the only one of the three to start as a freshman. He returned as a sophomore and helped North Carolina to a runner-up finish by averaging 15.9 points. His decision to come back for a junior season has the Tar Heels one of the early favorites to win it all in 2023.

Team and/or Individual Disappointment

2004-05 Kentucky

  • Head coach: Tubby Smith
  • Record: 28-6 (14-2 SEC)
  • Postseason: 2 seed, Elite Eight
  1. Randolph Morris — No. 8
  2. Joe Crawford — No. 12
  3. Rajon Rondo — No. 17

Winning the SEC, earning a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reaching the Elite Eight with a trio of five-star freshmen would typically be considered a pretty good year, but what makes this Kentucky group disappointing is what followed. All of them came back for a second year and the Wildcats were worse, going 9-7 in SEC play and losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Rajon Rondo was a first-round pick after that season, but Joe Crawford stayed all four years and Randolph Morris was there for three. That pair also went 9-7 and got knocked out in the second round as juniors, ultimately resulting in Tubby Smith resigning. Crawford was eventually a late second-round pick and Morris went undrafted.

2009-10 Villanova

  • Head coach: Jay Wright
  • Record: 25-8 (13-5 Big East)
  • Postseason: 2 seed, second round
  1. Mouphtaou Yarou — No. 11
  2. Dominic Cheek — No. 21
  3. Maalik Wayns — No. 23

Coming off his first Final Four appearance, Jay Wright had three five-star freshmen to work with in 2009-10. The Wildcats were ranked in the top 10 all year, but none of the freshmen were starters and they ultimately lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament despite being a 2 seed. All three stayed at Villanova for at least three years, but they were knocked out in the first round as sophomores and finished under .500 as juniors, when they were the three best players on the team. While Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns left after that year, Mouphtaou Yarou stayed for a fourth season, when Villanova again lost in the first round. None of them got drafted and only Wayns reached the NBA.

The “What If” Classes

2013-14 Kansas

  • Head coach: Bill Self
  • Record: 25-10 (14-4 Big 12)
  • Postseason: 2 seed, second round
  1. Andrew Wiggins — No. 1
  2. Wayne Selden — No. 13
  3. Joel Embiid — No. 14

Before star big man Joel Embiid injured his back late in the regular season, Kansas was 22-6 and ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll. They still won the Big 12 regular-season title, but including the game in which he got hurt, the Jayhawks went 3-4 and were upset by Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. This falls in the “what if” category because Embiid was still a one-and-done who went No. 3 overall in the NBA Draft. It would have been interesting to see what kind of damage Kansas could have done if it had him and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins healthy in the postseason. Wayne Selden was a solid player despite going undrafted, but never advanced further than the Elite Eight in his three seasons with the Jayhawks.

2005-06 Oklahoma State

  • Head coach: Eddie Sutton
  • Record: 17-16 (6-10 Big 12)
  • Postseason: NIT
  1. Gerald Green — No. 1
  2. Keith Brumbaugh — No. 12
  3. Byron Eaton — No. 18

This signing class likely should have given Eddie Sutton, the legendary basketball coach who jumpstarted Arkansas’ program in the 1970s, one last great team that at the very least would have gotten him to 800 wins without needing to take an interim gig at San Francisco a couple years later. Instead, Gerald Green — a future NBA Slam Dunk Contest winner — opted to go straight to the NBA and Keith Brumbaugh failed to qualify academically. That left just Byron Eaton, who went on to make a pair of All-Big 12 teams in four years at Oklahoma State, but went undrafted. Without his fellow 2005 signees, Eaton and the Cowboys played in the NIT.

