Final Hog scrimmage means season opener is on the horizon

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

One of the secrets to Frank Broyles’ legendary success as both the Arkansas Razorbacks head football coach for 19 years and Arkansas’ athletics director for 33 years was his ability to pinpoint and hire great assistant coaches and later head coaches.

Based on the last two weeks of post-practice interviews with Arkansas’ football coaching staff, Sam Pittman has an eye for coaching talent, too.

Both Pittman and Broyles were considered excellent assistant coaches by their peers before rising to the position of head coach. Maybe that’s how both developed the knack for hiring great assistants.

In just his third year as head coach, The Pitt Boss has assembled an impressive group of assistants to motivate, instruct, guide, and lead his Razorbacks to success on the football field.

Pittman follows the “The Process” of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, which he learned from Nick Saban at Alabama. Obviously, Smart and Pittman have made modifications to Saban’s blueprint, but under all three coaches, the media has limited access to their coaching staff in and out of season.

I’m guessing part of that is to have predominantly “one voice” for the program which is the head coach, but it probably also has to do with saving some time for the assistants who already have very demanding jobs.

Every minute spent with the media is a minute that could be devoted to recruiting, planning, and preparation of their players, or even a minute more to spend with their family. That time is limited, too, during much of the year because of the time demands of coaching and recruiting, which have only become more demanding in this day and age of the transfer portal and NIL.

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

But again Pittman has assembled an impressive staff.

Even on video, you can feel the energy each member of Arkansas’ coaching staff brings into the room, and while each of them expressed themselves through their own personalities, their message was similar. They are all about creating a positive yet tough and competitive environment in which their players can maximize their talent, skill, and abilities as members of the Razorback football team.

It was clear, too, that each coach was excited about what they were seeing during preseason camp. How their players were taking to their coaching and the improvement they were seeing from various players.

Coaches love seeing their players mature on and off the field. There’s nothing like seeing the light come on for a young player.

Good vibrations have emanated from the coaches and players this preseason in their media session with two weeks to go before kickoff. That’s a great sing at this point in preseason when everyone is worn down and tired of hitting on each other.

Saturday’s closed scrimmage is likely the last major hurdle and opportunity for players to improve their status in the Razorbacks’ pecking order going into Sept. 3’s season opener against the Cincinnati Bearcats.

At some point in the next week, perhaps as quickly as Monday, the coaches will determine who will start the season with the varsity and who will work with the scout team.

Certainly players can work themselves off the scout team, particularly younger players, who are still trying to get a handle on the playbook and certain techniques. It happens every year. Sometimes it’s because of injuries. Sometimes it’s because something clicks mentally and a player begins to react instead of think.

But after Saturday’s scrimmage, the Razorbacks’ focus in practice will shift from team and player development to preparation for the upcoming opponent.

Arkansas defensive coordinator and safeties coach Barry Odom said the scrimmage isn’t a make-or-break situation for their players who are battling for roles. He said their whole body of work during camp will be evaluated in slotting starting and back-up roles as well as eventually who lands on the 70-man travel squad, which won’t be an issue for the Razorbacks until their trip to Arlington, Texas for their showdown with Texas A&M on Sept. 24.

That said what happens in a scrimmage is always weighed heavily by coaches because its the closest to a game-type situation the players will see until it is for real. So there is pressure for the Hogs to perform well on Saturday, and the impression they leave will be close in the assistant coaches’ minds as they continue preparations for Cincinnati.

From what Arkansas’ coaches have said, it seems most of the starting spots are decided. A few spots might have two-way battles, but those are at positions like the secondary and defensive line where the backups are going to see considerable playing time anyway.

However, it will be interesting when Arkansas Media Relations does release its media notes for the season opener to see where Arkansas’ coaches have slotted their talent at least for the first game.

The clock is ticking fast. The season opener is on the horizon for one of the most exciting and toughest schedules the UA has ever played. It can’t get here fast enough for me.