Anticipation builds as Razorbacks hit the practice field

Arkansas redshirt senior long snapper Jordan Silver / Photo:

The Arkansas Razorbacks embark on their 2021 season starting today at 2:30 p.m. with the first practice of the season.

Under NCAA mandate, the Hogs and other squads must go through the motions with six practices without pads before donning full gear. The Razorbacks will be in full gear on Aug. 12 after taking Aug. 11 off. That’s when the true separation will begin between those who will play this fall and those who will take a lesser roll.

The Hogs will hold their first scrimmage on Aug. 14 and the second on Aug. 21 before having a practice game walkthrough, on Aug. 28. All three of those practices are scheduled to be closed to the media as well as fans, although head coach Sam Pittman and selected players will take questions from the media following the two scrimmages.

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

Then, game-week preparation for the season-opener against former Southwest Conference foe Rice begins on Monday, Aug. 30. That game is scheduled for 1 p.m., and while the weather today is expected to be comfortable, you can count on it being steamy when the Owls come to town.

One hopes a surge in Covid-19 vaccinations will stem the rising tide of Delta-variant infections that we are currently suffering through by that point, but who knows when we’ll actually be able to get back to true normal or whatever our new version of normal will be. Like so many others, I’m in the process of mourning the loss of a good friend to Covid-19 at the moment and have two other friends in the hospital with it now.

While I am excited that football season is underway, that loss dampens my spirit as I pray and hope for the other two who are suffering mightily at this point.

However, it is good to have diversions, particularly in a time of suffering and woe, and Razorback football has always been a great tonic for me and thousands of others, taking our minds off the struggles we face, even if it’s only for a couple hours or three each Saturday in the fall.

The Razorbacks mean so much to so many in this state. I personally can’t think about the Hogs without treasuring family and friendships, and I know I’m not alone in that. Last year was tough as so many of us who had lifelong traditions of going to Razorback games with friends and family had to put those traditions aside for the sake of safety from the virus. Sure, careful living has become all too routine for many of us today.

I was thrilled to hear that around 90% of those within the Razorback football program have been vaccinated two weeks ago when Pittman spoke at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., and it stands to reason that the percentage has increased, even if only slightly, since then.

That vaccination percentage means Covid-19 will be much less of a concern for the team than it was last season when it affected nearly every aspect of the players and coaches’ lives.

As stated earlier the true work for the season begins when pads are strapped on next Thursday; however, the foundation that’s being set over the next week is important as the upperclassmen begin to set the tone for the type of football squad this team is going to be.

The better the work in these non-padded practices, the more fluid practices will be when the pads are put on.

Expectations for this Razorback squad are generally low. The Hogs were picked fifth in the SEC West by a fluke in the media vote at SEC Media Days, and ESPN recently rated Arkansas’ football program at the bottom of the SEC along with Vanderbilt.

Las Vegas hasn’t got much respect for Arkansas either, pegging them with a 5.5 victory over/under mark, which includes three nonconference games that are essentially gimmes. Part of that comes from the Hogs’ brutal schedule, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s been five years since Arkansas has had a winning season on the gridiron.

I personally think the Razorbacks are going to surprise folks this year. With 19 returning starters and better depth than the program has had in years thanks to 11 seniors allowed to return for an additional year of eligibility because of the virus, I think the scrappiness we saw last year is going to pay off with a surprising season for Hog fans.

Now, I admit that forecast might just be me being giddy with the return of football to my life, but with better play on the offensive and defensive line this season, I can see this Razorback team surprising many even with the toughest schedule in college football.

I really like what we heard about quarterback K.J. Jefferson and how he has taken ownership of this team since January from various Razorbacks in the spring and at SEC Media Days. Players don’t say that stuff unless they feel it. While Feleipe Franks did an outstanding job quarterbacking the Hogs last season, Jefferson’s abilities fit Kendal Briles’ RPO-offense better this season.

I’m also eager to see who the battles at offensive guard and along the defensive front shakes out. It’s actually great that the Hogs have enough quality numbers along both sides of the line of scrimmage for there to be legitimate competition for starting spots this season. Whoever ends up starting will have been pushed for the job. That’s not been the case in recent years.

What running backs step forward to augment starter Trelon Smith is another storyline to follow, as well as how the kicking game develops under second-year coordinator Scott Fountain. Covid-19 truly undercut Fountain’s ability to coach the special teams last season. That should not be as big an issue this year.

It’s good to get preseason workouts underway so that we can begin tracking just what type of Razorback squad we’re going to be following for the next four months or so. My hope is that the Razorbacks will surprise a lot people this year.