2010-11 Memphis

  • Head coach: Josh Pastner
  • Record: 25-10 (10-6 C-USA)
  • Postseason: 12 seed, first round
  1. Will Barton — No. 13
  2. Joe Jackson — No. 20
  3. Jelan Kendrick — No. 23

Even after John Calipari left for Kentucky, Josh Pastner kept the recruiting train rolling with a trio of five-stars for his second season at the helm of Memphis. However, Jalen Kendrick was dismissed from the team before the season. The Tigers were ranked for the first half of the season, but struggled to a fourth-place finish in Conference USA. They did earn the league’s automatic bid to the big dance, though, by winning the C-USA Tournament, but were quickly knocked out in a close first-round loss to Arizona. Will Barton eventually won C-USA Player of the Year honors as a sophomore, when Memphis was again eliminated in the first round, and Joe Jackson earned the award the next season, when Memphis reached the second round. Barton was a second-round pick after two years in college, while Jackson went undrafted after a four-year career with the Tigers.

What It Means for Arkansas Basketball in 2022-23

As seen with the examples above, simply bringing in three five-star recruits in one class isn’t enough for fans to go ahead and book their flights and hotels in Houston next April.

There are of course other factors at play, such as what the rest of the roster looks like and who the coach is, but having five-star freshmen — no matter how talented — does not make a team a lock to reach the Final Four.

Based on history, though, there appears to be a clear baseline for the Razorbacks: at least 25 wins and 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Each of the teams listed above that had all three of their stud signees actually suit up for them earned at least an 8 seed in the big dance. Half of the teams were top-two seeds, with four being 1 seeds and three being 2 seeds.

Only three of the teams failed to reach the 25-win mark. One of them was Oklahoma State, which actually ended up with only one five-star player, and another was Texas, which likely would’ve had a shot at winning more than 20 games had Aldridge not gotten hurt. The lone true exception to the rule was Roy Williams’ final squad at North Carolina.

It’s worth emphasizing the fact that 25 wins is just a baseline, as the Razorbacks have hit that mark in each of the last two seasons under Musselman without a single five-star recruit. History shows the optimism for Arkansas pushing 30-plus wins this year is warranted, as four teams in similar situations have done just that.

We got a small taste of what the Arkansas basketball team will look like thanks to an open practice. Check out our observations:

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

Arkansas’ Path to Another Trio of 5-Star Recruits More Clear After New Forecast

Baye Fall

In basketball, “triple-double” usually refers to notching double-digit points, rebounds and assists in one game, but the Razorback basketball program could be ushering in a new meaning soon.

Under the leadership of Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman, the Razorbacks have already delivered a single “triple” when it comes to signing three 5-star recruits in a single season. That, of course, would be current freshmen Nick Smith Jr, Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh, all of whom are projected to be first-round picks in the 2023 NBA Draft by various outlets.

It’s early going, but what was once the faint outline of back-to-back classes of three 5-star recruits is coming into sharper focus after a couple of recent developments involving the class of 2023. First, Arkansas commit Layden Blocker (the only of the class of 2023 so far) put on a show on the EYBL circuit this July, punctuated by an embarrassment of Bronny James. The Little Rock native made a strong case for moving from a high 4-star to 5-star status, and most recruiting analysts believe he will soon gain that extra star.

But Arkansas is also going strong after a few class of 2023 players ranked considerably higher than Blocker, and on Thursday one of them got a Rivals forecast prediction to the Razorbacks.

Baye Fall and Arkansas Basketball Recruiting

Baye Fall is a consensus top 15 talent who, at 6’10”-6’11” and 205 pounds with a 7’5″ wingspan, has the kind of hyper-athletic build combined with the foundation for elite skills that only come along very rarely (think Kevin Garnett, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo). Earlier in July, Rivals national recruiting analyst Travis Graf put in a FutureCast prediction for the Hogs getting his commitment. On Thursday, Hawgbeat’s Arkansas basketball reporter Jackson Collier did the same with his own prediction.

Although Arkansas is considered the front-runner in his recruitment, he has a slew of offers from the likes of Arizona, Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech and others.

The Razorbacks were actually the first program Fall visited and, luckily for them, he was on hand for their big 75-73 win over No. 6 Kentucky in front of a frenzied sell-out crowd on Feb. 26. That left an impression of the big man, who told Graf of Arkansas: “I like their style of play and their environment. I went there for the Kentucky game and like what I saw. Their play style fits me and coach Muss is a great coach.”

