Next step in Razorback rebuilding process begins

Rakeem Boyd has been placed on the Doak Walker Award Watch List by the PwC SMU Athletic Forum / Photo:

If there is a college football season this year, it will be anything but normal.

Normal went out the window back in March when the coronavirus pandemic squashed college athletics for the 2019-20 season.

As the virus continues to rage throughout the South, Southwest and parts of the West Coast, college football power brokers are seeking every way they can to play this season in just about any way they can.

Rest assured as much as fans want a season, conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, staff, and, yes, players want to play this fall. All of their livelihoods are tied to the game in some form or fashion, and even if the games are pushed until spring, there will be repercussions — some lesser, some greater — that none of them want to face. Football this fall is a near necessity for Power 5 programs to continue to operate at or near the level they are accustomed to.

Last week, Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek called it a 50-50 proposition that football will be played this fall. Those odds probably haven’t changed in a week. If they have, the chances of playing might have dipped slightly just because a little time has slipped away, and infections, hospitalizations, and deaths due to the virus remain at a frighteningly high level.

The good news is college football moved into its next phase of possibly re-opening on Friday (July 24) as coaches are now allowed to instruct their athletes not only in drills but also in the running of plays with a football in unpadded walk-through workouts.

Teams can work up to four hours a day but for no longer than 20 hours a week in the activities described above as well as weight training and meetings through the beginning of actual practice on Aug. 7.

These workouts can’t make up for the 15 spring practices that were lost in March and April, but at least it gives coaches like first-year Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and his staff the first opportunity to actually coach their players on the field before practice begins for real.

What’s lost is the physical competition of actually blocking and tackling that’s so critical for a struggling program like Arkansas’ with a brand new coach.

Until players actually line up and knock heads at full speed, it’s impossible for coaches to accurately judge a player’s ability and more importantly his heart.

Two necessary ingredients to football success that have been lacking in Arkansas’ program in recent years are toughness and confidence. Spring practice is a key time where those mental and physical attitudes are developed and ingrained in players. Arkansas’ coaching staff can mitigate that loss to a degree over the next two weeks, but not fully.

While the rest of college football programs are working under the same coronavirus conditions, the Morris and Bielema regimes left the Razorbacks mired in a hole that Pittman and his staff must pull their players out of by before the program can stand on solid footing.

Right now, the Razorbacks hope to win rather than expect it. That attitude has to change for the football program to climb its way out of the SEC cellar.

While walkthroughs are important, even necessary, there is a terrific difference in running a play against air and actually executing against an opponent. To paraphrase boxer Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they are hit in the mouth.

With that caveat, this no doubt will be a great day for the Razorbacks as their coaches finally get to really do what they are paid to do — teach football in a hands-on way. Likewise, the players will actually begin to compete against each other rather than against dumbbells and other fitness equipment.

From film and from Zoom-type meetings, Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles knows some of what he has in graduate transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks (6-6, 235) and redshirt freshman K.J. Jefferson (6-3, 240), but he actually will get to put them through their paces for the first time since joining the staff two days before last Christmas.

He’ll get to watch them mesh with senior stud running back Rakeem Boyd (6-0, 225) and redshirt sophomore Trelon Smith (5-9, 187), who reaped plaudits from the previous staff for work during his transfer year, in his Veer-and-Shoot offense.

Briles will also get to see what type of connection his quarterbacks have with the Hogs’ receiving corps that’s bursting with potential with sophomore Treylon Burks (6-3, 231), Trey Knox (6-5, 203), Mike Woods (6-1, 197), and De’Vion Warren (5-10, 182) among others returning this season.

Likewise defensive coordinator Barry Odom will have his first on-the-field look at the raw material he and his staff will work with this season. There is experience back, but they have been bruised and battered the past three seasons in SEC play — three times by Odom’s own Missouri Tigers, who let him go as head coach after last season.

With improved coaching, the Razorbacks have the talent on offense to put points on the board this season, but as poorly as Arkansas has played on defense the last three seasons, it’s hard to make a similar claim about the defense.

Now, that’s not to say the Hogs didn’t play well on defense at times, but in most SEC games they hit a breaking point and seemed to burst like someone opened the floodgates.

Maybe if Briles and Co. can provide a more consistent offense, the Razorbacks’ defense might not be pushed to their breaking point so quickly and easily.

Either way, the Razorbacks begin to build for the forthcoming season — fingers crossed — on the field Friday (July 24). It’s not going to be a normal season — if there is one at all — but Pittman and his staff have to at least feel good about beginning the next step in rebuilding the program.