5 strengths of the 2023 Razorbacks

( ArkansasRazorbacks.com)

Next Wednesday the Arkansas Razorbacks will be one of three teams featured on the third day of SEC Football Media Days Kickoff event in Nashville, Tenn.

The Razorback contingent of head coach Sam Pittman, quarterback K.J. Jefferson, running back Raheim Rocket Sanders, and defensive end Landon Jackson will be on hand to style and profile for the media as well as answer some questions about the upcoming season.

The Hogs rode a roller coaster of injuries last fall but managed to finish with a 7-6 season that included a thrilling overtime victory over Kansas in the Liberty Bowl. However, the season itself was somewhat of a disappointment after Arkansas returned so many players from a squad that surprised many onlookers with a 9-4 season in 2021.

The Razorbacks are a question-mark team to summer prognosticators. 

Will the Hogs pick up where they left off in 2021 and be a dark horse contender in the final year of SEC West Divisional play, or will the Razorbacks stumble a bit like last season with hard-luck against what is again one of the nation’s toughest schedules, including a brutal stretch in which the Hogs play just one home game over six playing dates?

Those questions will be answered over the course of a long season. For the moment, though, let’s consider five strengths this Razorbacks squad has going into preseason practice.

1. Quarterback K.J. Jefferson — The 6-3, 246-pound senior from Sardis, Miss., is the unquestioned leader of the squad who has improved each season he has played for the Hogs, and if he does that again, it might mean something pretty special for the Razorbacks. If Jefferson stays healthy, he has an excellent shot of setting new career records in several quarterbacking categories. Jefferson, who already has quarterbacked the Razorbacks to two bowl victories in the Outback and Liberty bowls, has the opportunity to be the first Arkansas quarterback to lead the Hogs to three bowl victories in a career this season. Jefferson has been named by 24/7 Sports as the top returning quarterback in the SEC, and his name is being mentioned among Heisman candidates going into the season.

2. Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and the Razorback Running Game — The 6-2, 237-pound junior running back from Rockledge, Fla. native had a break-out season a year ago with 1,443 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns along with 28 receptions 271 yards and two more touchdowns in just his second year as a running back. Rocket came to the UA as a receiver. Like Jefferson, he is a dark horse Heisman candidate and has been predicted to be a first- or second-team All-SEC candidate by a number of media outlets. Rocket is dangerous on his own, but the fact that he is backed by A.J. Green and Rashod Dubinion makes the Razorback rushing attack that much more difficult to handle. Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos deployed some two-back sets in the spring to make sure the Hogs were making use of one of their most talented and stacked position groups.

3. Defensive Line Depth — Over the decades Arkansas has had some great defensive lines dating all the way back to the Hogs’ 1964 national championship team and further. The Hogs have had a number of All-Americans along the defensive front like Lloyd Phillips in 1965-66, Dick Bumpas 1970, Dan Hampton and Jimmy Walker in 1978, Billy Ray Smith 1981-2, Wayne Martin 1988. The Razorbacks may not have an All-American or even an All-SEC player on the defensive front this season, but across the four spots, the Hogs are three-deep with players who will likely contribute if they remain healthy for the first time in recent memory. Jackson (6-7, 269) should be a standout at defensive end, but Jashaud Stewart (6-2, 249), Zach Williams (6-4, 256) and Nico Davallier (6-4, 273) also return. Transfers Trajan Jeffcoat (6-4, 280) from Missouri and John Morgan III (6-2, 273) from Pittsburgh should push for playing time if not a starting role. Inside Eric Gregory (6-4, 307), Taurean Carter (6-3, 295), and Cam Ball (6-5, 311) all have starting experience and transfers Anthony Booker (6-4, 320) from Maryland and Keivie Rose (6-3, 303) from Louisiana Tech arrived after sprig to add more depth.

4. New Coordinators — Sometimes a football program needs some fresh air. Sam Pittman seems to have provided that to his Hogs on both sides of the football with the hires of Travis Smith as defensive coordinator and by bringing back Dan Enos as his offensive coordinator. Williams is young, aggressive, and charismatic. He and his co-defensive coordinator for the secondary Marcus Woodson has brought a new enthusiasm to the Razorback defense in their first season. Williams is known for his blitz packages, which should make things exciting one way or the other. Enos, who worked with Pittman for a season in 2015 as part of Bret Bielema’s Arkansas staff, retains some of the RPO principals from his predecessor Kendall Briles, but brings more of Pro-Set style to the offense, which should keep quarterback K.J. Jefferson more engaged and hopefully healthier for his senior campaign.

5. Determined Sam Pitman — Calling this a make or break year for Sam Pittman as Arkansas’ head football coach might be a bit dramatic, but even though this is just Pittman’s fourth year as a college head coach, he has more than enough experience to know that his is a big season for him and the Razorbacks. Injuries and some internal issues kept the Hogs from being all that they could have been last year during a season when players and fans were hoping for a 10-win season in August. Outside the team, expectations are lower for the Hogs this season, but Pittman’s aspirations are unchanged. Expect a determined Pittman to deliver an improved team over last season’s showing whether that means eight, nine or maybe even 10 wins.

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)