Quarterback, depth, defensive line big questions for Hogs prior to preseason practice

2021 PREVIEW: Check out Terry’s position-by-position series previewing the 2021 Arkansas football team.

With SEC Media Days in the rearview mirror and the opening of preseason workouts two weeks away for the Arkansas Razorbacks, what do we know about the Hogs?

A good bit actually, and a lot of it can be viewed as promising.

That’s usually not the case coming off a 3-7 season; however, those three SEC wins look pretty good considering the Hogs failed to win an SEC game during Chad Morris’ one-season and 10-game tenure as head coach. The Hogs finished up the 2019 season 0-2 against LSU and Missouri during Barry Lunney Jr.’s unfortunate tenure as interim coach.

While the Razorbacks once again get the dubious task of playing the nation’s toughest schedule, there is at least some hope for a much better outcome than in recent years if the Hogs can stay relatively healthy and get a few breaks along the way.

While Arkansas’ final record last year wasn’t great, the effort given by the team under first-year head coach Sam Pittman was.

No one could accuse the Hogs of not playing hard under the exceptionally difficult conditions of the covid-19 pandemic. The Razorbacks laid it on the line for their coaching staff, and progress was made.

The attitude alone was an improvement, and that attitude along with the heart Pittman and his staff have infused into the program is tangible based on the number of “super seniors” returning to the program. “Super seniors” is what some coaches have taken to calling the seniors who are taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA is granting because of the pandemic.

The Razorbacks have 11 “super seniors” returning this year. That’s 11 players who could have moved on with their lives, but chose to stay and play another year for the Hogs because they believe in the program that Pittman is building at Arkansas and the opportunity they have this season to not only surprise their fans but also those who follow college football around the nation.

Sam Pittman at SEC Media Days / Photo: Arkansas Razorback Football

You might look back now and say, well, I’d love to have another year of college, especially if I could play football. However, think back to your final year of school — no matter if it was college or high school — and remember how eager you were to move on and start a new chapter in your life.

That’s what these 11 “super seniors” are doing. They are putting their life on hold to play for the Razorbacks one more year. That shows the belief they have in Pittman and his staff.

Sure, some of them are returning in hopes of enhancing their NFL prospects with another season of work, but most of them won’t go on to the NFL. Had their experience with Pittman and their position coaches last year been less than positive, there’s no way those players would have returned.

The Razorbacks also have a dozen traditional seniors, making the Hogs one of the most experienced teams in the SEC. That kind of experience makes this an intriguing year for the Razorbacks.

Depth remains a major concern for Arkansas as the Hogs rebuild from the depths the program sank to under Morris’ watch. However, the Razorbacks should be solid — at least with the starting 11 — at linebacker and in the back end, where Morris actually did a decent job recruiting. All-SEC linebacker candidates Grant Morgan, Bumper Pool and safety Jalen Catalon spearhead a hard-nosed defense.

Offensively the entire starting line returns with several key backups who are pushing some of the returning starters. Both guard positions are an either-or proposition between Luke Jones and Brady Latham and Ty Clary and Beaux Limmer.

Even with the loss of second-leading receiver Mike Woods with his post-spring practice transfer to Oklahoma, the Razorbacks are solid at wide receiver with All-SEC candidate Treylon Burks leading the way.

The gifted junior is in better shape going into this season, which should only make him more dangerous in Kendal Briles’ offense, according to Pittman. Senior running back Trelon Burks is smallish but is tenacious runner. Who will back him is yet to be decided, but that’s what the preseason is for.

Grant Morgan at SEC Media Days / Photo: Arkansas Razorback Football

The major question marks are at quarterback, defensive line, and the kicking game. The kicking game will be sorted out in August. K.J. Jefferson locked down the starting quarterback job in the spring, as long as he is healthy.

Jefferson is a nimble and powerfully built runner that adds a dimension to the Hogs’ offense that was lacking last year with Feleipe Franks a somewhat reluctant runner after the ankle injury he suffered at Florida. However, we will have to see how Jefferson progresses as a passer and decision-maker when defenses are able to scheme against him.

Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom would like for the Hogs to be able to play four defensive lineman more this season out of Odom’s multiple scheme. Graduate transfers Markell Utsey and Tre Williams from Missouri are proven SEC performers, who should help the Hogs reach that goal. A four-man front would not only help the Hogs against the run game but also allow them to bring pressure in more diverse patterns.

How much the Razorbacks can improve along the defensive front, and how quickly Jefferson transitions from being a backup to the Hogs’ starting quarterback will be the difference in how much the Razorbacks can progress in Pittman’s second season at the Razorback helm.

While three wins was acceptable in Pittman’s first season against a 10-game, all-SEC schedule, no Hog or Hog fan will be happy with just three wins this season. Arkansas’ schedule is difficult with road games at Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss as well as a neutral-site game with Texas A&M in Dallas. The home schedule is no cake walk either with Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Texas playing at Razorback Stadium.

The Hogs should have what should be three built-in victories against Rice, Georgia Southern, and Pine Bluff. If the Razorbacks can win three SEC games like they did a year ago, they would go .500 and merit a bowl bid. Under the circumstances, that would be a very good year. Anything better would be outstanding during the second year of Pittman’s Razorback reclamation program.