Pittman lays out Outback Bowl plans

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

How do you measure the impact Treylon Burks had on the Arkansas Razorback program?

Well, he’s still one of the biggest topics of conversation among Hog fans a week after he announced that he would not play in the Outback Bowl and forego his senior season at Arkansas to begin his NFL career.

When you consider that the early national signing period begins today, and that safety Jalen Catalon announced he would return for his redshirt junior season on social media, that’s saying a lot about what the junior from Warren meant to this Razorback team, which is the first to have a winning record at 8-4 and earn a bowl bid since 2016.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Penn State (Outback Bowl)
When: 11 a.m. Jan. 1
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

A win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl would push the victory total to nine wins, which would be the Hogs’ best record since going 11-2 in 2011, Bobby Petrino’s final year.

I’m not sure if that decade has gone by extremely slow or very fast for you. I guess it’s all in your individual perspective, but defeating the Nittany Lions on Jan. 1 to kick off a New Year’s Day of college football would be significant for the Hogs and their fans and great way to start off the new year.

That said, the loss of Burks, even just a game early, is significant. It changes things for the Hogs’ offense not having Burks’ speed, strength, and dependable sticky fingers to call upon.

Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will be tasked with making such adjustments. There’s no way to replace Burks, but several Hogs will have the opportunity for increased roles against Penn State, which boasts a rugged defense that belies their 7-5 record.

As for the Razorbacks, it is an opportunity for the team to get prepared for life after Burks in the bowl practices that began last Friday.

The door of opportunity now is wide open for Arkansas’ other receivers to step forward and establish a new pecking order. That’s going to be important not only for the bowl matchup with Penn State, but also for next season.

So for players like Ketron Jackson and Bryce Stephens, this becomes a time when they can step forward. The same is true for older Hogs like Trey Knox, who played well after moving to tight end this year, and Warren Thompson, who had some ups and downs but overall a good season.

It’s going to be fun to see if senior Tyson Morris gets the call more often or if one of the younger guys steps to the fore.

Sophomore quarterback K.J. Jefferson had an outstanding season in his first year as a starter for the Hogs, and he specialized in hooking up with Burks for big plays. As Jefferson continues to mature as a quarterback and leader, it’s going to be interesting and exciting to watch him adjust to the game without his primary target.

One player who will attempt to bridge that talent gap in the spring is 6-3 receiver Jadon Haselwood, who recently decided to transfer from Oklahoma to Arkansas after his head coach Lincoln Riley moved on from the Sooners to take the same post at Southern Cal.

Haselwood was the top-rated receiver in his recruiting class three years ago, but struggled with injuries at Oklahoma. He made 39 catches for 399 yards and six touchdowns this season. He will have two years of eligibility at Arkansas.

As much as the pre-bowl practices are to prepare for the game, they are also useful in working out younger players as they begin their quest to move up the depth chart for next season.

How well they perform in bowl practices will affect where they start out in spring practice. Now is the time for players desiring more playing time to make their move and catch their position coach’s attention.

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said the younger players will scrimmage either Thursday or Friday this week. Practices have been scaled down to an hour and 15 minutes or so. The coaching staff doesn’t want the team to peak before they make it to Tampa.

Pittman said Tuesday that he’s expecting Penn State to load the box with 6 and add some safety help leaning in to outman the Razorbacks at the line of scrimmage as well as running a zone blitz package they often used this past season.

One thing he knows for certain is that Penn State will try to confuse the Razorbacks with movement, particularly on early downs. Discipline will be imperative for the Hogs’ offensive front that hurt themselves at times this season with pre-snap penalties, particularly when facing Georgia and their raucous crowd.

Bowl crowds aren’t nearly as intimidating as road crowds in the SEC, but Penn State is known for traveling well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 50/50 split among the partisan fans. The crowd will likely contain several thousand impartial fans from the Tampa area, who just procured tickets to be at the game.

Arkansas is a 2.5-point early underdog in the contest. The Hogs were favored in few Power 5 games this season, and frankly without Burks playing, it’s understandable.

While I don’t actually get why, success in a bowl game does increase the public’s perception of next fall’s team.

A victory over Penn State could possibly have the Hogs ranked in next year’s preseason polls. Some brush off the significance of such polls, but they do help raise a program like Arkansas’ public perception and that might make recruiting that much easier.

Winning a New Year’s Day bowl like the Outback would only help Arkansas’ program, which has been down for the better part of a decade.

Pittman said the Outback Bowl would be a business trip for the Hogs on the day their invitation was announced, but often business trips bring a few perks.

Pittman said the Hogs will practice in the mornings both in Fayetteville and after they get settled in at Tampa to mirror the 11 a.m. CT kickoff. That will leave time for daily bowl activities that the team and its traveling party will enjoy.

The Razorbacks will be off for the Christmas holiday on Dec. 23 and return on Dec. 26 to take a team photo with their trophies from this season, dressed in formal attire. Then they will jet to Tampa for six days in the Florida sun.