There’s already talk of him returning to campus this autumn.

A return visit would further solidify Arkansas’ spot in the driver’s seat of his recruitment, but Auburn also looms large. Fall used his first official visit to check out the Tigers last month and they appear to be legitimate contenders to land his services. “Same as Arkansas, style of play,” he told Graf. “I went there for an official visit a couple weeks ago and like what I saw and I like the environment, the players and chemistry that they have with the coach [Bruce Pearl]. It feels like family over there.”

According to Rivals basketball recruiting director Rob Cassidy, Fall will visit Texas on Sept. 10 when the Longhorns’ football team hosts Alabama. He also mentioned Rutgers as a “sleeper,” plus Fall has previously taken an unofficial visit to Seton Hall.

One critical piece of this recruitment will likely be whether the team signing Fall also has space for his cousin Assane Diop, a top 100 recruit in the same class. Fall told Graf that he and Diop would like to play together and “we’ll probably end up going to the same school.”

Arkansas has also been recruiting Diop “very hard,” Collier wrote, which bodes well for the Razorbacks’ chances.

Ron Holland Still Out There

The last piece to the puzzle would likely be the No. 1 recruit in Texas, Ron Holland, who was teammates with Anthony Black at Duncanville High this past season. The 6-8 Holland recently led the Team USA 17U team to a gold medal and is ranked as the nation’s No. 4 rising senior according to ESPN.

Earlier in the summer, Holland narrowed his possible destinations to Arkansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Texas and the NBA G League.

In Texas and Kentucky, Arkansas is battling two of its fiercest rivals for the services of someone with the potential of becoming the next great Texan Razorback. In the past decades, Texas natives like Oliver Miller and Mason Jones have played played major roles in building the Arkansas basketball program (not to mention Nolan Richardson was Texan). But there has been a recent definite uptick in Lone Star talent with two McDonald’s All-Americans originally from Texas (Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh) currently on the team.

In the big picture, most of the top commitments in the class of 2023 are not yet committed. However, Duke already has four five-star commitments, according to the 247Sports Composite, in Mackenzie Mgbako, Sean Stewart, Caleb Foster and Jared McCain. Just as Arkansas and Duke battled in the 2022 Elite Eight and for the top spot in the 2022 recruiting class, they could be at it again soon when it comes to fighting for the No. 1 ranking in the class of 2023.

Just a few dominoes need to fall first, but at least a couple of those look to be on the brink of toppling over with the recent news about Blocker and Fall.

Historical Perspective on Another 5-Star Trio

Arkansas is already one of only 12 programs to accomplish the feat once, but if things do fall just right and it ends up with yet another trio of five-star prospects in the 2023 class, it’d enter truly rarified air when it comes to basketball recruiting.

During the 247Sports Composite era, which spans two decades now (2003-22), only four programs have secured multiple classes with at least three five-star recruits in the same year. The list matches up with what most fans and media agree are “blue blood” programs in the sport: Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas.

Of those four, only Kentucky and Duke – which have signed several classes with three or more five-star recruits – have accomplished the feat in consecutive years. The Tar Heels’ and Jayhawks’ two classes like that occurred 14 and eight years apart, respectively.

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Baye Fall’s High School Situation Is….Unusual

The fact that Fall, a native Senegalese who is named after a tribe with males who often rock dreadlocks, has attended a basketball-oriented prep school should barely register surprise in this day and age. Almost every major college team has players coming from such private or charter school backgrounds.

Fall, however, is unusual in how rapidly he’s spun through these schools and how his go-around last season ended.

After leading a small school to a Colorado state championship in 2020-21, Fall transferred to the newly established Denver Prep Academy, a basketball prep academy and in 10 games he averaged 14.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He played in something called the Grind Session League that also included another new basketball prep academy, the Donda Academy, which was founded by Kanye West.

