Arkansas in SEC mix, stacked on rushing, defensive backfield
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas was last in this position — coming off a season of nine wins or more — 10 years ago. Except this offseason, there was no program-altering motorcycle crash.
Sam Pittman — the antithesis, personality-wise, to coach Bobby Petrino, whose wreck in April 2012 turned into a scandal that cost him his job — led the Razorbacks to a 9-4 record last season, capping it with the Razorbacks’ first New Year’s Day bowl since 2000 and a win over Penn State.
The previous four years saw Arkansas win between two and four games in a dismal stretch that cost the program fans, attention and respect.
The third-year coach gets a chance at builidng momentum with his 19th-ranked Razorbacks. He has three returning players who ran for more 600 yards last season, including a potential All-SEC quarterback in junior KJ Jefferson. He has four starters back on the offensive line and a pair of potential All-Americans in linebacker Bumper Pool and safety Jalen Catalon.
Pittman and the Hogs also have a big challenge right away: The season opener is No. 23 Cincinnati at home on Sept. 3 in an intriguing Top 25 clash.
MOTIVATED BY SNUBS
Pittman said in the offseason that Jefferson was motivated by an online publication, which named him the 14th-best quarterback in the 14-team league ahead of the 2021 season. Many expected Jefferson to be named to a preseason All-SEC squad after throwing for more than 2,600 yards with 21 touchdowns and four interceptions, but no such designation came.
REPLACING A SUPERSTAR
Jefferson will have to find a new favorite target after wide receiver Treylon Burks was taken in the first round of the NFL draft by Tennessee. He had 66 catches for 1,104 yards and 11 touchdowns last year and rewrote Arkansas’ receiving record books in his three seasons.
“Losing Treylon Burks, I don’t know you replace a guy one for one,” Pittman said. “I don’t think you can there. We’re going to have to do it by committee.”
Enter Jadon Haselwood, an Oklahoma transfer who led the Sooners with six receiving touchdowns in 2021.
BACK TO RUNNING
Jefferson threw for 2,676 yards and 21 scores last year, but it was his team-high 664 yards rushing and six touchdown runs that helped most.
Also returning: Dominique Johnson, who had 575 yards and seven touchdowns last year; Rocket Sanders, who had 578 yards and five touchdowns; and A.J. Green, a change-of-pace back who ran for 227 yards and a touchdown.
The strength of Arkansas’ defense lies in the defensive backfield. Catalon, the safety who was an All-American as a freshman two seasons ago, is back after being knocked out halfway through last season with a shoulder injury.
LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern and Georgia transfer Latavious Brini join returnees Hudson Clark, Malik Chavis, Myles Slusher, Simeon Blair and LaDarrius Bishop to give Arkansas one of the most experienced defensive backfields in the country.
On top of the SEC slate — which has Arkansas hosting LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss — the Razorbacks will play three bowl teams from last season: Cincinnati and Liberty in Fayetteville, and at BYU.
Arkansas will also welcome FCS team Missouri State on Sept. 17. The Bears went 8-4 last year and are coached by Petrino.
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