Arkansas running back Trelon Smith / Photo: Arkansas Razorback Football
It’s early, really early, but it’s hard not to get a good feeling about the 2021 Arkansas football team when you listen to old heads like Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry, and Trelon Smith talk about the upcoming season, and the new life Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and his staff have breathed into the program.
Smith is the Hogs’ Little Big Man. At 5-9, 190 pounds, the Houston native is as fearless as he is engaging. The running back boasts a smile that lights up the room, and he is one of the most gregarious Razorbacks in quite a while.
His energy and vibe reminds of one of the all-time Razorback greats Anthony Lucas, a receiver who starred for Danny Ford and Houston Nutt in the mid to late 1990s.
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
“The direction we are going is going to be a beautiful thing, once you guys see it,” Smith said Monday. “We been busting our tails. Those losing days are over. We’ve been tired of losing. The whole team is tired of losing. It’s time to win now.
“That’s what Coach Pittman has been pondering us on. Just relentless effort. Straining. Physicality. Playing fast. That’s our whole goal. We want to play fast, be physical, and be relentless. When we go out there, that’s what we do. I really feel like we got a good team… We got a lot of old heads back and that could be a good thing. I’m excited to see what we are going to do.”
With the NCAA rule that granted an extra year of eligibility to players because of the havoc the coronavirus pandemic played on college athletics over the last year and a half, this is a very experienced Razorback team. Nineteen players who have started will return, and there are 23 players classified as seniors. That’s an uncommon amount of experience.
Two players taking advantage of that extra year of eligibility are linebackers Morgan (5-11, 235) and Henry (6-2, 225). Both returned this season because of the genuineness of their coaching staff led by Pittman, and the bond they’ve developed with their teammates.
Morgan and Henry practically gushed about their respect for Pittman after Tuesday’s practice, and how their relationship with him played a key role in them returning for another season.
Henry, who considered not coming back after enduring last season with another shoulder injury following surgeries in 2017 and 2018, believes these Hogs have grit.
“I just think and love how tough and physical this football team is,” Henry said. “This is definitely the toughest and most physical team I’ve ever played on. Just to have success in this league, that’s the No. 1 thing, zero doubt about it. To see the guys we have in the trenches going at it everyday in practice, it is exciting to watch. How it has transformed since Pittman got here. It’s exciting for what’s to come.”
As legacy Razorbacks with family members that competed for the Razorbacks in better days, both Henry and Morgan understand the pride the state has in the Razorbacks and the responsibility they carry on the field with them.
“Pittman brought back Arkansas football,” Morgan said Tuesday. “Arkansas is supposed to be a hard-working, tough football team. You go back and look at any good Arkansas football team. Darren McFadden was fast, yeah, but he would run people over still. Felix Jones was the same thing. Peyton Hillis, too. You go back and look at Arkansas in its prime, and it’s smash-mouth football. That’s what we want to be. We want to be a team that hits hard, that’s not afraid of anybody. Bring them into our house or we go there, either way. Football is a simple game. We just have got to make it simple and run and hit again.”
Morgan, a returning All-American who led the SEC and co-led the nation in tackles last year, related a recent conversation he and fellow starting linebacker Bumper Pool had around the pool table in the team’s recreation area in the Fred W. Smith Center.
“We have a close friend group,” Morgan said. “Me, Hayden, Bumper, John Stephen [Jones], Jake Yurachek.. We vowed to stay up here and not go home when we have a free hour because we know this is our last year together. We were all playing pool, and Bump looked at me. There were probably 60 or 70 people there, all hanging out in our media room, our play area. He looked at me and said, ‘this is the closest our team has ever been.’
“I looked at him and said ‘You know what, this is my sixth year here, and I’ve never seen this before. This is pretty cool to see.’
“That alone right there shows our dynamic. Our team is literally a big friend unit. There’s not a single group of people that don’t talk to the other people. There are so many guys that are engulfed in each other’s relationships. It’s fun to see.”
Morgan also gave some insight into why the team has grown so close. It’s Pittman.
