Bye week allows Hogs to reassess secondary, running back depth

The Arkansas Razorbacks do not play a football game this Saturday, enjoying their lone bye week of the season, but Sam Pittman did not have his Hogs standing still.

The week has been key in developing the younger Razorbacks who aren’t getting as much playing time this season as well as nailing down how Pittman and his assistants want to deploy their manpower for the final third of the season.

Wholesale changes aren’t in store for the Hogs (5-3, 1-3 SEC), who got off to an impressive start to the season with a 4-0 run in September before losing three consecutive games to currently ranked teams in October, but Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom need to fill the vacuum created by the loss of All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon for the season to shoulder and hand injuries. Myles Slusher and Jayden Johnson are battling for Catalon’s role. It will likely take improved play by both to help fill that gap.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Mississippi State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6
Where: Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Nov. 13 — at LSU
Nov. 20 — at Alabama
Nov. 26 — Missouri

“I feel like we’ve got some competition back there, certainly between [Simeon] Blair, [Greg] Brooks, Jayden Johnson and (Myles) Slusher,” Pittman said Wednesday. “I think that’s an ongoing competition, as well as at corner. I think those are two competitions going on.

Offensively, Pittman has called for Dominique Johnson (6-1, 235) to get more carries in the Hogs’ rushing pecking order.

“Obviously, I’ve said it before and we didn’t get it, but Dominique Johnson needs to carry the ball more,” Pittman said. “Those first four runs [against Pine Bluff] averaged 20 yards a carry. So we’ve certainly addressed that better than we did last time.”

Johnson is averaging 7.9 yards per carry, which leads the team in yards per carry. However, his backfield mates have all been productive with Trelon Smith leading the team in rushing with 90 carries for 459 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 4 touchdowns. Quarterback KJ Jefferson (81-419, 5 TDs, 5.2), Raheim Sanders (79-434, 1 TD, 5.5), Johnson (39 carries, 309 yards, 4 TDs), and AJ Green (39-194, 1 TD, 5.0).

“We certainly have a running back competition, wide receiver competition,” Pittman said. “We’ve got to figure who we want to play at slot, as far as our No. 2 slot. Those things are going on now. It’s a good week to find out about some of the younger guys and see if they can do something well enough and are ready enough mentally to go play in an SEC game.”

The Razorbacks began to right the ship last week with a 45-3 victory over Pine Bluff at War Memorial Stadium. The Hogs hope to create a winning streak next Saturday when they host Mississippi State for a 3 p.m. tilt at Razorback Stadium, but Pittman knows Mike Leach’s Bulldogs, who face Kentucky on Saturday, pose a much more formidable threat.

The Hogs got a jump on game-week prep for the Bulldogs on Thursday. The players are off Friday and Saturday while the bulk of the coaching staff , including Pittman, hits the road to recruit. The Hogs will workout Sunday and Monday, take Tuesday off for election day per NCAA rules, and then finish off game-week work for the Bulldogs on Wednesday and Thursday.

Getting back on track with a victory over Mississippi State is vital for the Razorbacks if this is to be a November to remember for the Hogs and their fans.