POSITION PREVIEW: Difficult schedule might be biggest question facing the Hogs

Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon was named to the Paycom Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list. (UA Athletics)

On the doorstep of Sam Pittman’s third season as the Arkansas Razorbacks’ head football coach, expectations for the Hogs run the gamut.

More than a few believe the Razorbacks have a chance to compete for second place in the SEC West with the Texas A&M Aggies behind nearly everyone’s pick to win the West, the overall SEC and the national title — Alabama.

Others are uncertain if last year’s nine-win season was just an aberration from a decade of mediocre to bad football or something more.

Was 2021’s 9-4 season a sign that the program is truly moving forward, or was it just a blip on the radar?

We all have our opinions. I tend to fall in the former category, particularly before the first drop of sweat has been excreted in a formal preseason football practice.

But, then again, I’m a homer in the sense that I’m going to choose to believe positive things about the Razorbacks until facts dictate that I can’t.

There are questions about this team that won’t truly be answered for most of our eyes until games are played.

How are the Razorbacks’ going to replace the production of Treylon Burks?

Who’s going to nail down the starting role at left tackle?

What about on defense? Who will fill the void left by the matriculation of tackling machines Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry?

Aren’t all three starters from last year’s defensive line trying to make it in the NFL at the moment?

What about the two starters in the secondary who transferred to LSU? They played a lot of good ball for the Hogs. How will they be replaced?

As for the Burks question, Pittman said last week that his production will be replaced by committee.

That’s the only answer a coach can give when a generational talent like Burks moves on. There isn’t another one like him on campus.

That said, the loss of a go-to guy like Burks creates opportunity. That opportunity should push receivers like Ketron Jackson Jr., Warren Thompson, Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood, and others to step forward.

Sometimes when there is a dominant player like Burks, players just defer to him because they know they aren’t going to beat him out. Competition at the three receiver positions this August should be something to watch as a new pecking order is established. That competition won’t replace Burks’ talent, but it might make the Hogs’ passing game more effective overall.

As for the left tackle spot turned over by the loss of stalwart starter Myron Cunningham, competition again is the key. This might be the biggest offensive question mark going into fall camp.

2022-23 Arkansas Razorbacks Football Schedule

Sept. 3 — Cincinnati, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 10 — South Carolina, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 17 — Missouri State, 6 p.m. (ESPN+)
Sept. 24 — vs. Texas A&M
Oct. 1 — Alabama
Oct. 8 — at Mississippi State
Oct. 15 — at BYU
Oct. 29 — at Auburn
Nov. 5 — Liberty
Nov. 12 — LSU
Nov. 19 — Ole Miss
Nov. 25 — at Missouri

Senior Luke Jones (6-5, 327) was penciled there after spring, but he will have to survive a challenge by junior Ty’Kieast Crawford (6-5, 347). Whichever player wins the position, the other will still garner playing time there or perhaps at guard or even right tackle. Like Pittman when he coached offensive line, Cody Kennedy likes to cross train players at multiple positions to provide options when the injury bug bites.

While left tackle is a question mark, such competition is a good thing that will ultimately make the team better.

As for the Hogs’ linebacker position, could the Hogs be even better at the spot despite the loss of Morgan and Henry? On the surface, that might sound preposterous, but hear me out.

Bumper Pool (6-2, 232)l returns for his senior season, and while he wasn’t officially a starter last season, he arguably was the Hogs best linebacker, logging 125 tackles. He is an All-SEC and All-American candidate, and was recently named to the Butkus Award watchlist. With another healthy year, he’ll likely supplant Tony Bua as the Hogs’ all-time leading tackler in late October or early November.

Flanking him will be Alabama transfer Drew Sanders (6-5, 232), a freaky, rangy athlete with speed to burn. It will truly be a race to the football between him and Pool. Backing them will be Chris “Poo” Paul Jr. (6-1, 232), another explosive hitter with an aggressive nature.

As for the defensive front, Pittman said last week the he expects the Hogs to be better there, despite the the loss of those starters and an injury to emerging talent Taurean Carter (6-3, 298).

Senior Isaiah Nichols (6-3, 302) of Springdale developed into a team leader last year inside and the Hogs have a slew of promising performers at defensive end including LSU transfer Landon Jackson (6-7, 275).

As for the loss of Joe Fuqua and Greg Brooks Jr. to LSU, they are good young men according to Pittman and their new head coach Brian Kelly at LSU, but Arkansas has recruited well in the secondary, and both would have been pushed to retain their starting roles this fall. Look for Myles Slusher and Jayden Johnson to start in their place.

Now, just because it seems the Hogs have the potential to answer to most of their personnel issues doesn’t necessarily add up to a nine-win or better season.

Arkansas’ schedule is brutal because of an uncommonly tough non-conference schedule to go along with their SEC slate.

Cincinnati and BYU will be tough football games, and when Liberty rolls into Fayetteville on the first Saturday of November, the Hogs will be on upset alert in the minds of more than a few with that contest falling between games at Auburn and at home against LSU.

Arkansas should be able to just out-talent Missouri State, but we all know how dangerous a coach Bobby Petrino is. I witnessed the Hogs’ lose to The Citadel in 1992 as well as the blowout loss to North Texas in 2018. As much as I respect Pittman and his staff, wild things have happened before.

I don’t think wild things will happen to the Hogs this year because of the experience, talent and leadership the Razorbacks have across the board, but particularly down the middle on both sides of the football.

Quarterback K.J. Jefferson (6-3, 240) proved himself to be a competitor and a winner last year, and it bodes well for Razorback fans that so many commentators and pundits view him as an also-ran among SEC quarterbacks, based on last week’s SEC Media Days. That should only fuel his efforts going into preseason camp.

Ricky Stromberg (6-4, 318) is an All-SEC and perhaps All-American candidate at center. He’s on the Remington Trophy watchlist. Despite dealing with an injury late in spring ball, he is a stalwart performer for the Razorbacks with a ton of starts under his belt. After leading the Power 5 in rushing last year, the Hogs are expected to have a powerful running game again this year, and Stromberg is the head of the spear.

Defensively Pool is poised for an outstanding final season with the Hogs, and Sanders’ ability will only make him better.

At safety Jalen Catalon is arguably the best football player on the team. He flies to the football and brings a crunch with him that belies his 5-10, 199-pound stature. Though not as big, his physicality and instincts reminds of great Razorback safeties of the past like Greg Lasker, Steve Atwater, Kenoy Kennedy, and Ken Hamlin. He’s on the Thorpe Award watchlist as well as the Nagurski Trophy watchlist with Pool.

This is a talented Razorback team, but they same can be said about almost every SEC squad at this moment.

Though South Carolina replaces Georgia on the Hogs’ SEC slate, it’s still incredibly demanding schedule, particularly considering it took overtime to beat LSU last year in Baton Rouge, and a late-game field-goal miss by the Bulldogs to hold off overtime against Mississippi State.

A little misfortune in either of those games would have everyone thinking very differently about the prospects for this season.

I expect Arkansas to be 2-0 by mid September, but in my mind, I know because of the Bearcats’ winning culture, Cincinnati is expecting to win their opener with Arkansas at Fayetteville, despite their considerable losses from last year’s NCAA Playoff squad.

Similarly, I know some Gamecock fans are counting on a victory over the Hogs, just like Razorback fans are counting on a win over South Carolina. Somebody’s going to be disappointed.

And that’s not even the meat of the Razorbacks’ schedule.

There are no guarantees going into the season, but that’s what makes success in the SEC so fun and rewarding.