Razorbacks train focus on Florida challenge

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman walks on the sidelines in the final minutes against Mississippi State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman’s closure of the media’s regular viewing period for football practice this week is interesting for those who are still tuned into football despite the Hogs’ six-game losing streak.

The Razorbacks (2-6, 0-5 SEC) are prepping for their final road trip of the season, a date with the Florida Gators (5-3, 3-2) at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville at 11 a.m. Saturday. The game will be televised by ESPN2.

The game is huge for the Hogs. A victory means the chance of gaining a bowl bid and a .500 record for the regular season is still alive.

What is the impetus behind the closure?

A few are supposing the Hogs have installed a brand new offense under interim offensive coordinator Kenny Guiton, who was elevated after Pittman parted ways with his first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos last week.

While I have no doubt the Hogs will throw new wrinkles at the Gators’ coaching braintrust, I don’t know how wise it would be to attempt to install a brand new offensive scheme — even with a bye week — when the Razorbacks were already having trouble executing the offense they have been practicing since spring.

I believe Pittman when he says that they’ve cut out about 30% of Enos’ offense. I hope the Hogs are concentrating on executing the plays that quarterback K.J. Jefferson and the rest of the Razorback offense are most comfortable with.

I’m not sure lining up in the Wishbone or the Wing-T as some have suggested is the answer to that conundrum without the proper time to to install a new offensive system?

There was an instance in 1991 during Jack Crowe’s second season as Arkansas’ head coach when he did close practices to the media and boosters to try to keep secret that the Hogs were going to run the Wishbone with safety Gary “Peanut” Adams moving back to quarterback to start in place of walk-on Wade Hill against No. 13 Texas A&M.

Arkansas’ starting quarterback for the majority of that season was Jason Allen, but he tore his anterior cruciate ligament two weeks before in a frigid 9-5 loss to Baylor in the last Southwest Conference game ever played in Razorback Stadium.

Unfortunately a graduate assistant in Arkansas’ equipment department let the secret slip out about Adams and the Wishbone in a telephone conversation on Monday before the Hogs even took the practice field. The Hogs played the Aggies tough, but lost, 13-3, at College Station.

A&M’s Wrecking Crew defense was so tough, I doubt the cat getting out of the bag so early made much difference, but it was another sign of the disfunction in the program that would come to a head in the first game of the 1992 season when The Citadel upset the Razorbacks, 10-3, in the first game of the season, and Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles fired Crowe the next day.

More than a total change in the offense, it seems the Razorbacks need a change in attitude.

“What I wanted to do was make sure we brought life back into the program, brought enthusiasm back into the program,” Pittman said Monday in his media conference. “Accountability. And I’m not saying we didn’t have any of that before because it makes me sound like I’m blaming a guy, and I’m not. I already spoke about Dan and my respect for him. But something has to change, so I feel like we’ve done that.”

Pittman continued, “I want to be able to do it [so] that everybody’s on the same page, blocking the right guys and playing as fast as we possibly can with the ability to have that tempo and all those type things.”

Pittman said he noticed Jefferson being more vocal last week as a leader, which has to be construed as a good sign for the Hogs. It’s hard to lead when a player is not playing well himself, but for the Razorbacks to get out of their funk, it would seem Jefferson would have to get out of his as well.

“I think any time a guy opens his mouth and talks, I think he’s got to back it up,” Pittman explained. “To me, that’s what a leader does. If you’re not wanting to lead, you probably don’t talk, because you’re not wanting to back up what you say. [Jefferson] was more vocal last week than what he had been.”

Hopefully the changes made will spark some new life into the Hogs’ offense, which had its worst performance of the season in a 7-3 home loss to Mississippi State.

It’s a tall order for Pittman, Guiton and the Razorbacks offensive players to turn the direction of a unit that has struggled all season, and if keeping the media outside of practice for the already short viewing window reporters have worked under will help, it’s hard to begrudge Pittman’s decision.

As head coach, it his his job to do everything within NCAA rules to try to pull what’s remaining of this season out of the ditch.

Florida coach Billy Napier, whose Gators lost to No. 1 Georgia, 43-20, last Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., has respect for the Razorbacks despite their tough season.

“I do think Arkansas, although their record doesn’t reflect it, they’ve been in every football game,” Napier said during his media conference on Monday. “This is a team that’s lost a lot of close games. I do think they’ve played really good defense for the most part.

“I know offensively they’ve made a change. I know Sam Pittman personally, and I have a ton of respect for him as a coach and a man. I do think they’re a lot closer than their record indicates. This will be a challenge.”

Napier respects Pittman’s roots as an offensive line coach, and he expects the Razorbacks to respond to the changes the head Hog has made.

“Coach Pittman is an offensive line coach,” Napier said. “His teams are tough. Certainly I think there will be an element of that. He’ll have some imprint on the offense. I do think that’s an element of the game.”

During Pittman’s three previous seasons at Arkansas, the Razorbacks are 2-0 coming off bye weeks, but the Gators are 4-0 at home this season.

The idea is that a fresh Razorback squad, coming off a bye week, might catch the Gators licking their wounds after physically being manhandled by Georgia.

That could happen, but the Gators might be fired up to put a struggling Arkansas team away early in hopes of becoming bowl eligible prior to their final three games at LSU, at Missouri and at home against arch-rival Florida State. The Gators will be underdogs in each of those final three games.

Pittman has some good news for Hog fans, confirming that cornerback Dwight “Nudie” McGlothern and running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders are cleared to practice this week.

It’s uncertain how much either will play against Florida as Rocket tests his knee that has kept him sidelined most of the season and McGlothern works his way back up the depth chart.

The Razorbacks could use both at their best on Saturday against the Gators at the Swamp, a venue where the Hogs have never won.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Overall: 2-6   SEC: 0-5   Streak: L6

Sept. 2 – Arkansas 56, Western Carolina 13
Sept. 9 – Arkansas 28, Kent State 6
Sept. 16 – BYU 38, Arkansas 31
Sept. 23 – LSU 34, Arkansas 31
Sept. 30 – Texas A&M 34, Arkansas 22
Oct. 7 – Ole Miss 27, Arkansas 20
Oct. 14 – Alabama 24, Arkansas 21
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State 7, Arkansas 3
Nov. 4 – at Florida (11 a.m. ESPN2)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (TBA)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (TBA)
Nov. 24 – Missouri – (3 p.m. CBS)