In the school, class time was “organized around early morning practice, afternoon workouts, and games played on national circuits to maximize exposure. Many DPA players lived together in a house next door to the team’s practice gym. DPA rented classroom space from August through May in the Westwood Community Center with a staff of five licensed teachers,” The Denver Post’s Kyle Fredrickson wrote.

Then, in late February, Baye Fall was dismissed from his academy for “conduct of concern and violations of team rules,” the DPA wrote in a statement provided to The Denver Post.

It continued: “At DPA, we pride ourselves on providing students and athletes a positive, structured environment designed to promote personal development. We talk about it all the time. A basketball team is more than just a team. It’s a family and an organization, and each and every member is expected to uphold certain standards and expectations. When you don’t hold yourself to those standards and expectations, you no longer have a place on this team. We’re going to operate at a high level here on and off the court, regardless of wins and losses.

“Baye is an extremely talented player and we wish him all the best for his future playing career.”

Assane Diop, who also played for DPA, ended up leaving the team with his cousin. Losing two standout players like that wasn’t very good for business, apparently, and the school shuttered its doors in June. Now, the Denver Post reports, Fall and Diop will play for yet another first-year basketball prep academy – Accelerated Prep.

See Fall’s frighteningly accurate fade-away shot here:

And how he does against other big men in this video vs North Little Rock native Kel’el Ware:

KJ Jefferson’s Unusual Remark Shows He Can Stiff-arm Tradition Just as Well as Defenders

KJ Jefferson, SEC Media Days
photo credit: Nick Wenger / SEC Media Portal

The coaches and players who appear at SEC Media Days every year are so well-trained on what to say and what not to say that it’s difficult to sift through the blahblahblah to find anything interesting.

When talking about goals for the upcoming season, we typically hear optimistic sonnets about “playing to the best of our ability” or some other generic form of “win a lot.” Schools at the Alabama level might openly discuss national championship possibilities. Bret Bielema infamously talked about going 1-0 every day. Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said of his program, presumably with a straight face, “We know in time Vanderbilt football will be the best program in the country.”

It’s tradition to throw out generalities when it comes to expectations. We rarely hear about specific goals in terms of the numbers of wins a team wants to achieve. That’s what made this line from Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson interesting:

“Try to get a 10-game winning season,” Jefferson said. “Just getting over that hump from nine games. Taking that next step forward, that’s our team goal.”

There’s nothing shocking about stating 10 wins as a goal. Arkansas went 9-4 last season and a 10th win would obviously be evidence of improvement. The dream is always for a program to continue to grow and get better until eventually reaching the promised land.

It is somewhat unusual for a team to state a specific number of wins as the team goal when that number wouldn’t result in an undefeated season. You don’t often hear “we want to go 10-3” or “we’re hoping for 7-6”. Fans may know a team will likely lose some games throughout the year, but it’s important for the players to go into each game expecting to win.

Breaking Down KJ Jefferson’s Goal

To be fair to Jefferson, he didn’t say he expected the Hogs to go 10-3. He said winning 10 games would be improvement and proof they “got over the hump.” If the Razorbacks are fortunate enough to have won 10 games before the season ends, the team isn’t going to stop working hard since they achieved their stated goal from July.

However, if the team’s goal is for 10 wins, it doesn’t make much sense for anyone else to have a goal of anything less. Considering it has been 11 years since the Hogs won 10 games, and Arkansas – as seemingly always – has what is expected to be one of the country’s toughest schedules, there isn’t much margin of error to accomplish a 10-win season.

Of course, if Arkansas had converted the final two-point conversion against Ole Miss last year, the Razorbacks may already be coming off a 10-win campaign. That alone should be enough for anyone to know just how achievable this goal is. Theoretically, the Razorbacks don’t even need to be significantly better than last year to win 10 games.

