FAYETTEVILLE – From the aftermath of Arkansas’ single most devastating play to their “disappointing” 7-6 2022 season, Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman hopes his Razorbacks learned their biggest lesson for 2023 and beyond.
He’s doing everything he can to prevent such a drop off from happening again, including a change in strategy when it comes to how he conducts practices to help prevent the rash of closes losses in 2022 that led to a stepback from 9-game 2021 season.
The wheels started coming off on September 24, with Arkansas sporting a then 3-0 record and leading the Texas A&M Aggies, 14-0 in the first quarter. It appeared on the verge of going up 21-7 with 3:11 left in the half, when Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson tried stretching the ball for more yardage as he was tackled on first and goal from the 3. Jefferson lost the ball in his stretch dislodged backwards which A&M’s Tyreek Chappell recovered, romping to a fluke 82-yard touchdown.
Arkansas still led, 14-13 on A&M’s misfired 2-point conversion.
The math didn’t add up to his Razorbacks, Pittman told an SEC Network contingent after he addressed Wednesday’s main forum at SEC Media Days in Nashville.
It must, Pittman said, should a similar situation leading to that 23-21 loss to the Aggies at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium befall his Hogs this autumn.
“Somebody is going to hit us in the face and we’re going to have to figure out if we are strong enough,” Pittman said in Nashville. “Like the game last year from A&M. We had the game. We’re in control of that. That (fumble) hits us in the face. We go into halftime and we’re still ahead but we felt like we were 50 down. And we’ve got to be able to have a coaching staff – me – and our team has to adjust faster to have success.”
The Hogs did fight back to bring the game down to a missed field goal attempt with 1:30 left. The just-before-halftime lingering funk left their comeback too little too late.
“I thought we got it back there at the end and we had a bad snap and missed the field goal,” Pittman said. “But that’s part of it, They beat us. That’s the bottom line. They beat us and they deserved to win the game more than we did. But those things are learning moments, absolutely.
Sam Pittman’s SEC Media Days Confession
Pittman’s not exempt from the lessons.
Based on what he learned in 2022, he changed his practices in two ways from the previous year, he told college football analyst Jake Crain during SEC Media Days.
First, in the spring, Pittman put emphasis on running far more 4th down plays than in previous years, both for the benefit of the offense and defense. He needed both sides to run through more 4th down reps because of how aggressive opposing coaches like Lane Kiffin are in going for it.
“If we’re playing all these analytic teams and they’re going forward on fourth down, then how the hell we going to get off the field? Well, it became competitive and it became a big deal in spring ball,” he said.
Second, Pittman has returned to allowing more physical contact in practices. That Texas A&M game provided the clearest example but Arkansas simply didn’t convert enough in goal-line situations in 2022. Last year, Pittman was “afraid to scrimmage because of body pounds” but told Crain he’s realized “if you don’t, you ain’t going to get no better.”
“I made a mistake last year and I didn’t have a live scrimmage,” he said on The Crain & Company interview below. “I didn’t have a live scrimmage in the spring and I didn’t have one in the fall. And it hurt us because we’re not the best looking team in the world… And we don’t want to be, but we want to be the toughest and most physical. And you can’t do that if you don’t practice that way.”
In 2022, Arkansas followed its 23-21 loss to the Aggies with lopsided losses to Alabama and at Mississippi State. But the rest of the season also close-but-no cigars scores of 21-19, 13-10 and 29-27 among six defeats.
“We can’t lose four games by (a total) nine points,” Pittman said. “We just can’t. You’re talking about 7 to 11.”
The 7-6 record that Pittman called “disappointing” coming off the hugely surprising 9-4 of 2021, would have been 11-2 had the Hogs won those four they lost by so little.
Pittman said the Hogs, coming off a Liberty Bowl victory over Kansas, will begin August preseason drills “pretty danged strong” and because of senior quarterback/team leader Jefferson more equipped to counterpunch the inevitable “hit in the face.”
KJ Jefferson Learns His Lesson Too
“KJ is going to be a big difference in that because he’s the leader of the team,” Pittman said. “Not the defense. Not the offense. He’s the leader of the football team. And coming from the quarterback position that’s a big deal.”
Of course Jefferson still hasn’t forgotten that untimely fumble but knows well the lesson of time to move on.
“The play that I had that still sticks with me to this day that I had down in the red zone,” Jefferson said at Nashville. “This year just being able to focus on the small details, trust myself, don’t second-guess myself. When the time comes don’t let the moment be too big for me.”
Pittman, for his first head coaching time, does not have Barry Odom, now the head coach at UNLV. Nor does he have Kendal Briles, now the offensive coordinator at TCU, respectively coordinating his defense and offense. In Nashville he praised the efforts of both helping transform the 2-10, 2-10 overall, 0-8, 0-8 in the SEC program Pittman inherited from the Chad Morris regime into the 3-7 in all SEC games in the covid shortened 2020 season and the 9-4, 4-4 Outback Bowl championship team of 2021 and the still far better, 7-6, 3-5 2022 team than compiled the three years previous to his head coaching the Hogs.
However he touted the fresh start so far he’s seen from Travis Williams, previously the defensive coordinator for Gus Malzahn at the University of Central Florida and Auburn, and offensive coordinator Dan Enos, the Arkansas offensive coordinator in Pittman’s final of three seasons coaching Arkansas offensive lines for Bret Bielema. Since the 2017 end of the Bielema era, former Central Michigan Head Coach Enos has coached quarterbacks (2018 at Alabama), running backs (2020 at Cincinnati) and coordinated offenses (2019 at Miami and 2021-22 at Maryland).
At Arkansas under Bielema, Enos succeeded close Pittman friend Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator but Pittman and Enos obviously got along with mutual respect.
“I hired Dan Enos because I thought he was the best play-caller I’ve ever worked with,” said Pittman, noting he’s experienced many play-callers during his “kazillion jobs” coaching offensive lines from 1994-2019 before head coaching the Hogs. “I know he was loyal. Dan was loyal to me when I worked for him in 2015, a good person and was a developer of quarterbacks. Very smart man. Glad to have him.”
So is KJ Jefferson. Jefferson thrived in Briles’ fast tempo offense but sees himself fitting into Enos’ pro-style offense that employs tempo as an occasional change of pace rather than a staple.
“It’s a lot slower than how we’ve been in the previous years,” Jefferson said. “ Also just being able to — in this offense, it’s a lot on the quarterback. I have a lot more freedom to do different things, audible different plays, stuff like that. It’s fun to be in, and also just a learning tool for me just for the next level.”
Jefferson’s running ability will be utilized but likely not to the previous extent after he missed losses to LSU and Mississippi State injured last season and played hurt during the 21-19 loss to Liberty.
“Maybe we throw the ball a little bit more than with him carrying it,” Pittman said. “We have to keep him healthy. Obviously we have Jacolby Criswell (the Morrilton native transferred from North Carolina) and (returnee) Cade Fortin behind him, but he’s one (No. 1) for a reason.”
Expanded Arkansas Football Role for Sanders
That should mean not only more running opportunities for 1,443 yards rushing running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders but more passes to the junior (28 catches for 271 yards) last year.
Enos’ offense throws more to the backs than did Briles, Sanders said he’s learned from the get-go.
“The first conversation (with Enos) was, ‘Can you catch the ball?” Sanders told the SEC Network reporter interviewing him in Nashville. “It’s always playing around, like ‘Can you catch the ball and what-not? Are you just a running back or can you catch the ball, too?’ But before he came I had looked and searched about him. He uses everybody on the field and I’m ready for that.”
The reporter surmised as a receiver Sanders wants to prove his new coordinator wrong.
“Yeah, I definitely am going to prove him wrong,” Sanders said. “But I love somebody coming in and telling me something I can’t do so I have something to prove.”
Sanders should be up to it. The junior actually was recruited out of Rockledge, Fla. as a wide receiver.
Barring injury, Sanders will play a big role in Arkansas’ winning more close games than it loses this season. He and KJ Jefferson represent the most physically powerful 1-2 QB-RB combo in Arkansas football history and will be expected to punch it into the end zone at a higher clip this season.
Arkansas’ return to embracing physical practices should help to that end. Pittman’s through with playing it so safe for fear of injury: “I made a mistake and we went from nine to seven [wins], but I’m not going to let that happen again.”
Make sure to watch the entire Pittman interview with Crain & Company here:
Sam Pittman on Arkansas Defense
Pittman never worked previously with Travis Williams but felt at home with him immediately. I interviewed four or five guys,” Pittman said. “When I got done with him, I called (athletic director) Hunter Yurachek and told him, “This is our guy.”
Pittman sought a more aggressive 4-man front change from the 3-man front that Odom most often employed. Actually Odom did, too, but the numbers up front did not add up.
Between Williams (“I knew in the portal world if we lost somebody we could surely replace him,”) and the continuity of finally having a second-year defensive line coach, Deke Adams, the D-line adds up, Pittman said.
“I think we’ll be able to play a 4-man front,” Pittman said. “Deke Adams has done a wonderful job recruiting. I mean he changed the room. I think we’re three-deep on each side at defensive end and I think we’re at least five inside (the defensive tackles). We did not have that.”
From the transfer portal, Williams and Adams helped secure D-linemen Anthony Booker (Maryland), John Morgan (Pittsburgh), Trajan Jeffcoat (Missouri) and Kelvie Rose (Louisiana Tech) added to D-line returnees Landon Jackson, transferred last season from LSU, Cameron Ball, Taurean Carter (injured the entire 2021 season), Nico Davallier, Eric Gregory, Zach Williams, Jashaud Stewart, and Marcus Miller.
True freshman D-line additions include Kaleb James, Carson Dean, Brad Spence and Quincy Rhodes.
Landon Jackson, a far stouter yet apparently quicker 6-7 than this time last year, represented Arkansas’ defense at SEC Media Days. “He went from 236 at the end of last year to 280 running over 20 miles per hour,” Pittman said.
Jackson gave conditioning credit to new strength coach Ben Sowders, who was hired from the University of Louisville. “He stresses all the little details,” Jackson said.
Evin Demirel contributed to the above feature.
See more about Arkansas football from BoAS here: