Until the recent, unexpected departures from the likes of Joe Foucha, Greg Brooks Jr. and Malik Hornsby, good news had become a staple through much of the first two years of the Arkansas football program under Sam Pittman.
The Razorbacks, after all, “shocked the world” with an amazing nine win season capped by a convincing victory in the Outback Bowl over Penn State. The Hogs’ success was against the toughest schedule in the country and included a 4-0 run in trophy games. I believe it’s safe to say that nobody saw that coming, including ESPN’s David Pollack proclaiming there was no way Arkansas would get to nine wins after a surprising 3-0 start.
There were even some surprises for those that don Hog-colored glasses. Who saw KJ Jefferson emerging as one of the better, more consistent quarterbacks in the league? Dominique Johnson took reps at tight end before becoming a bruising, dependable SEC level tailback. Rocket Sanders came on campus as a wide receiver then switched to tailback and drew some early comparisons to Darren McFadden not only with his uniform number but also his raw running style.
The defense was boosted big time by the grad transfers along the defensive line. Tre Williams, Markell Utsey and John Ridgeway III filled a gaping hole in size and experience along the defensive front that produced a decent Razorback defense. Bary Odom’s commitment to the 3-2-6, drop 8 defense worked well. The one game the Hogs got away from it was Auburn and that didn’t go so hot.
Treylon Burks was not a surprise. He was one of the most dynamic playmakers in the SEC and his draft stock has skyrocketed as a result. Big, fast, strong, sure handed and an affinity for the spectacular has NFL teams salivating for his talents. He’s a bonafide first rounder in a draft full of NFL talent at his position and some consider the best receiver to ever wear a Razorback uniform.
The linebacking corps of Bumper Pool, Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry also had fantastic seasons. All were tackling machines this past season and solidified the middle tier of Odom’s defense. And for the most part, they stayed healthy, which was crucial as there was very little experience behind them on the depth chart.
Arkansas Defensive Backfield Loses Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha
Defensive back Montaric “Buster” Brown also had a solid season by tying for the SEC lead in interceptions and usually drew the opposing team’s best wide out. He received an invitation to the NFL combine and has declared his intentions to enter the draft. One of the few highly regarded in-state players that live up to their star rating, Brown has a decent chance to land on an NFL roster.
Fans totally understood that decision. What came as a surprise, though, were two more recent announcements. On Wednesday, captain Joe Foucha announced he will play his senior year somewhere besides the University of Arkansas. After the safety’s solid performance in the Outback Bowl, rumors started to percolate that he was looking towards possibly entering the NFL draft or seeking another opportunity. Recruited by Chad Morris, Foucha played extensively since he set foot on campus. It’s somewhat of a head scratcher as to why he’s transferring out, but the new transfer rules allowing no sit out year bring an element of free agency to college football and Foucha is seeing what his value is on the open market.
Then, on Thursday, starting cornerback Greg Brooks Jr. announced he was peacing out as well.
“First, I want to thank God for all of the blessings that I have received, without him I wouldn’t be in this position,” Brooks Tweeted. “I also want to thank Coach Coop and Coach Morris for allowing me to be a part of this program, and Coach Pitt and his staff for believing in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. I’ve made countless memories at the University of Arkansas and they will never be forgotten. With that being said, my family and I think that the best decision for me is to enter the transfer portal with 2 years of eligibility left. The story is already written. Thank you, Arkansas.”
According to Pro Football Focus, the junior’s 70.4 coverage grade in 2021 was the second-best in the Razorback secondary during the season.
Razorbacks Looking Forward
How does Arkansas replicate this type of season and prevent being a one hit wonder? Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman has convinced his staff, his players and the fan base that the Chad Morris regime Razorbacks were the anomaly and the trophy game champs of this season are the norm for this once proud program. The ability to turn the football program as fast as he has is remarkable. The phrase, “right guy, right spot” has been mentioned more than once and looks to be accurate.
