Pittman looking for edgy toughness from Razorbacks in preseason

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman gestures to his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

By the time you read this column, the first workout of the preseason will likely be in the books or almost there for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Coach Sam Pittman and the Hogs are beating the heat by opening practice at 6:40 a.m. on Friday, and then planning on going at 9 a.m. for the rest of the first week of camp.

Old timers remember the days when August heat was a key component for conditioning a college football team, even extreme temperatures like the ones we are currently experiencing.

Two-a-days were the norm, and most programs had some form of three-a-days at times. That was back in the days when summer workouts were of a voluntary nature and were only loosely coordinated by the players themselves.

Today summer workouts are mandatory, structured, and overseen by the strength and conditioning staff since student-athletes scholarships can cover the full cost of attendance year around. It’s no doubt more demanding on the players, but since they are in shape at the beginning of preseason camp, the conditioning component of practice is more about maintenance than about working off the summer flab and air conditioning or testing the toughness of a team.

All of that was taken care of in a five-day-a-week, 10-week training program, devised and supervised by Arkansas’ new director of strength and conditioning Ben Sowders, who joined Pittman’s staff late last year.

Pittman, who previewed camp for the media on Wednesday, was proud of the results that program yielded, bragging a bit on Sowders and his Hogs, who endured a more rigorous training cycle since January than they did last season.

Pittman admitted that he thought the Razorbacks lost some of their edge and toughness last season, and that it showed up in the Hogs’ 7-6 record. Arkansas lost four games by a total of nine points last season, which still sticks in Pittman’s craw. The Razorbacks offense bogged down too often inside the 20-yard line and the defense didn’t win enough of the battles on third down to avoid losing games that perhaps should have been won.

Pittman has done what he could to make sure toughness, which he says starts with the mind, isn’t the downfall of the 2023-24 Razorback squad. He believes his Razorbacks’ work this past winter, spring, and summer is going to pay dividends.

You might wonder if toughness is at a premium, why wouldn’t Pittman take advantage of the midday heat to further toughen his team?

With his team in shape after a grueling spring and summer that featured plenty of midday workouts, Pittman is seeking to conserve the squad’s strength to a degree rather than wearing it thin in practice. The hope is that it will pay off throughout the season. Plus the Hogs will get plenty of heat once they shift to afternoon workouts when classes being in a few weeks.

Pittman also said the Razorbacks will practice smart, but that there will be more live hitting in workouts and scrimmaging this year after he found last year’s squad lacked the level of physicality and toughness a successful SEC team must operate with.

I expect practices to be plenty physical with Arkansas working to replace three starters on the offensive line, attempting to establish a functioning two-deep depth chart along the offensive front, and with the competition for roles among a talented, experienced, and deep defensive line yet to be totally cemented.

The Razorbacks defensive line, coached by Deke Adams, is probably the team’s second best unit overall behind Arkansas’ incredibly deep running back room that will feature Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, who will be going for his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season.

The Hogs might be three-deep on the defensive front with its combination of Razorback vets and transfer-portal mercenaries that are seeking to advance their careers with the Hogs.

They will provide just the type of competition an offensive line that will have two new starting tackles and one new guard needs to mature into a formidable phalanx to open up running lanes for Sanders, A.J. Green, and Rashod Dubinion as well as keep quarterback K.J. Jefferson clean and upright.

Beaux Limmer remains at center after shifting there for the Liberty Bowl last December, and Brady Latham is back at guard for a third starting season. Joshua Braun, a transfer from Florida, finished spring as the other starting guard. Sophomores Patrick Kutas and Devon Manuel were the starting tackles at the end of spring, but don’t be surprised if senior Ty’Kieast Crawford doesn’t make a push for a starting role at one of the two tackle spots.

With three new starters, Coach Cody Kennedy’s offensive line has to be penciled in as a question mark in the preseason, but when all is said and done, this line could be more imposing than last year’s, which was full of veterans.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 29 Days

Sept. 2 – Western Carolina at Little Rock (12 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)