Razorbacks eying improvement as they enter Pittman’s 2nd season as coach

The second season of the Sam Pittman era of Razorback football officially gets underway Friday when the Arkansas Razorbacks begin practice for the 2021 season.

In actuality, work for this season began last December during bowl practices that were supposed to lead up to a clash with TCU in the Texas Bowl; however, the game was canceled as the Hogs were loading onto the buses that were to take them to the airport to fly down to Houston for the game.

Covid-19 infections in the Horned Frogs camp denied the Hogs a chance of winning the first bowl game of the Pittman era of Razorback football, but there is little doubt that those December workouts bore some fruit that hopefully will be harvested this fall.

2021 Arkansas Football Schedule

Sept. 4 – Rice
Sept. 11 – Texas
Sept. 18 – Georgia Southern
Sept. 25 – Texas A&M at Dallas
Oct. 2 – at Georgia
Oct. 9 – at Ole Miss
Oct. 16 – Auburn
Oct. 23 – UAPB at Little Rock
Nov. 6 – Mississippi State
Nov. 13 – at LSU
Nov. 20 – at Alabama
Nov. 26 – Missouri

Few outside the Razorback camp are expecting much from this year’s squad, based on the results of the media polling at SEC Media Days where the Hogs finished fifth in the Western Division ahead of Mississippi State by the fluke of one first-place vote that was cast in jest or in protest of the rather meaningless process of preseason media polling for the Hogs.

As much as any of us profess to know about the game, there are so many unknowns to work through during pre-season drills that it does make such polls a bit of a farce. Those polls often show how little the media knows as much as what they do. Besides, football is more about the details than the broad strokes anyway.

Before any SEC teams hit the practice field, the trajectory of LSU’s season took a hit with an injury to the arm of projected Tigers starting quarterback Myles Brennan that will leave him sidelined indefinitely.

While the injury is awful for the young man, for LSU it ironically came at a good time. The Tigers have the entirety of fall drills to adjust. There will no doubt be other season-impacting injuries during preseason workouts across the SEC. When and to which team? Nobody knows, but you can count on it happening.

In the summer, Las Vegas set the Razorbacks’ over-under win total for gamblers at 5.5. That’s truly sitting on the fence. How about a more concrete five wins or even six to give a betting man a chance?

Based on what we do know, that’s probably a pretty safe number for the oddsmakers, considering Arkansas’ schedule. Projecting at least three wins for Arkansas this season seems likely because of the nonconference schedule, but where the other two or three wins will come from is tricky.

Raheim Sanders, Javion Hunt and A.J. Green / Photos: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

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

Considering the Hogs won three games last year against perhaps the most brutal schedule in the history of college football despite the fact Covid-19 conditions denied a first-year staff spring practice, I also think it’s safe to project Arkansas winning at least two SEC games this season. I can’t tell you which ones, but five wins seems probable when the Hogs were so close to notching three other victories last year against Auburn, LSU, and Missouri.

Whether or not the Hogs get a sixth win to become bowl eligible or more appears to be the million-dollar question for fans in the preseason.

The Hogs’ schedule works against them in a couple of ways. Again, it is probably the toughest in the nation. Not only do the Razorbacks have to deal with the brutal SEC West, but the Hogs go to Georgia on Oct. 2 this season. The Bulldogs are expected to be Alabama’s prime competitor for the overall SEC title.

It doesn’t help that the Hogs play eight consecutive weeks before getting an open date, either, as Pittman pointed out at his SEC Media Days appearance a couple of weeks ago.

Arkansas’ non-conference — for the moment — tilt with the Texas Longhorns Sept. 11 looms extremely large not only on this season’s horizon but also it seems for the program’s future.

While I lovingly detest the Longhorns, I like the fact that they are joining the SEC along with Oklahoma in the near future. I personally believe is will be sooner than the official SEC line of 2025 as other Big 12 teams seek to escape a sinking ship. The quicker the Big 12 dissolves, the more quickly the SEC can expand.

Just think, in 2025, Texas and Arkansas State will dot the Hogs’ schedule.

John Ridgeway, Markell Utsey and Tre Williams / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

While the Longhorns’ arrogance has been known to suck the air out of the room, Texas joining the SEC restores a link to the history of Arkansas’ program that has been somewhat missing since the Razorbacks bolted from the Southwest Conference to the greener pastures of the SEC in 1990.

While Jack Crowe’s tenure as the Hogs’ head football coach was mostly a forgettable mess, he did own the distinction of directing the Razorbacks to a 14-13 victory over the Longhorns in their final matchup as SWC opponents in 1991.

For Razorback fans of a certain age, there simply is nothing like the joy of beating Texas, particularly in football. My hope is younger Hog fans will get a taste of that sweetness in just over a month.

