Pittman has Hogs on the upswing for 2021 season

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks were picked to finish next to last in the SEC West at SEC Media Days and The Athletic online magazine has tabbed them as the No. 53 team in the FBS, which puts them at 10th in the SEC.

That’s the regional and national perception of Arkansas’ football program basically a week before the start of the Hogs’ 2021 football season.

The good news is that perception is improved from where the Hogs would have been ranked the previous three years. The bad news is that it’s not nearly as high as Razorback fans would like.

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

While Arkansas’ overall athletic program experienced about as much success last season as it ever has, the unfortunate truth is that football is still trying to crawl out of the ditch that Bobby Petrino crashed it into way back in 2012.

That summation might be slightly unfair to former Razorback head coach Bret Bielema, who had three decent seasons in five as the head Hog, but looking back on the 2014-2016 seasons Bielema never squeezed all the success he could have out of the program. Each year there was at least one head-scratching loss that kept the Hogs from being all they could be.

One thing that has to be understood about the Razorback program is that its best football coaches — Frank Broyles, Lou Holtz, Ken Hatfield, Houston Nutt and Petrino — were able to coach their best teams to overachieve through pride in being a Razorback.

If Sam Pittman is ultimately to be successful as the Razorbacks head coach, he’s going to have to do the same thing. The great thing is that he understands that and embraces it.

His first Razorback squad was 3-10 last season in what perhaps was the most challenging season of college football that has ever been played because of the coronavirus.

While that 3-10 mark does not stand out, Pittman as a rookie head coach had the Razorbacks plays away from being 6-4 against the nation’s toughest football schedule.

With a 12-game schedule and a year’s experience under his belt as a head coach, I think Pittman’s Hogs are going to surprise some onlookers this season.

Much of this opinion stems from Pittman’s leadership and the way he and his staff have galvanized these Razorbacks into a true team of players willing to work and sacrifice not just for themselves but for their teammates or as so many of the players have put it in interviews this fall “their brothers.”

That bond is so important in team sports. It is a quality that was diminished or nonexistent during Chad Morris’ two seasons as coach, but in less than two seasons, Pittman and his staff have turned that around, and cultivated a whole new pride in being a Razorback among the players.

A great deal of that might be from having such a strong senior class bolstered by the return of super seniors who are playing their fifth and sixth seasons for the Razorbacks, in guys like linebackers Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry and offensive linemen like Myron Cunningham, Dalton Wagoner, and Ty Clary.

The super-senior rule has given Pittman’s Razorbacks a chance to improve mightily in his second season. Their experience is key, but their desire to win like they never have before at Arkansas could push this team to level or two beyond what it could have achieved without those players’ experience and leadership.

Jalen Catalon was named a preseason All-American by The Associated Press / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

This Razorback squad isn’t just a pack of overachievers, though. There is some definite talent on this squad. When is the last time Arkansas has had two players receiving preseason All-American notice like Treylon Burks and Jalen Catalon have?

Both were Morris recruits to his credit, but they have blossomed under Pittman’s staff and are straining to reach their full potential. Burks is injured right now, but Pittman said Thursday that he thought Burks would be ready for the opener against Rice.

The big question, though, is at quarterback. Can K.J. Jefferson be the accurate trigger-puller in Kendall Briles’ up-tempo offense?

From what his fellow players have said about Jefferson since spring ball, it seems like the team has confidence in Jefferson as a player and a leader.

This fall Pittman has said that Briles has tried to develop Jefferson as a passer who feels as comfortable “dropping dimes” to his receivers as he does tucking the ball and running. They’ve kept him in the pocket to develop his passing skills as well as to keep him from being dinged up by taking live hits in practice.

Sure, it will take him a play or two to get his feel back as a runner in games, but that will come quickly enough and only make him more dangerous if he can achieve the 65 percent completion percentage that Briles wants from his quarterbacks.

Jefferson is the clear No. 1 quarterback, but it sounds as if Malik Hornsby is only improving as his backup. Hornsby has sprinter speed. While it remains to be seen, Briles may find a way to employ that speed at times this fall.

The back end of Arkansas’ defense appears deep and salty with Catalon and underhanded corner Montaric Brown leading the way. Super senior Morgan, Henry and traditional senior Bumper Pool are stone solid at linebacker for defensive coordinator Barry Odom.

Though Arkansas had to go to the transfer portal to garner some mercenary help from Tre Williams, and Markell Utsey from Missouri and John Ridgeway from Southern Illinois, the defensive line is also taking shape with Isaiah Nichols, Dorian Gerald, and Eric Gregory returning as stalwarts.

The three additions and the progress of returning Razorbacks D-linemen will allow Odom to use his preferred four-man front as well as a three-man line when he wants to. A better and more consistent pass rush will only make the jobs of the linebackers and secondary easier.

As you can tell, I like the way this Razorback team is shaping up on paper and from reports, but in truth we’ll know so much more once we see these Hogs perform in the opener against what could be a better-than-usual Rice squad.

The demands of Arkansas’ grueling SEC schedule makes it difficult to pick this squad doing better than 6-6, but then again maybe this Razorback squad will surprise us in a good way.

Pittman’s leadership and positive nature makes me believe that it’s possible the Razorback football program is back on the upswing after dwelling in that ditch for way too long.