For the Arkansas football program, the last few weeks have mirrored the regular season in their up and down nature. On the one hand, head football coach Sam Pittman and staff have welcomed five talented new transfers and inked the majority of a recruiting class that is shaping up to be Pittman’s best yet on the Hill.
Still, major questions persist.
Arkansas has seen 21 scholarship players hit the transfer portal since fall camp in August. And not all of them were scrubs, either. Between them, those 21 Razorbacks notched 48 starts in the 2022 regular season, according to Best of Arkansas Sports’ count. That means 18.2% of the starts on the team went to players who would ultimately transfer away.
If that seems really high, it is. Arkansas easily leads the SEC in terms of total number of starts and percentage of starts by eventual transfers. Only Texas A&M has had more players transfer out (26 as of Dec. 21)*.
The exodus wasn’t a total surprise given the kind of hot and cold effort the team put out in the 6-6 season. Yes, the Hogs lost four games by a total of nine points and, yes, injuries played a big role in hampering the secondary, but the heart of the issue was team unity and cohesion. The offensive line failed to play anywhere near its potential in a few games, most notably against Liberty and Missouri, after which strength coach Jamil Walker was fired.
Why were they so clearly “out-physicaled,” as Sam Pittman put it?
ESPN Reporter Talks to Sam Pittman
One thing that the Razorbacks had plenty of in 2020 and 2021 was sustained effort, but in 2022 that effort appeared sporadic and irregular.
ESPN sideline reporter Taylor McGregor, who will call the Liberty Bowl, finally sheds a light on why. McGregor, a University of Arkansas alumna, recently spoke to Pittman and Hogs quarterback KJ Jefferson ahead of the Dec. 28 bowl between Arkansas and Kansas.
Pittman “said it was the first time in his career, where he would address the team, and he didn’t feel like everybody was listening to him,” McGregor said on the “Locked on Razorbacks” podcast with John Nabors.
“He said there were different voices that players were listening to within the program,” she said, adding an example of how that would play out would be an offensive lineman going to a staff member (“maybe a strength coach”) and complaining to them about an issue like a play call or playing time. Then, that coach or staffer would reply with something along the lines of “Hey, I understand, you’re right,” instead of developing a plan to get that player better so he could earn more playing time.
She said the mindset that some of the disgruntled players are assuming with Pittman and other coaches is “Well, if I don’t really disagree or if I disagree with that, then I have the power to leave. So you should change your messaging to appease me.”
What many fans and certainly the Arkansas football coaches would like to see, however, is a more receptive attitude with Pittman: “I’m going to listen to him and I’m going to buy in, because I’m here, and this is where I’ve committed to being. Because I’ve committed, that means I’ve locked into staying here.”
Hold Up One Minute
Keeping 100% of your roster intact in the off-season simply isn’t going to happen in this day and age. There is too much incentive for players to leave to better themselves at other programs, whether that comes in the form of increased playing time, better NIL money, better preparation for the NFL, a better fit academically/socially, or all four.
Certainly, however, the Razorbacks can aspire to stop blowing the rest of the SEC out of the water when it comes to exiting transfers. Cutting down the number of high-achieving players (e.g. what Ketron Jackson was expected to become in 2023) choosing to leave will help in future years.
Fortunately for Arkansas, Pittman is an old hand at addressing problems in the locker room. He already did it once when he came in to clean up the mess Chad Morris left in the previous regime.
Under Morris, the players “wanted to get out of their locker room as fast as they could and get back to their places and get away from the team,” the father of current Razorback Zach Williams said in 2021. “Now they’re hanging out in the locker rooms, working together after practice on different techniques and different skills.”
“They’re talking to each other, they’re starting to communicate.”
Pittman and Jefferson shared with McGregor that, going forward, they want to use setbacks and issues as a way to grow and get better together. Jefferson said he’s working “on stepping up, and being a more vocal leader, and getting rid of that negativity, allowing myself to step into those moments and say, ‘Alright, we’re not doing this.'”
For instance, it seemed that this season’s Texas A&M loss delivered an emotional letdown from which the team could never truly recover. “Katie George was the sideline reporter for that game,” McGregor said, “and Katie did a great report at the end of the game where she basically talked about how players on the Arkansas sidelines were crying, they were upset, and you could feel the emotion from her standpoint down there.”
Instead of using that moment as a team-wide rallying cry in the games to come, it appeared some of the players stayed deflated over much of the remainder of the season outside of the BYU and Ole Miss games. In short, adversity didn’t help the team grow stronger.
Pittman added that if issues are brought to assistant coaches, he wants to make sure that they figure out a way to use that constructively. “We need to make sure that that the strength coach [now Ben Sowders] is saying, ‘Hey, you’re not playing a lot, so let’s get you better. Let’s make sure that you’re prepared to play in the SEC.'”
Looking Ahead for Arkansas Football
While most fans never like to hear about locker room dysfunction, the fact is Pittman appeared to have harmony there in his first two seasons and perhaps through much of the first part of this season. And they still beat BYU, Auburn and Ole Miss (while playing competitively against a Top 10 LSU) in the second half. As a head coach, he’s also still learning and no doubt this is one of this most important lessons so far. How well Pittman learns from it may very well determine his fate as the Razorbacks’ head man.
As McGregor sees it, “if you’re sitting here at the end of the year being like, ‘How did that happen? How did we go six and six this year? I don’t really have any answers,’ that’s where you would be really concerned.”
“But you can point to some things and say, ‘Oh, that needs to improve.’ I mean, coach Pittman has already made changes. I think that’s an encouraging sign for Razorback fans if they’ve identified problems, they’ve made changes. Now let’s see how those changes work.”
*In terms of percentage of starts in 2022 by eventual transfers, here is the SEC Top 5:
- Arkansas (18.2%)
- South Carolina (13.3%)
- Vanderbilt (9.8%)
- Texas A&M (9.5%)
- Alabama (8.3%)
Arkansas football writer Christina Long compiled this ranking using 247Sports’ lists of transfers for each team and transfer portal trackers published by USA Today Network beat writers for each program. “We then looked at the participation stats for each of these players and tallied the number of games played and number of games started by players who hit the portal,” she wrote in the Fort Smith Times Record.
More from Taylor McGregor on this issue starting at 13:31 below:
For more on Arkansas football from BoAS: