Razorbacks improving with start of a brutal season 2 weeks away

The hay’s not in the barn yet for Sam Pittman’s first Arkansas Razorbacks football team.

Two weeks and two days before the Razorbacks’ 3 p.m. Sept. 26 season opener against the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs, Pittman said Thursday night following a practice under the lights that the Hogs will continue to work on themselves during the next week before turning their full attention to game-planning for the Bulldogs next Friday.

That means players will still be actively competing for starting roles against the Bulldogs through next Thursday. It seems the Hogs are still trying to find their best five offensive linemen, as well as still looking for answers at linebacker and tight end.

Obviously, it would be great if the Razorbacks did not have so many unanswered questions two weeks out from the season opener, but there is nothing wrong with extending the competition for starting and back-up spots as long as the coaching staff can before narrowing the focus for the Georgia game plan.

With young and inexperienced players things don’t always click in their brains and bodies on a perfect timetable, and extending the competition for starting and back-up roles through another week will be good for a coaching staff and group of players who are still getting to know each other.

No doubt this entire season will be a discovery process for the Razorbacks and their coaching staff in a season that stands to be like no other because of the coronavirus.

While we’ve seen a handful of college games played over the last two weekends, the season still remains a mystery in terms of how teams will negotiate the ins and outs of playing football with the coronavirus looming over each and every game.

It’s good that new cases of the virus, which had spiked with the return of college students to on-campus classes for the fall semester, seem to be leveling off to a degree this week; however, the real tell won’t come for another week. That’s when those who were infected over the Labor Day weekend will begin show symptoms.

Hopefully the Hogs stayed as safe as possible last weekend and will continue to be diligent in their social-distancing efforts throughout the season. I personally admire the discipline the Razorbacks have shown in that area because your college years are some of the most broadly social in your life.

It’s not fair that the Razorbacks have to semi-quarantine themselves from other students, but it’s the hand that has been dealt these Hogs and all others who are attending college during this corona-virus era, and so far it seems Arkansas’ players have adjusted fairly well.

By their very nature, athletes are more disciplined that most normal students. They have to be in order to compete at a high level, but the Razorbacks and all other student-athletes across the nation are being asked to carry additional responsibilities that previous generations of players haven’t haven’t had to worry about in decades. One would have to go back a century when the Spanish flu struck the United States from February 1918 through April 1920.

There’s no book on coaching a team through a pandemic, which only adds to the pressure Pittman faces as a first-year head coach in what most everyone agrees is the toughest schedule in the nation.

The task ahead of Pittman and the Razorbacks really is monumental, and it’s been lost on no one how ironic and maybe even poetic that the Razorbacks open the season against Georgia, the program Pittman left Arkansas as an assistant coach for after the 2015 season, and the program he exited last December to become the Razorbacks’ head coach.

The storyline almost writes itself for the SEC Network which will broadcast the game from Razorback Stadium.

Pittman has a wealth of experience coaching beyond his tenure at Georgia, but no doubt the four years he spent as an assistant under Kirby Smart has impacted Pittman’s coaching philosophy. It will be interesting to see Pittman’s underdog Hogs clash with Smart’s Bulldogs in Pittman’s first game as a head coach. The Bulldogs’ are a 24-point favorite two weeks out from the game, and that’s with Georgia still facing a quarterback question.

Quarterback isn’t a question for the Hogs with grad-transfer Feleipe Franks solidly in control at the starting quarterback spot and being backed by promising redshirt freshman K.J. Jefferson, but as mentioned earlier, offensive line coach Brad Davis is still sorting out his best five to eight players on the offensive line.

Pittman and tight ends coach Jon Cooper still seem to be searching for the right fit at tight end, running a number of players at the position the last two weeks. Redshirt freshman Hudson Henry has all the promise in the world at the position, but probably isn’t physical enough as a blocker yet to fully meet Pittman’s needs at the position.

Defensively, it seems the secondary and line are proving to be better than anticipated in fall camp, but the Hogs also seem to be lacking at linebacker. Pittman didn’t dodge questions about the position in his most recent Zoom call with the media, but his hesitancy to say much at all about the position seemed to bely his uneasiness over where the Razorbacks stand at linebacker just two weeks before kickoff.

With basically a week left in training camp, it will be interesting to see how far along the Razorbacks will get at answering their remaining questions before embarking on what is stacking up to be another brutal but hopefully exciting SEC season.