Pittman’s improving Arkansas program faces daunting schedule
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Few second-year coaches inspire great optimism after a 3-7 season.
But at Arkansas, it’s all about perspective. The two previous seasons yielded a combined four wins, including none in Southeastern Conference play, so last season’s showing under Sam Pittman was a significant jump. Along with the victories over Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee, the Razorbacks lost three other games by three or fewer points.
Pittman’s energy and the competitive play last season have Arkansas’ players feeling positive about the program.
“The direction we’re going — it’s going to be a beautiful thing once you guys see it,” running back Trelon Smith said. “Losing days are over. We’re tired of losing. This whole team is tired of losing. It’s time to win now.”
Beloved as Arkansas’ offensive line coach from 2013 to 2015, Pittman returned as head coach in 2020 after Arkansas limped through the two wretched seasons under Chad Morris. In Pittman’s first year, the three wins were all in SEC play since all non-conference games were scuttled by the pandemic.
Arkansas returns many starters thanks in large part to the NCAA’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility to those who were seniors last year.
“We feel a lot better about our football team,” Pittman said. “We know them better and they know us better. Feel good about it (the season). There’s not many teams in the country that ever bring back 19 starters, I wouldn’t imagine.”
There are question marks, most notably at quarterback -- a key reason the Razorbacks are picked to finish sixth in the SEC West. Feleipe Franks had Arkansas’ best season at quarterback in five years in 2021, but it was his lone season in Fayetteville after transferring from Florida.
Junior K.J. Jefferson will start at quarterback for just the second time in his career. The previous try yielded an 18-for-33 day passing for 274 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in a 50-48 loss to Missouri last year.
Jefferson isn’t taking contact in practice simply to protect him. When the dual-threat quarterback finally sheds the green jersey, he will be able to use his 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame to punish opponents.
Jefferson has dynamic wide receiver Treylon Burks to throw to. Burks is the returning SEC leader in receiving yards per game after catching 51 passes for 820 yards and seven touchdowns in nine games in 2020. He was named second-team All-SEC after the season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Arkansas had five players named to the three All-SEC preseason teams.
Burks made the first team. Linebacker Grant Morgan, safety Jalen Catalon and center Ricky Stromberg were on the second team and offensive tackle Myron Cunningham was named to the third team.
SMITH’S BACKFIELD NOW
Smith served as the 1B to Rakeem Boyd’s 1A at running back during the first half of last season. When Boyd left the team after a 63-35 loss to Florida, Smith owned the starting job. He finished 2020 with 710 yards and five touchdowns on 134 carries.
DEFENSE NEEDS FIXIN’
Despite the presence of two preseason second-team All-SEC defenders, Arkansas’ defense will need to improve. They were 98th out of 127 teams in FBS in scoring defense (34.9 points allowed per game) and 106th in total defense (451.7 yards per game allowed).
Pittman produced four NFL offensive linemen during his three seasons coaching the unit in the mid-2010s. But last year’s line gave up 34 sacks, 120th in FBS. Stromberg has missed a bulk of fall camp with a knee injury.
By some measures, the Razorbacks have the hardest schedule in the country. Arkansas visits No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 Georgia and No. 16 LSU and plays No. 6 Texas A&M n Arlington, Texas. Home games include visits from No. 21 Texas, Auburn and Missouri.