A Fayetteville Steer Roast would be a perfect way to welcome the Longhorns to the SEC, but a word of warning, the Hogs haven’t beaten Texas in Fayetteville since ambushing the No. 1 Longhorns, 42-11, in 1981. The Razorbacks’ victories over Texas since then have all been in Austin, Dallas, Houston, or Little Rock.

However, there is a ton of work for the Hogs to do before then. For me the biggest question going into this season is the same for every year — quarterback. Quarterback is the position that can solve or create the most problems for any team.

K.J. Jefferson, a mature third-year sophomore, separated himself as the starter in the spring, and while he played very well in his lone start last season as somewhat of a surprise at Missouri when Feleipe Franks was hurt, there is a difference when an opponent has time to game-plan against you. He’ll see that difference up close and personal this season.

Jefferson may thrive, or he may not, but it seems his offseason work ethic earned the respect of his teammates based on their comments during Zoom interviews in the spring.

Now, what about his backup. Redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby (6-2, 190) seems to be the favorite, but what about redshirt freshman Kade Renfro (6-3, 208), who transferred from Ole Miss or true freshman Lucas Coley (6-4, 215). This looks like an interesting battle for the person who is one-play away from being the man under center.

Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The next biggest question is a position that’s been a sore spot for the Hogs practically since beginning play in the SEC in 1992 — defensive line. Don’t get me wrong. The Hogs have had good defensive lineman at times since them, but rarely have the Hogs’ boasted the type of two-deep depth along the defensive front required to play truly great defense with the bully boys of the SEC.

We don’t yet know what the Razorbacks will be like in the defensive trenches this season, but four transfers could help the Hogs by creating competition for playing time, which is the seed for actual depth at the position.

We know grad transfers Markell Utsey (6-4, 300) and Tre Williams (6-5, 260) can play from their time at Missouri. John Ridgeway (6-6, 325) is a mountain of a man, who has transferred up from Illinois State, and Jalen Williams (6-3, 305) of Jones (Miss.) Junior College is nobody’s definition of small.

The foursome will no doubt push returning Razorbacks junior Isaiah Nichols (6-3, 290), sophomore Eric Gregory (6-4, 298), junior Zach Williams (6-4, 260), senior Dorian Gerald (6-3, 255), sophomore Taurean Carter (6-3, 300) and sophomore Jashaud Stewart (6-2, 240) for playing time.

Hopefully, eight of them will prove to be SEC-ready, so defensive coordinator Barry Odom and first-year defensive line coach Jermial Ashley can roll them in and out of the game to keep them fresh.

The strength of the Razorbacks appears to be at linebacker and the secondary with veteran performers dotting all starting spots. Although depth at linebacker remains unproven, the prospects do look better at the position.

The Hogs’ offensive line doesn’t have any All-American candidates as the best Razorback teams of the past have boasted, but center Rick Stromberg (6-4, 316) and tackle Myron Cunningham (6-6, 330) lead a stalwart group who have played together and appear to be an asset going into the season rather than a liability as the O-line has been in the recent past. The battles for the two starting guard spots are worth tracking.

Hudson Henry and Blake Kern / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Treylon Burks (6-3, 225) has All-SEC if not All-American potential at receiver, but he needs a Tonto or two to arise so he won’t be stranded as the Lone Ranger among Hog receivers. De’Vion Warren (5-10, 185), who is coming off an ACL injury, and Trey Knox (6-5, 209) are the prime candidates, but they still have much to prove. Oklahoma transfer Jacquelyn Crawford (5-10, 175) could help here, too.

Similarly junior Trelon Smith (5-9, 195) proved himself last year at running back, but who will help him carry the load?

The trio of Raheim “Rocket” Sanders (6-2, 220), Javion Hunt (6-0, 205), and A.J. Green (5-11, 194) have the type of ability to possibly make an impact this year as freshmen, but which one will forge ahead?

Senior T.J. Hammonds (5-10, 190) has dangerous speed, as does junior track man Josh Oglesby (5-8, 175), and Dominique Johnson (6-1, 240) brings the thunder to their lightning, but only Hammonds is SEC-proven.

Blake Kern (6-4, 255) was a big surprise at tight end last season for the Hogs as a solid contributor. He’s back as a Covid-19 senior, but the real question is whether or not sophomore Hudson Henry (6-5, 255) can begin to fulfill the promise he brought to campus as a decorated recruit? Injuries have held him back so far.

Practices and scrimmages are basically closed to spectators in this day and age of social media with reporters only getting brief windows of viewing time early in practices. This is standard now across the SEC. It does allow for a bit of mystery going into the first game of the season, and like most Razorback fans, I can’t wait.