But the SEC, especially the West, is very unforgiving. Next year’s schedule jumps up a notch with an opener against national playoff loser Cincinnati, BYU in Provo and Hugh Freeze’s high flying Liberty Flames in the non-conference. The good news is Georgia rolls off and South Carolina rolls on. Despite their success this year in a rebuild, the Gamecocks are not UGA.
While Brown, Foucha and Brooks leaving is tough, former All SEC performer Jalen Catalon electing to return for another year was HUGE for the Razorback defense. A healthy Catalon is a difference maker as he is considered an elite safety. There are several candidates to replace the newly departed Foucha already on campus with Myles Slusher as an experienced option, along with blue-chip recruit Myles Rowser, assuming the Michigan product does sign with Arkansas in February.
If the Hogs can find dependable cover men on the outside, the six defensive back scheme Odom is running could be better than it was this season. All of those guys seemed to improve as the season went along. With the pass-happy offenses on the Arkansas football schedule next year, this defensive backfield play will be critical.
Razorback Linebackers in 2022
The biggest thing looming on Coach Pittman’s mind is probably replacing those Henry and Morgan at linebacker. Not that they were amongst the upper tier in the SEC (keep in mind there are probably a dozen legit NFL linebackers in that league in any given year) but they knew where to be, when to be there and provided outstanding leadership.
Rising redshirt senior Andrew Parker has played very little in his time on the hill. Freshman Chris Paul played in his four allowed games to retain his redshirt and seems to be in the running to see his minutes increase. Current defensive back Jayden Johnson looks like Steve Atwater running around back there and could be a candidate to keep bulking up and moving to linebacker. After that are players with whom many Arkansas football fans are not even passingly familiar. Yes, two three-star linebackers were signed in the class, but that is a big ask of a true freshman.
All mentioned are better athletes than Morgan, Henry and Pool, but will they play as heady and as hard? Time will tell. Pittman has left some room on the roster to add some transfers and I expect that to be a focal point to fill those gaps.
Bumper Pool coming back for a fifth season is huge. Couple him with a linebacker transfer and someone emerging that is already on the roster and Odom’s defense can have a reliable unit at the second level. Surehanded tacklers at the linebacker position are critical for Odom’s scheme. Although one has to wonder if that scheme gets adjusted for personnel reasons in 2022.
“Replacing” Treylon Burks
Burks will be nearly impossible to replace as he was a generational talent unlike any receiver we’ve seen at Arkansas. But Pittman and wide receivers coach Kenny Guiton looked to have gotten the next best thing in Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood. He was productive at OU after being ranked as the top receiver in the country coming out of high school.
Add Haselwood to Ketron Jackson, Bryce Stephens and Warren Thompson and the Razorbacks wide receiver room is in good shape. We’ll see if four-star recruits Isaiah Sategna Quincey McAdoo and Sam Mbake can find their way into the rotation. The wide receiver group is/should be collectively better than this year’s group and will need multiple guys to step up to replace Burks’ colossal productivity for the Hogs to be in that 8-9 win range in 2022.
Arkansas Football Tight Ends
Offensive coordinator Kendall Briles loves to use the tight end but Blake Kern lacked foot speed and sometimes hands to be a true threat other than a sneaky throw here and there. Trey Knox worked well as a hybrid type tight end after fizzling at wide receiver. There is a nightmare matchup waiting to happen for Arkansas opponents once he learns more about the position. The Razorbacks have recruited well at that position in the last two classes and perhaps someone emerges. Kendal Briles’ offense will click even more with the addition of a playmaker at tight end.
Arkansas Football Transfers Pan Out
The Hogs have already had two big wins in the transfer portal with Haselwood and former LSU defensive end Landon Jackson. Jackson is a natural replacement for Tre WIlliams as the big, fast, pass rushing end that every defense covets. Haselwood’s time at OU was decent (he led the Sooners in receiving last year) but hasn’t aligned with his five-star rating coming out of high school. Jackson played in five games this past season as a true freshman so he doesn’t have the body of work yet to judge his productivity at this level. But for the Razorbacks to resemble anything like this past season’s success, those two guys plus any additional transfers must show up ready to contribute in a big way.
