Kicking game still rounding into shape for Razorbacks

Arkansas senior long snapper Jordan Silver / Photo:

Legendary Arkansas football coach and athletics director Frank Broyles learned his philosophy of football from his mentor, legendary Georgia Tech coach and athletic director Bobby Dodd as a player and then an assistant coach.

One of Dodd’s tenets of the game is that special teams was just as important as the other two thirds of the game — offense and defense. Some might argue differently as the game has evolved into the 21st century, but what absolutely remains true is that kicking-game mistakes can prove costly to an otherwise solid team, and that kicking-game excellence can elevate a team’s performance no matter how good or bad that team is.

Broyles’ emphasis on the kicking game was evident. One of the biggest plays in Arkansas football history was Ken Hatfield’s 81-yard punt return for a touchdown against No. 1 Texas at Austin in 1964. The return, that featured a crunching block by wingback Jim Lindsey among others, led to a 14-13 Razorback upset, and that victory was the lynchpin in what would become an undefeated season and program’s lone football national title.

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

Broyles recruit Steve Little came to Fayetteville from Overland Park, Kan. as a promising quarterback candidate, too, but his kicking skills were so exceptional and valued that Broyles had him concentrate solely on place-kicking and punting. Little went on to be an All-American, and he set the record for the longest field goal in NCAA history with a 67-yarder against Texas as senior in 1977 for Lou Holtz’ first Razorback squad. That field goal still shares the national record 44 years later.

The kicking game is all about field position. Some would argue that the high-powered, explosive offenses that dominate today’s game mitigates the advantages of winning the field-position battle. In certain instances, that might seem true based on the ever-increasing scores and stats, but those numbers are relative. What remains constant is that the team that enjoys an advantage in field position makes the duties of its offense and defense easier.

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman is a traditionalist in his thoughts about the kicking game, and proved that when one of his first hires as the Razorbacks’ head coach was Scott Fountain as his special teams coordinator and assistant head coach.

Covid-19 procedures wreaked havoc on the Hogs’ kicking game last year. Players were tested three times a week with the last one on Friday. Often Fountain was forced to reconfigure who was participating in the kicking game three times a week as players tested positive for the virus or were quarantined by contact tracing. Consistency was nearly impossible.

While the Delta variant of the virus is still rampaging through the area, at least 90 percent of the Razorbacks’ players have reportedly been vaccinated. That should provide some much needed consistency for Fountain and the team as a whole.

Freshman Cam Little of Moore, Okla. is working his way toward being the Hogs’ starting place-kicker according to Fountain.

“He’s making his field goals,” Fountain said. “He’s getting great height on the ball. He’s got good operation. We’re moving it around on him. He’s doing a really good job with that.”

Pittman has also liked what he’s seen from the freshman.

“He knows how to kick the ball pretty consistently,” Pittman said last Saturday. “We had a hurry field-goal situation the other day from 57 (yards), and he kicked it 65. Kicked it right through the middle. His leg is a lot better than what it was from the spring.”

Fountain explained Little had some adjusting to do when he joined the team from high school during the second semester in January.

“In the spring, he really struggled trying to figure out what all he could do for us,” Fountain said. “We’ve really tried to just have him focus on field goals and kickoffs. He’s had a really good camp so far.”

Little has added some muscle from when he first reported.

“Yeah, he came in a little on the lighter side,” Fountain said. “Our strength staff has done a tremendous job this summer putting on weight and muscle mass of the guys just coming in. He’s put on weight, added strength in his legs and his squat has gone up. So, definitely his workouts can’t help but transition into power and his swing of the kick.”

Sophomore Vito Calvaruso will continue to be the Razorbacks’ kick-off man this season, after booting 33 of his kickoffs for touchbacks last year.

Junior Reid Bauer has moved ahead of Vanderbilt transfer Sam Loy for punting duties as well as holding for Little. Senior Jordan Silver returns as the Hogs’ snapper.

Fountain is still sorting out the Hogs’ kick and punt returners with a gaggle of Hogs working at both spots. With Dev’ion Warren recovering from knee surgery and Treylon Burks concentrating on receiving, other Hogs will get their opportunity. One of them is nickel back Greg Brooks Jr., who approached Fountain about working on special teams in the summer.

“He said, ‘Coach, I want to play on more special teams for you,’” Fountain said. “A lot of kids are not always that way.”

With Brooks’ desire expressed, Fountain gave him the opportunity to show his worth, and he has been pleased so far.

“He said, ‘Coach, I’ll play on all four units,’” Fountain said. “ That’s the kind of attitude our football team has had, which is good. We’re not going to play him on all four units. We can’t. I told him that. But he also enlightened me and said, ‘Coach, I can catch the ball. I want to return punts.’

“So, we started working this summer, and it’s been a good pickup for us. He’s a guy that can do that.”

Fountain wants a dangerous return man, and he showed his troops the video of Joe Adams’ Keystone Cops-like punt return from the 2011 Tennessee game to get their juices flowing. The Hogs won that game 48-7 on their way to an 11-2 season.

Fountain is still sorting out who will return kickoffs with LaDarrius Bishop, Rocket Sanders, Josh Oglesby, T.J. Hammonds, and Myles Slusher in the mix.

“It’s a big group back there…I got to get that cut down,” Fountain said. “But I think we got some good candidates. They really worked hard in the summer, catching balls. We got some guys who really want to back there, and that’s a big part of it.”