Will the Razorbacks actually be better, though? That remains an open question. The Hogs still have to prove their offense can be at least as effective as it was last season without the playmaking of Treylon Burks. The defense has to prove it can be as good as it was while replacing several key players. Arkansas has players eager to step into more of a spotlight than they saw last year, and the Razorbacks also signed several intriguing players in the offseason that will be expected to contribute immediately. Returning contributors from last season have hopefully developed into better players as well. But until it’s proven on the field, it’s all hype.

How to Define Success for Arkansas Football

If the Hogs just equal last year’s 9-4 record, does that make this season a disappointment? In that situation, they would have won a lot of games, including against some big names, but they would fail to meet the stated goal of 10 wins. Would people be upset if the Razorbacks go 8-5? That’s still a winning record and very close to last season’s mark, but it would be a worse record.

Arkansas’ tough schedule won’t make anything easy. Just as Arkansas lost to Ole Miss on the last play of the game last season, the Hogs also beat Mississippi State and LSU on the last plays of those games. All three of those games could have easily gone the other way. There is sometimes a very thin line between winning and losing these games. What if Arkansas loses a few games in September, but then goes on a remarkable run through the rest of the schedule? I contend that feelings about a program are actually less about the record than the perceived momentum of the team. The Hogs could play well in at least 10 games without winning 10, and if that happens, does that equate to disappointment?

Like beauty, how one feels about the Hogs lies in the eye of the beholder. Preseason predictions are usually thrown out the window as things develop throughout the season. Last year, heading into the end of the season, Sam Pittman stated Arkansas’ goals were Boot, Bama, Battle Line, Bowl. The Hogs won three of those games, and played Alabama more competitively than they had since 2014, but they still did not meet the goal. However, did anyone have negative feelings toward the program at the end of the year? No. No one reasonable, anyway. That excitement has led to a lot of positive momentum and also a big new contract for Pittman.

With last season’s wins, Sam Pittman’s new contract, returning stars on both offense and defense, potential new stars on both sides of the ball, and a stated goal of 10 wins, the expectations are clear. Pittman is typically more general in discussing the team’s goals. He often says he simply wants to make Arkansas proud. He’s accomplished that through his first two seasons because the team started winning, and often in impressive fashion. Ten wins would definitely keep the pride going, but ultimately feelings toward the program will likely be tied to how the team performs throughout the season and less about a specific number.

Watch KJ Jefferson’s full interview at 2022 SEC Media Days:

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More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

Where Madden NFL 23 Ranks 22 Former Arkansas Football Players

Pro Hogs

Over the past week, EA Sports slowly revealed all of the updated player ratings for its wildly popular Madden video game and several former Arkansas football players were sprinkled throughout the releases.

Best of Arkansas Sports has compiled all of the Razorbacks-turned-pros into one list and ranked them based on their overall rating (the higher the better) on Madden NFL 23.

There are a few surprises throughout the list, but the top couple are as you’d expect. It’s also worth noting that Trey Flowers and the 40-year-old Jason Peters — who have been two of Arkansas’ best NFL players the last several years — are not included because they are currently free agents and haven’t been rated.

1. Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions — 87

Even coming off a season cut short by a toe injury that required surgery, Frank Ragnow’s Madden rating dropped by just one point and is still the highest among the Razorbacks’ former players in the NFL. It’s hard to argue against that. When healthy, a case could be made that Ragnow is even better than the fifth-best center in the league, which is where he’s ranked by Madden. He was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2020 and his 86.7 Pro Football Grade ranked second among centers through four weeks, at which point he got hurt.

Of course, as good as the former first-round pick is on the field, Ragnow is even better off it. He recently created an organization called “Rags Remembers,” in honor of his late father, Jon “Rags” Ragnow, who unexpectedly died of a heart attack while Ragnow was at Arkansas in 2016. The foundation’s goal is to “provide relief for kids and families who are grieving over the loss of a loved one by introducing them to the great outdoors,” according to the Detroit News. He also just helped raise more than $50,000 at the Lions’ inaugural “Dine with the Pride” event Thursday.

2. Hunter Henry, New England Patriots — 84

The only other Arkansas football player ranked among the top 10 players at his position was Hunter Henry, who’s tied for the ninth-best tight end despite his rating dropping by three since last summer. According to Madden, his best attributes are his catch rating and toughness rating, each of which got a 93 rating. In his first season with the Patriots, Henry caught 50 passes for 603 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns, evolving into rookie quarterback Mac Jones’ favorite targets. He was especially good in the red zone, where he earned a 90.2 grade from Pro Football Focus — the best mark among all NFL tight ends.

3. Kamren Curl, Washington Commanders — 79

A former seventh-round pick, Kamren Curl burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2020, landing on PFF’s All-Rookie Team, and became a full-time starter this past season. He racked up 99 tackles and broke up five passes in his second year in the NFL and seems to be poised to become a household name in 2022. Curl’s overall rating moved up by three, continuing to increase from his original 63 rating as a rookie. According to Madden, his best attributes are stamina (91 rating) and acceleration (90 rating).

t-4. Dre Greenlaw, San Francisco 49ers — 78

After a solid first two seasons in the NFL, Dre Greenlaw missed most of last year with a groin injury suffered while returning an interception for a touchdown in Week 1. He managed to return late in the season and played in the playoffs, but got hurt again in the NFC Championship Game. When healthy, Greenlaw has proven to be a more-than-capable linebacker in the NFL. His best attribute, according to Madden, is acceleration (87) and his overall rating stayed at 78, despite missing most of the season.

t-4. Deatrich Wise Jr., New England Patriots — 78

Highlighted by an 88 rating in tackling and impact blocking, Deatrich Wise Jr. has been a good situational pass rusher for the Patriots during his five years in the NFL. He’s coming off a season in which had made 41 tackles, including three sacks, and his Madden rating as moved up by two. Much like Ragnow, Wise is also making an impact off the field by backing “Bridge 2 Trade,” a program run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston that exposes youth to alternative career paths in construction and other trades in a six-week course.

6. Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans — 73

Part of a loaded rookie class that features 16 players with a debut Madden rating of 70 or higher, Treylon Burks is tied for seventh among first-year wide receivers with a 73 rating. Although some Titans fans are concerned about his conditioning and asthma, Burks has all the tools to be a great NFL player, including acceleration that earned a 91 rating from Madden, plus speed and agility that earned an 89 rating.

7. Armon Watts, Minnesota Vikings — 70

The last former Arkansas football player with a 70-plus rating from Madden is Armon Watts, who has exactly a 70 rating — up three from last year. After starting only one game his first two years in the league, Watts saw his role expand last year, as he made nine starts and notched five sacks to go along with 46 total tackles. His best attribute, according to Madden, is his strength and toughness, both of which earned an 85 rating.

8. McTelvin Agim, Denver Broncos – 67

Although he appeared in just seven games last year, McTelvin Agim notched 1.5 sacks — the first of his young career — and three quarterback hits. He’s played just 231 career defensive snaps over the last two years, showing flashes of being a solid pass rusher while struggling against the run.

t-9. Jerry Jacobs, Detroit Lions — 66

No former Arkansas football player saw a bigger year-over-year jump in his Madden rating than Jerry Jacobs, who went from an undrafted free agent to NFL starter as a rookie, resulting in his rating jumping up by eight. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by an ACL injury, but not before he started nine games and broke up seven passes with 34 tackles in 13 total appearances.

t-9. Jeremiah Ledbetter, Jacksonville Jaguars — 66

After spending all of last season on the practice squads of the Cardinals and Jaguars, Jeremiah Ledbetter will try to find his way back onto an NFL field this season in Jacksonville. He appeared in 20 games between 2017-20, with most of them (16) coming as a rookie with the Lions.

t-9. John Ridgeway, Dallas Cowboys — 66

Beginning his career at FCS Illinois State, John Ridgeway transferred to Arkansas last offseason and — after an appendectomy kept him off the field in the opener — he quickly established himself as a starter. He needed just one season with the Razorbacks to become a draft pick, as the Cowboys took him in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft.

t-9. Jeremy Sprinkle, Dallas Cowboys — 66

Known more as a blocking tight end in the NFL, Jeremy Sprinkle caught just three passes for 31 yards in his first season with the Cowboys. Despite not having a lot of stats to show for it, he did appear in all 17 games, start four and play 184 offensive snaps while also having a major role on special teams. Sprinkle spent his first four NFL seasons in Washington.

13. Jonathan Marshall, New York Jets — 65

As a rookie with the Jets, Jonathan Marshall appeared in four games and made two tackles while playing 76 defensive snaps. He was a sixth-round pick coming out of Arkansas.

t-14. Montaric Brown, Jacksonville Jaguars — 64

Montaric Brown was a four-star safety coming out of Ashdown and eventually moved to cornerback at Arkansas. His best season came as a fifth-year senior, when he led the team with five interceptions. That helped him become a seventh-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

t-14. Cody Hollister, Tennessee Titans — 64

Now entering his fourth season at Tennessee, Cody Hollister has seven career receptions for 58 yards. A good chunk of his five-year NFL career has been spent on practice squads.

t-14. Jonathan Williams, Washington Commanders — 64

Since being selected in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Jonathan Williams has bounced around to seven different NFL teams. He most recently joined the Commanders off of the Giants’ practice squad and actually scored a touchdown in Week 14 last year.

t-14. Mike Woods, Cleveland Browns — 64

Mike Woods caught 83 passes for 1,248 yards and 10 touchdowns in three seasons with the Razorbacks before a surprising decision to enter the transfer portal. He ended his career at Oklahoma, where he made 35 receptions for 400 yards and two scores before getting drafted in the sixth round.

t-18. Hjalte Froholdt, Cleveland Browns — 62

Originally drafted by the Patriots in 2019, Hjalte Froholdt joined the Browns last season and appeared in six games. However, all of his playing time came on special teams.

t-18. Randy Ramsey, Green Bay Packers — 62

After not getting consistent playing time at Arkansas, Randy Ramsey signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He spent a year on the practice squad and then made the 53-man roster in 2020, serving primarily as a special teams ace. He missed all of last season with a significant ankle injury.

20. Feleipe Franks, Atlanta Falcons — 59

He’s still listed as a quarterback, but Feleipe Franks has added some tight end and special teams duties to his repertoire in Atlanta. He’s expected to continue that hybrid role in 2022.

21. Brandon Allen, Cincinnati Bengals — 54

A career backup in the NFL, Brandon Allen actually started a game in place of Joe Burrow last season. For the second time in his career, he was part of the organization that lost the Super Bowl.

22. Dan Skipper, Detroit Lions — 53

Although he’s appeared in only 10 career games, playing just 13 offensive snaps and 53 special teams snaps, Dan Skipper is still in the NFL with the Lions. He appeared in just one game last year and all of his reps came on special teams.

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More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…

It’s OK to Question Jimbo Fisher’s Motives Behind Wanting Arkansas as a Permanent Opponent

Arkansas, Texas A&M football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

Two reasons people talk about you: jealousy and bullying. Rumor-mongering, for the record, covers either or both.

The SEC Media Days annual gathering in the Deep South is filled with both jealousy and bullying, usually by way of rumor-mongering. Coaches from across college football’s best conference take the dais, four a day, and answer questions. About a third of them are solid, a third are as deep as a puddle and another third are barely questions at all and more of homer reporters’ way of getting their voice on TV (“Coach, talk about…”).

Now, with these questions, or more specifically, with the reporters who ask these questions of the last two natures, usually comes the pre-defined postulate. It’s the working off an assumption, but presented as incontrovertible fact and ultimately framing the interaction with the coach simply to get the coach to agree with the pre-defined postulate. 

It used to be that only people asking these kinds of questions were reporters still working at their college newspaper and Joe Schmo who runs a blog. Then, as Americans, we decided to abandon journalistic principles and hop on with Joe Schmo’s blog and turn him into some legitimate news-gatherer simply because he and I like the same team.