The quarterback position, defensive backfield, linebackers and defensive line would benefit from a high impact transfer or two. Getting a defensive line stud like Jaxon Player, who played under current Razorback assistant coach Jermial Ashley at Tulsa, would be great. Finding the right fit is key. Right fit for the scheme. Right fit for Sam Pittman’s program and so on. That takes a good amount of due diligence to prevent whiffs in the college free agent marketplace.
The Razorback roster is still building into what Sam Pittman knows an SEC football looks like. Arkansas football transfers are that quick bridge to getting to look more like Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and LSU physically and with high level experience. A miss or two in the portal could leave a sizable gap in talent at a crucial spot for next year.
Malik Hornsby Leaves Role as KJ Jefferson’s Understudy
As mentioned above, KJ Jefferson was a pleasant surprise and then some. Briles’ offense thrives off a quarterback with the ability to run the football and Jefferson’s hulking frame took the punishment to make that a big part of the offense. Everyone knew he would be able to run the ball but his decision making, leadership and downfield throwing was where he opened some eyes. His growth at quarterback took some big steps forward this past season. Something very special is brewing if he makes even half the progress going into next season. Kendal Briles deserves a lot more credit than he’s been given for Jefferson’s ascension.
With the entire offensive line returning minus Myron Cunningham, Jefferson should have a staunch group to operate behind next season. There are candidates on campus to replace Cunningham and frankly, those guys are due to make a jump. Jalen St. John and Ty’Kieast Crawford have the potential to get in the mix and Pittman has recruited well there. He obviously knows SEC level offensive line play and expectations are that the unit will be even better in 2022.
Unfortunately, the depth by KJ Jefferson is suddenly razor thin after backup Razorback quarterback Malik Hornsby announced via Twitter on Thursday night he would soon enter the transfer portal.
In 2021, Hornsby flashed potential of one day becoming the Razorbacks’ most dangerous offensive player. He completed 5 of 12 passes for 46 yards and rushed for 136 yards on 24 carries. Against Penn State, he showed world-class speed when he briefly relieved Jefferson because of an injury (just as he had done vs Texas A&M early in the season) and finished the game at quarterback. Hornsby racked up up 67 yards on just four carries against Penn State.
Current Razorback Quarterback Depth = Yikes
For now, Arkansas is down to just two healthy quarterbacks heading into 2022 with Jefferson and true freshman Lucas Coley, who didn’t play in 2021.
“The Razorbacks also have walk-on Kade Renfro – who originally signed with Ole Miss as a scholarship quarterback – on the roster, but he tore his ACL during the bowl practices,” Hawgbeat’s Andrew Hutchinson wrote. “John Stephen Jones, the third-team quarterback this year, is technically a redshirt junior and could return, but he was honored on senior day and head coach Sam Pittman did not mention him when discussing the depth at the position for next year.”
“Arkansas chose not to pursue a quarterback in the 2022 class because Pittman said the staff felt good about that depth and thought it might help them land a high-profile one in the 2023 class.”
Another key cog for a finish in the upper half of the division is the trustworthy kicking game. Freshman Cam Little lived up to the hype and looked very capable in the Outback Bowl of replacing touchback machine Vito Calvaruso as the kickoff man next year. A reliable kicker is such a relief to a coach and the Hogs have that in spades. Special teams play was remarkably better after a slow start and that can be attributed to better roster depth and the ability to put talented guys not quite ready for primetime on special teams to make plays. And of course, the installation of a few fakes and trick plays are crucial for a team like Arkansas to pull out of the hat to win or stay in a game here and there. Alabama doesn’t run trick plays. Arkansas has to.