“He’s just himself… He’s so genuine and so himself. You never have to think if he’s telling the truth or not. You never think “I don’t know if I want to play for this guy.’ He’s such a good ball coach, but he is an even better man. He didn’t have to recruit us to get us to come back or promise this or that. You can see exactly what type of guy he is, and I knew wanted to play for him. As a recruit you see him, and that’s the way he is every single day.”
“He’s just himself, one of the most honest and genuine persons I’ve been around,” Henry said.. “He doesn’t have to say a certain thing to get you to come back. It was just ‘hey man, we’re here if you want to come back and be a Hog again.’ For me that was easy. I love him to death and can’t thank him enough for letting me come back on the team. The guy is amazing.”
I’ve written about sports in some form or fashion since 1989, and I don’t remember too many players speaking that way about their coach, particularly while they were still playing for him.
Hearing comments like that from Smith, Henry, and Morgan excites the Razorback fan and intrigues the sports writer in me.
The Hogs are off Wednesday, but will don pads for the first time Thursday. They don’t have their first full-scale scrimmage until Saturday, but there is a positivity and confidence about this football team in its second season under Pittman that hasn’t been perceptible in recent years.
The recent past has been a struggle for the Razorbacks on the field and for their fans everywhere else.
The Hogs haven’t tasted any semblance of success since finishing barely over .500 with a 7-6 season in 2016 that ended with back-to-back losses to Missouri in the regular-season finale and Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl under Bret Bielema.
Bielema, of course, was ousted the following season, just minutes after finishing a 4-8 season when Hog boosters moved land and water in a desperate attempt to hire Gus Malzahn away from Auburn.
Their gambit might have worked if Malzahn’s Tigers hadn’t rallied to upset Georgia and Alabama on their way to a surprising Western Division title that forced Auburn boosters to pony up a princely sum to retain Malzahn.
Super agent Jimmy Sexton then worked a bait-and-switch move on Arkansas that should go down in the con-man hall of fame when he offered up his client Chad Morris as a Malzahn-substitute.
Morris brought a mostly sub-par staff with him to Arkansas featuring assistants who were over the hill on the defensive side of the football and ones not ready for prime time on offense. That mistake among others left him on the outs before the end of his second season, and the Razorback football program in its most desperate state since the dawn of World War II when many players left the team to enlist in the war effort.
The unfortunate state of the program left Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek in perhaps the worst hiring position the program had faced since Ken Hatfield surprised former athletic director Frank Broyles in late January of 1990 and jumped to Clemson, leaving the program rudderless shortly before the start of the national signing period in early February. Broyles tried to save the class by promoting Hatfield’s offensive coordinator Jack Crowe. Reportedly Broyles knew he had made a mistake rather quickly.
Yurachek hired Pittman after courting and reportedly being spurned by the likes of Lane Kiffin now at Ole Miss, Eliah Drinkwitz now at Missouri, and Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. While the jury is still out, Pittman seems like a great fit for the Razorbacks.
In just over a year and a half on the job, Pittman has returned a sense of pride to the program that frankly had been lost since Bobby Petrino wrecked the program in a ditch on that fateful Sunday motorcycle ride in April of 2012. That comment might not be exactly fair to Bielema, who had three respectable seasons, but even before the failed attempt at hiring Malzahn was hatched it seemed his program was regressing.
While the Hogs 3-7 record last season wasn’t impressive on paper, Pittman and his staff restored a pride in the Razorbacks’ program that fans haven’t witnessed in a long time.
Outside the confines of the Natural State, there’s not a lot of confidence in the program for this season either. Las Vegas oddsmakers have set the Hogs’ over/under for victories at 5.5, and most prognosticators are predicting a sixth- or seventh-place finish for the Razorbacks this fall in the SEC West. ESPN has ranked the Razorbacks at the bottom of the barrel in the SEC along with Vanderbilt.
To borrow a line from the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the Hogs “don’t get no respect.”
However, maybe the Razorbacks will earn that respect with a group of dedicated and experienced Hogs who are ready to rally around the leadership Pittman has brought into the program.