Midsummer Razorback outlook feels partly sunny

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) throws a pass against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

With the Fourth of July in the rearview mirror and less than two weeks until SEC Football Media Days is held in Nashville, Tenn., the upcoming season is feeling more and more tangible.

The anticipation isn’t exactly palpable, but the Arkansas Razorbacks will begin preseason practices in about a month. Arkansas hasn’t — at least to my knowledge — announced the date when practice begins, but we’ll be in the thick of another preseason before we know it.

While wise folks live in the moment, my mind has always been geared for anticipation, whether it was looking forward to Halloween or Christmas as a kid or vacations or other special events as an adult, I enjoy looking forward and sometime getting ahead of myself. And about this time every year, my mind turns to Razorback football.

Yes, I’m eager for the preseason to begin, and to tell the truth a bit antsy.

I usually have a definite feeling about the Razorbacks and what their fortunes might be by this time in the summer. Whether that feeling is right or wrong is a whole different subject, but I’m not sure about this season.

I usually choose to be optimistic about the Razorbacks. The only times I haven’t been was going into the final preseasons of Jack Crowe and Chad Morris’ tenures as head coach. I don’t think any onlookers were optimistic or positive in those situations.

While many were skeptical of Crowe going into his third preseason as the Hogs head coach, no one anticipated him being fired the day after the first game of the 1992 season. That 10-3 loss to The Citadel was a shock, and legendary Arkansas Athletics Director Frank Broyles pulled the plug on Crowe less than 24 hours later.

Going into the 2019 season, I did feel Morris was in over his head. Arkansas Athletics Director Hunter Yurachek could have fired Morris as early as Sept. 21 when the Hogs lost to 31-24 to San Jose State at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but he let Morris bury himself with six more losses in a row before putting him out of his misery with two games remaining in the season.

Those were ugly, ugly times for the Razorback program. Thankfully, Pittman and his staff have elevated the program to the point in which that kind of futility is unimaginable.

Last season, the Razorbacks dealt with the worst circumstance of injuries since the 1980 season as well as an off-the-field issue that disrupted team unity, but the Hogs still finished with a winning record, thanks to an overtime victory over Kansas in the Liberty Bowl.

While playing would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve never changes anything, it is worth noting that four of the Razorbacks’ six losses were by a total of nine points. Many teams would have crumbled under similar circumstances. The Hogs may have buckled a bit, but Pittman held his team together.

The turnover in the Razorback program after last season both among the players and Pittman’s coaching staff does raise questions going into this season.

However all of Pittman’s hires had strong credentials, and while around 20% of Arkansas’ roster exited through the transfer portal, the players that the staff recruited to replace them appear to be a net positive based on the outcome of spring workouts.

Sometimes it’s not a bad thing for some players to transfer out, even good ones. The same is true of assistants. New blood can rejuvenate and energize a program. One hopes the churn Arkansas experienced will pay dividends this season.

One asset the Razorback can count on is senior quarterback K.J. Jefferson. It has to feel good for Pittman and new offensive coordinator Dan Enos to know they have an experienced operator in Jefferson who is more than capable of making plays with his arm and legs.

Jefferson has compiled quite a career for himself with the Razorbacks, and he has a huge opportunity to add to his legacy this season. While looking up stats for a story last week, I noticed that Jefferson is within reasonable reach of breaking the Razorbacks’ all-time passing and total-offense yardage records this season.

Tyler Wilson (2008-12) is the Hogs all-time leading passer in terms of yardage with 7,765 yards. Jefferson goes into the season ranked seventh with 5,816 yards also behind Ryan Mallett (7,493), Brandon Allen (7,463), Clint Stoerner (7,422), Matt Jones (5,857), and Casey Dick with (5,856).

If Jefferson passes for 1,950 yards this season, he’ll move ahead of Wilson. Jefferson threw for 2,648 yards last year in 10 games. He missed two games with injuries. As a sophomore, Jefferson threw for 2,676 yards.

With question marks at receiver and tight end, and two new starting offensive tackles, Arkansas might count on the run a bit more this season than in the past two, but if Jefferson stays healthy this season, he’s probably going to break Wilson’s record.

If he does that, he’ll also top Jones’ 8,392 total yards record. Jefferson has 7,245 total yards going into the season. He needs 1,148 to eclipse Jones. Wilson (7,721), Allen (7,596), and Mallett (7,390) are currently between Jones and Jefferson.

It’s interesting that Jefferson could overtake Jones for the total yardage record before catching Wilson for the passing yardage record if he has several strong rushing games early in the season.

But, Enos and Pittman may try to get by with running Jefferson less if possible this year in an effort to keep him healthy.

The strength of the team should be the Hogs’ stable of running backs. Rocket Sanders (1,433 yards last season) leads a stacked backfield that also includes A.J. Green, Rashod Dubinion, and Dominique Johnson.

Defensively, Arkansas should be as deep and experienced up front as the Hogs have been for a while thanks to returning Hogs like Zach Williams and Landon Jackson among others and an injection of talent from the transfer portal.

At linebacker sophomore Pooh Paul is the ringleader with transfers Antonio Grier and Jaheim Thomas adding experience and depth. Seniors Dwight McGlothern and Hudson Clark anchor the secondary, which has been repopulated through the transfer portal.

SEC All-Freshman Team cornerback Quincey McAdoo suffered injuries in a car accident this spring. Arkansas has not issued a statement, but rumors are that his injuries could prevent him from playing this season.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 Football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 59 Days

Sept. 2 – Western Carolina at Little Rock (3 p.m. ESPN+/SEC+)
Sept. 9 – Kent State (3 p.m. SEC Network)
Sept. 16 – BYU (6:30 p.m. ESPN2)
Sept. 23 – at LSU (TBA)
Sept. 30 – Texas AM at Arlington, Texas (TBA)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (TBA)
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (TBA)
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State (TBA)
Nov. 4 – at Florida (TBA)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (TBA)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (TBA)
Nov. 24 – Missouri – (3 p.m. CBS)