The final piece of the puzzle for another run at a New Year’s Day bowl in sunny Florida is to hang onto most if not all of Pittman’s staff. Bret Bielema started off like gangbusters on the field and in recruiting with a great staff, including Pittman. As soon as those guys started leaving, the program went south leading to Bielema being fired.
Every offseason Pittman will be dealing with schools coming after Odom and Briles. That is the price you pay for having really, really good assistants. Running backs coach Jimmy Smith and defensive backs coach Sam Carter seem to be critical pieces as well, especially in recruiting (even if Carter did “lose” Foucha by failing to recruit him back for an additional year). Dowell Loggains and his NFL pedigree also appears to be a good pickup.
Those guys will move on someday but the longer they hang around, the better it is for building a consistent winner in Fayetteville. Once that consistent winner is developed, the talent level improves and the ability to replace vacancies with rising stars in the coaching ranks becomes easier. Pittman has an incredibly solid reputation in the coaching world and should be able to keep a top notch staff but Odom and Briles for another year or two sure would be nice.
Arkansas Football: Sleeping Giant
Arkansas has the fan base, the resources and the history to make the Chad Morris era a blip on the radar. Pittman has moved the Hogs far past those dark days and did it quickly. To keep that up, a lot of things have to go right as the SEC West is a true murderer’s row and only getting tougher. Will Brian Kelly work out at LSU? Same for Bryan Harsin at Auburn. Can Lane Kiffin be as good without Matt Corral? Does Mike Leach and his quirky offense ever adjust? Will Bama ever have an off year and allow someone else to slip into the top spot in the division? What will things look like when OU and Texas enter the league?
A huge question pertaining specifically to Arkansas is if the Hogs recruit can counteract defections like Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. through the transfer portal. Haselwood and Jackson were a good start, but the Razorbacks need more to get the top to bottom roster depth on par with the upper half of the league.
Under Pittman, it sure seems like that is possible and getting better every passing year. But he can’t let go of the reins as there is work to be done. The good news is he knows it and, by all indications, isn’t anywhere close to settling with one successful season.
The impending transfers of Malik Hornsby, Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks are only the latest dominoes to fall in a series of events that will shape the state of the Arkansas football program in the coming months.
What’s up with all of these Arkansas Football Transfers?
It’s all speculation at this point, but some believe that Razorback secondary coach Sam Carter got crossways with some of his players and they are leaving him. However, if Carter were really so unlikeable, why would Jalen Catalon announce that he’s returning?
Late Thursday, Razorback insider Otis Kirk Tweeted: “Sam Carter may get the blame from a lot of people, already has, but Sam Carter isn’t the issue. He coaches them hard? So did Bobby Petrino, so does Nick Saban. Guess what? Every DB over there is a better player now than he was when Sam Carter got here.”
And Pig Trail Nation’s Alyssa Orange got some insight from a current Arkansas football player parent that also appears to support Carter:
Then there’s the elephant in the room that nobody can talk about on record: the prospect of NIL deals in the offing for these Razorback football players who will likely land with a bigger name program soon. If programs like Oklahoma can lure assistant coaches like Jeff Lebby away from Ole Miss by doubling their salaries, why couldn’t they also (tacitly) lure away the smaller schools’ best players in spades? (It already happened once with Mike Woods).
“In the world of NIL and massive coaching contracts, the only way to compete is to land a coach or player the big money programs didn’t want and build them into something spectacular through culture and a chip on the shoulder,” writes SI.com’s Kent Smith.
“That’s why with the help of players like Brandon Burlsworth, Hayden Henry and Grant Morgan, or coaches like Sam Pittman, a program like Arkansas can rise up and be good every now and then. Same for Dak Prescott at Mississippi State.”
But because schools like Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State only have a handful of big-dollar donors, Smith posits, “it will always just be every now and then instead of every year.”
Time for the Waltons to the rescue?
Bumper Pool talks about his decision to come back here:
See our latest post here:
Learn more about new Hogs who could contribute in 2022 here: