NFL Draft underlines how tough Pittman’s task with Hogs is

There was a distinct down-home, SEC flavor to the first round of the NFL Draft Thursday night, and it only goes to underline how big a challenge first-year Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman and his staff face as they do their best to prepare for the upcoming season under the dire circumstances the COVID-19 pandemic has left the Razorback staff and the entirety of college football in.

A record 15 SEC players were selected among the 32 first-round NFL picks Thursday night. All told, SEC players accounted for 46 percent of the young men selected in the first round. No other conference had more than five first-rounders, and the SEC had six players taken in the top 10 selections.

With the first pick LSU quarterback Joe Burrow went to Cincinnati. He was followed by Georgia offensive tackle Andrew Thomas — a Sam Pittman product — to the New York Giants at No. 4, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to Miami at No. 5, Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown to Carolina at No. 7, Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson to Jacksonville at No. 9, Alabama offensive tackle Jedrick Wills to Cleveland at No. 10, Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs III to Las Vegas at No. 12, South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw to San Francisco at No. 14, Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy to Denver at No. 15, LSU linebacker/defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson to Jacksonville at No. 20, LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson to Minnesota at No. 22, LSU linebacker Patrick Queen to Baltimore at No. 28, Georgia offensive lineman Isaiah Wilson — another Pittman product — to Tennessee at No. 29, Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghehe to Miami at No. 30, and LSU running back Clyde Edwards Helaire to Kansas City with No. 32.

First-round picks from the SEC

A record 15 SEC players were selected among the 32 first-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft.

No. 1 – QB Joe Burrow (LSU) to Cincinnati
No. 4 – OT Andrew Thomas (Georgia) to NY Giants
No. 5 – QB Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) to Miami
No. 7 – DT Derrick Brown (Auburn) to Carolina
No. 9 – CB C.J. Henderson (Florida) to Jacksonville
No. 10 – OT Jedrick Wills (Alabama) to Cleveland
No. 12 – WR Henry Ruggs III (Alabama) to Las Vegas
No. 14 – DL Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina) to San Francisco
No. 15 – WR Jerry Jeudy (Alabama) to Denver
No. 20 – LB/DE K’Lavon Chaisson (LSU) to Jacksonville
No. 22 – WR Justin Jefferson (LSU) to Minnesota
No. 28 – LB Patrick Queen (LSU) to Baltimore
No. 29 – OL Isaiah Wilson (Georgia) to Tennessee
No. 30 – CB Noah Igbinoghehe (Auburn ) to Miami
No. 32 – RB Clyde Edwards Helaire (LSU) to Kansas City

That’s an amazing mouthful of players and speaks of the just how talented and competitive the SEC truly is. Long known as one of the best conferences in college football, the SEC just seems to get more and more talented as the years go by, and frankly the tougher it gets for the Razorbacks to compete at the highest level of the SEC.

Now, there is no real excuse for the Razorbacks to have slipped to the bottom of the SEC, where it has dwelt for the better part of the last three years.

Yes, there has been an issue with talent On the Hill. There is no denying it. There were no Razorbacks among those 15 picks, and we probably will not hear a Hog called until the fourth round. Maybe the the third.

That said, Arkansas had enough talent on hand the past three seasons to win more than one SEC game. Coaching has been just as much an issue as talent in that regard.

We may never know the true story of what happened to the 2017 Razorbacks and their hard collapse during Bret Bielema’s final season. It was more than just a talent issue.

The Chad Morris regime just seemed to be over their head in the SEC on offense and over the hill on defense the past two years. The players never truly bought into Morris from the time he walked in and told them to put their feet on the floor and sit up straight. At first that sounded good to fans, but he had not earned the right to speak to them in that way.

What a contrast to how Pittman approached his new players by shaking their hands, looking them in the eyes and saying he knows they didn’t pick him as head coach, but that he did pick them as players and a program.

Today is not the 1950s or ’60s where a coach garners the respect of players just because he has the job. Players have to see and feel that their coaches are competent before they buy in, just like players have to prove themselves to coaches to get on the field. It’s a two-way street.

From his aw shucks personality, the genuine tone in his voice, to the diligence in note writing, Pittman has the personal touch not just with his players but with everyone he meets. In a TV interview earlier this week, he said he is in the process of calling every high school head football coach, and that he’s not going to stop until he speaks to every one of them.

I think that personal touch bodes well for him as the Razorbacks head coach.

It also speaks very well of his coaching ability that two of his pupils from Georgia’s offensive line — Thomas and Wilson — were first-round picks.

That said, I reiterate that the outcome of the NFL Draft’s first round just shows how difficult of a task Pittman and his staff have of pulling the Razorbacks out of the SEC cellar.

Coaching football is a lot like grilling. A great coach can do a lot to improve the play of his team with his skill and technique, but no amount of coaching can turn hamburger into prime rib. Coaches at LSU, Alabama, and Georgia are cooking with prime rib. Their technique and skill only enhances the flavor of their teams.

Pittman and his staff did a fine job of recruiting given the circumstances this season, signing a top 30 class. I’m looking forward to their efforts in the future when they have more time to reach out and relate to recruits.

Pittman won’t call it a handicap, but the number that the coronavirus is doing on college athletics this year is hurtful to all programs, but it is especially tough on first-year programs.

No doubt Pittman and his staff are doing everything they can to guide, teach, and coach their players virtually with the time allowed by the NCAA, but virtual meetings aren’t as productive as in-person meetings. They just aren’t. And nothing replaces time on the field.

The loss of spring football practice as well as the loss of training time under the supervision of strength and conditioning coaches is immense. It’s not going to be able to be made up either.

At best, UA student-athletes will be back on campus in July to get in a few weeks of conditioning and training before practice begins in August. Even that is iffy.

Certainly, all of college football is in a fairly similar boat, but as an almost totally new staff, the Razorbacks have an even greater hurdle to clear in their effort to move from being an SEC doormat back to a level of respectability.

Don’t expect Pittman to complain or make excuses. Thankfully that doesn’t seem to be his nature, but make no mistake, the coronavirus has made a tough job at Arkansas even tougher.