Saturday’s scrimmage to help Pittman sort out Hogs’ question marks

Arkansas running back Raheim Sanders (5) breaks away from the Mississippi defense to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

A week into preseason camp, the Arkansas Razorbacks are improving and moving forward to head coach Sam Pittman’s estimation, but three areas Pittman was most concerned about coming into preparations for the 2023 season will be put to the test Saturday in a closed scrimmage.

Pittman revealed his key concerns coming out of spring practice in a Thursday media conference. They were depth at linebacker, improvement at tight end, and whether his two offensive tackles that ended the spring as starters are good enough to win with in the SEC.

The Razorbacks, who got their first does of heat with their Thursday practice since the opening day of camp last Friday, have made strides in the acclimation period of camp — the first five days of workouts. Pittman said the proof will be in the pudding of Saturday’s scrimmage. Most of the workout will be live, tackle-to-the-ground, except for on the black-shirted quarterbacks.

Pittman already feels better about linebacker depth from observing the work of two freshmen linebackers Brad Spence (6-2, 237) of Houston and Alex Sanford (6-1, 227) of Oxford, Miss., as well as others.

Spence is evidently having an excellent camp, making plays from hash to sideline. Pittman described him as really fast. Sanford isn’t far behind him. Mani Powell (6-1, 231), a sophomore from Fayetteville, and Jaheim Thomas (6-4, 240), a junior transfer from Cincinnati, are also working well along with Arkansas’ top three linebackers coming out of spring practice Chris “Pooh” Paul Jr. (6-1, 233), Antonio Grier (6-1, 230), a senior transfer from South Florida, and Jordan Crook (6-0, 220), a sophomore from Duncanville, Texas.

How well they play Saturday will be key as the Hogs continue to prep for the season. Arkansas has had outstanding linebacking play during Pittman’s three-year tenure as the Hogs’ head coach with Grant Morgan, Bumper Pool, Hayden Henry, and Drew Sanders, but depth never went much beyond two starters and a backup under former defensive coordinator Barry Odom, now head coach at UNLV. Saturday’s scrimmage will be key in sorting out whether the Hogs have true depth at the position or just names occupying spots.

Pittman likes what he has seen from his tight ends in early workouts under first-year but accomplished coach Morgan Turner, who did great work in his 10 years as tight ends coach at Stanford, turning out NFL-read performers nearly on a yearly basis.

Arkansas is getting the benefit of his expertise now, with a relatively young but talented group of tight end prospects.

Pittman likes the work of freshman Luke Hasz (6-3, 242), sophomore transfer Var’Keyes Gumms (6-3, 242), freshman Shamar Easter (6-5, 233), freshman Ty Washington (6-4, 247), as well as senior Louisville transfer Francis Sherman (6-3, 247) and stalwart senior Nathan Bax (6-4, 250).

Offensive coordinator Dan Enos has a history of utilizing multiple tight-end sets, but that’s a lot of athletes for one position. Saturday’s scrimmage will no doubt help in establishing an early peeking order at the position.

The Razorbacks are replacing both starting tackles with Dalton Wagner and Luke Jone matriculating from the program. Sophomores Devon Manuel (6-9, 310) and Patrick Kutas (6-5, 313) closed spring as the starters, but the question remains are they SEC ready?

The answer is no, but no first-time starter in the SEC every is.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t good players who can learn, as Pittman pointed out Thursday in his media conference.

Offensive line coach Cody Kennedy has from now until the Razorbacks travel to Baton Rouge, La. to face what should be a top-10, maybe top-five rated LSU squad on Sept. 23 to make as much progress as possible with them and the rest of the offensive line as possible. Pittman said Manuel and Kutas have the talent. They just need to back it up with consistency.

The Hogs are sorting out their depth on the offensive line, too. Amaury Wiggins (6-3, 310), a sophomore transfer from Coffeyville Community College, is working himself into a back role at center behind senior Beau Limmer (6-5, 307). Senior Ty’Kieast Crawford has a world of talent but has yet to find a starting spot. Can he push Florida transfer Josh Braun (6-6, 348) at guard opposite stalwart starter Brady Latham (6-5, 312)? Freshmen Andrew Chamblee (6-6, 304) and E’Marion Harris (6-7, 292) are also pushing for playing time.

Saturday’s scrimmage won’t be the final word at any position, but how various Hogs perform at those three positions as well as the rest of them will set a baseline for next week as the Razorbacks move forward through camp. No one practice makes or breaks a player, but a scrimmage certainly can confirm assistant coaches’ inclinations about their troops.

Beyond those key concerns of Pittman, the Razorbacks will be looking at Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson at Hog position, which his a hybrid linebacker/defensive back spot as co-defensive coordinator Marcus Woodson and defensive backs coach Deron Wilson seek to determine at which positions all their defensive backs fit best.

There will be ongoing battles at every position, but the coaches will learn a lot from this scrimmage and the second and final one on Sept. 19.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 22 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)