Pittman at SEC Media Days signals Hog football is on the horizon

Sam Pittman (UA Athletics photo)

With SEC Football Media days underway in Atlanta, the coming season is on the horizon.

Hopefully our heat wave will break or at least subside a bit before the Razorbacks open preseason drills Aug. 5.

Not that the Hogs aren’t working out in the heat currently, but the demands of practice generally exceed summer workouts, if not physically then for sure mentally.

Certainly football is a physical game, but it’s generally won by the team that exhibits the finest combination of physicality, mentality, and heart.

It’s the latter two that allow a player or a team to maximize whatever physical gifts it may posses individually and collectively.

The best Arkansas football teams have always accentuated their physicality with heart and intelligence. Show me a better than average Razorback football team, and it’s one that didn’t beat itself with mistakes or half-hearted effort.

It’s one thing to get beat physically. That has happened to good and even great Razorback teams. The Hogs have had just two undefeated seasons in 1909 and 1964. The truly frustrating losses are ones marred by mistakes or half-hearted play.

That was what was so frustrating about the two seasons under Chad Morris, and what has been so refreshing since Sam Pittman took over the program in 2020.

Not only has Pittman amped up the physicality of the Razorbacks across the board, which I love, but what pleases me most is watching a smart football squad with a never-say-die mentality.

Last year the Hogs stood 4-3 after losing three consecutive games to Georgia, Ole Miss, and Auburn. The season was at a crossroads of sorts with five games to play.

LSU coach Brian Kelly speaks during an NCAA college football news conference at the SEC Media Days, Monday, July 18, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Georgia had overpowered the Razorbacks, 37-0, at Athens. Ole Miss nipped the Hogs, 52-51, in Oxford, snuffing out a last-second two-point conversion to win a track meet of a game. In perhaps his finest hour last year Auburn’s Bo Nix torched an inexperienced Arkansas safety to post a 38-23 win in Fayetteville.

It was an ugly October, but Pittman, his staff, and the Hogs dug deep to win five of their final six games, including a New Year’s Day victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl. The only loss was 42-35 to national runner-up Alabama.

That 9-4 season — which included victories over old-time rivals Texas and Texas A&M as well as Ws in trophy games against Missouri and LSU — was the program’s best in a decade, and a sure sign the program is on the rise under Pittman.

Just three years ago Arkansas’ program was so downtrodden that Lane Kiffin passed on the head coaching job to take the same position at Ole Miss, and Eliah Drinkwitz, who grew up in the Natural State, took the Missouri job instead.

Kiffin praised Pittman Monday from the SEC Media Days podium saying the Head Hog, “has done an unbelievable job there turning around the program. When we got there at the same time, and they had really struggled. It wasn’t like Arkansas was losing most of their games close. So, to see the turnaround Coach Pittman did is really amazing.”

Kiffin knew the inside outs of where Arkansas’ program stood from interviewing for the job, and he passed on it because he felt better about his opportunity to win at Ole Miss. Same for Drinkwitz with Missouri.

Razorback fans around the state are now shouting Hogelujah, as Crazy Craig O’Neil would say, that Hunter Yurachek, Arkansas’ athletics director, didn’t get into a bidding war for either of them, and found the right fit for the Razorbacks with Pittman.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette beat writer Tom Murphy got an excellent quote from LSU head coach Brian Kelly about Pittman when he was talking about his offensive line coach Brad Davis, a Pittman mentee at Oklahoma and Arkansas.

“I consider Sam Pittman one of the best, if not the best, offensive line coach in college football,” Kelly said. “So [Davis has] been tutored under the best, played the position, from Baton Rouge. All those things together.”

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson was named to the 2022 preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award. (UA Athletics photo)

Kelly didn’t have to compliment Pittman in that situation, but did so out of respect. That speaks to the type of impression Pittman made on Kelly during their careers.

It’s going to be interesting when Pittman takes the podium Wednesday at 8:05 a.m. in Atlanta. As with all the coaches, his time on the stage will be televised by the SEC Network. We’ll get our first update on the Hogs in weeks, and that may have to tide us over until August.

The three Razorbacks set to appear with Pittman are high-caliber players and young men in safety Jalen Catalon, linebacker Bumper Pool, and quarterback K.J. Jefferson.

Jefferson, who is on the watchlist for the Maxwell and O’Brien awards list, hasn’t got a ton of respect at SEC Media Days from the SEC Network’s crew of commentators, but make no mistake, he is the straw that will stir the drink this year for Arkansas’ offense and is an overall team leader.

Returning from a shoulder injury that held him back last year and finally ended his season prior to the Auburn game, Catalon has a great shot at being an All-American as a junior if he can stay healthy. Maybe he needs to be a bit more judicious in how and when he delivers those teeth-rattling hits.

Pool is an all-conference and All-American candidate from his linebacker spot after making a team-leading 125 tackles last year and 101 stops in 2021. With 349 career tackles, he’s within reach of overtaking the Hogs’ all-time tackle leader Tony Bua, who finished with 408 career stops in 2003.

It’s always interesting to see what is and isn’t drawn out of the players in their interviews. Jefferson has a fun personality when comfortable, and Catalon and Pool are as articulate on the mic as they are hard-hitting on the football field. They all will do a great job of representing the Razorbacks and the state at the event, just like they do playing on the field.

Pittman does not like to address injuries in public, but it will be interesting to hear if he will update fans on the health and availability of defensive lineman Taurean Carter and backup quarterback Kade Renfro, who suffered injuries during spring practice.