Yeah, this is a preamble, all right.

Lots of them (us?) are working from the pre-defined postulate that the SEC will shift to three permanent rivals with five – or six, if a nine-game slate is adopted – opponents rotating year to year as part of its in-league schedule. The format has grown in popularity, over the last year or so especially, as conferences continue to expand. The popularity of the idea, however, hinges on one minor piece: who those opponents are.

Jimbo Fisher Wants Arkansas

Texas and Oklahoma enter the SEC sometime in the next four years. Historically and geographically speaking, the Longhorns and Sooners would make for tremendous rivals for Arkansas. Texas, of course, is the old Southwest Conference archrival and Oklahoma is just a stone’s throw down Interstate 40. Texas A&M, too, though, makes for a great bedfellow with the two Big 12 exiles.

Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher, the last man to take the stage in Atlanta for media days, was asked about his thoughts on the potential schedule. He very clearly failed to mention a certain team.

“You want Texas. When Texas comes into the league, when that schedule comes in, definitely because of that rivalry,” Fisher said. “I think LSU is a great rivalry.  But that’s probably our two biggest. Then Arkansas goes into that, too.  But I don’t know if that was one of our three that they equated to us in what we did.”

The Aggies want Texas. It makes all the sense in the world. Everyone thinks, too, they’re LSU’s rival. Then the Razorbacks. Why the Razorbacks over the Sooners, though? Yes, the Southwest Conference thing exists, but look closer and it makes more sense.

Arkansas isn’t as good as Oklahoma. Haven’t been in a long, long time. If Texas A&M had Texas, Oklahoma and LSU as three permanent rivals, the Aggies would have their hands full every single season, even in the ones when the Longhorns and Tigers are down, because, let’s face it, those teams’ down years are nothing like the Hogs’ down years now that new modern floor has been set by Chad Morris.

Potential Permanent Foes for Arkansas Football

The Razorbacks may find themselves in a similar bind. Arkansas already plays three trophy games – Texas A&M in the Southwest Classic, LSU in the Battle for the Boot and Missouri in the Battle Line Rivalry. Those three as permanent rivals makes all the sense in the world, but it also negates the re-budding of the classic Horns vs. Hogs stalwart days from the 1960s and ‘70s. For those of us on the border of the Sooner State, too, we know the tenacity that exists between some OU fans and their Razorback neighbors.

(READ NEXT: Sam Pittman Reveals His Picks for Arkansas Football’s Permanent Foes)

Then there’s Ole Miss. Rebels coach Lane Kiffin also wouldn’t mind keeping the Hogs on the docket every year, it seems. Last year’s game between the two teams was a classic.

“Well, that was exciting, an exciting game. Again, just shows you can’t predict year to year, week to week, you got no idea how games are going to go,” Kiffin said. “That’s an exciting rivalry, one that means a lot to fans as well.”

Teams may have some say in which of their opponents will make for the permanent plays, but it won’t be exclusively up to them. Some blend of legitimate animus should exist in at least one game, but they’d probably also want a winnable-eight-times-out-of-10 game to be permanent, too. The question is whether teams see Arkansas as the former or the latter. Or both.

Sam Pittman has made the Razorbacks not only relevant again but he has perhaps put them on the cusp of legitimacy in the eyes of the hardcore opposing fans. One 9-4 season does not a dynasty make. But go back to the Aggies. They were hardly the Big 12’s most dominant team during their run in that conference. Since joining the SEC, they’ve fallen short of eight wins just one time. No, they’re not Alabama, but they’re closer to the Crimson Tide than the bottom third. Dynastic, if not an outright dynasty of almost always good, but never great.

Pittman and Arkansas have at least drawn the respect from the rest of the league, though. Sam Pittman alone has done that much. How long it holds is what will determine whether Arkansas is that team others feel they can beat eight-of-10 times or otherwise. Either way, that’s a start, no matter how the conference ends up looking in the next handful of years and who happens to be on the slate. 

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