Razorbacks Football Preview
Odds Stacked Against Them Again, but the Fighting Razorbacks Have Returned.
By Mark Carter // Photos courtesy UA Athletics
The 19th-century transcendentalist and accidental libertarian Henry David Thoreau noted, presumably on a long walk, that perception trumps reality. What one looks at, he reasoned, matters less than what one sees.
And college football fans in the 21st century “see” Arkansas as a bottom-dweller in the Southeastern Conference.
The casual fan can look at the Razorbacks’ challenging assignment to the vaunted SEC West, the NFC South of the Power 5; can consider that the Hogs seemingly own the nation’s toughest schedule on an annual basis; can note how Arkansas has been to the SEC championship game three times; and can even recall that the Hogs turned in back-to-back top 10 seasons under Bobby Petrino just a decade ago.
But the casual fan sees that Arkansas, once a regular at the relevant table, is struggling and now fights for scraps under that very table with also-rans, wannabes and never-wills.
That’s the perception. The reality, plain for those who bother to consider the nuances of the picture before them (and they are few), is that Arkansas likely would have challenged for a Power 5 division title or two outside the SEC in last year’s COVID-influenced 3-7 campaign, its first under Sam Pittman.
More reality? In 2020, the Hogs were robbed, in the literal sense of the word, of a win at Auburn and dropped two more games on last-second field goals. (Reality for Hog fans, of course, consisting of the reliable-as-death-and-taxes gut punch. The most recent coming from the diamond this past June.) And the league office book-ending the Hogs’ 2020 slate with Georgia and Alabama as the extra two league games was either a sick joke or, at best, another example of its general apathy regarding all things cardinal.
Sometimes perception and reality coalesce, of course. Anyone considering Arkansas football’s 2017-19 run, worst in program history, would recognize a mess. And the Arkansas tradition of playing “what if” won’t erase recent history or change the record books.
The perception heading into 2021 is that the Hogs are a sixth- or seventh-place finisher in the West, despite the expectation of further improvement under Pittman and his staff. After all, other teams can get better, too. And the reality that looms just ahead as the Hogs open fall camp in early August promises another season saddled with the nation’s toughest schedule.
But cautious optimism is warranted for more than just the Kool-Aid drinkers. The Hogs “won” four SEC games last year and were two kicks and a betrayal away from finishing 6-4 against an all-SEC schedule that included six teams ranked Nos. 1, 4, 6, 8, 13 and 16 at kickoff. And Arkansas was competitive in all but two games.
The SEC relearned in 2020 that Razorbacks — the Morris and latter-day Bielema eras notwithstanding — will fight, win or lose. A winning culture, at least, has been restored, even if the Hogs are nowhere near competing for SEC titles just yet. But under Pittman, the out-of-left-field hire many outside the state were ridiculing a year ago, a full squad of Fighting Razorbacks, indeed, of War Pigs, is back.
Also back are 20 starters from 2020.
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It’s pretty close to common knowledge by now that the Hogs’ 2021 fortunes rest to a large degree on the shoulders of redshirt sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson. The 6-3, 240-pounder is built in the Cam Newton mold, and his performance at Missouri last fall recalled some of Newton’s collegiate exploits at Auburn.
Jefferson, starting for the injured Feleipe Franks, completed 18-of-33 passes for 274 yards and three scores, including the 14-yarder to Mike Woods and subsequent 2-point conversion that gave the Hogs a 48-47 lead with 43 seconds left to play. (That Pittman opted to play for the win there is all the evidence one needs that he’s the right man for the job.)
He also ran for 32 yards and another score. With talented redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby waiting in the wings but raw, not to mention early enrollee Lucas Coley, Jefferson is the captain.
Against Missouri — and the Tigers’ defense actually wasn’t that bad so recently removed from Odom’s influence — Jefferson and the offense clicked to the tune of almost 600 yards. OC Kendall Briles had Missouri guessing, and more so than any other game in 2020, his offense looked like it had the personnel to execute his playbook. Jefferson is entering his third year removed from high school and second in Briles’ system. Physically, he looks the part. The Hogs’ success this season could ride on his readiness to take the next step.
Despite the unexpected last-minute transfer of Woods, Jefferson will work with an under-the-radar good corps of receivers led by all-America junior Treylon Burks, Razorback football’s next big thing. Burks quite simply is the Hogs’ best receiver since Jarius Wright, another Warren product, who played eight seasons in the NFL with the Vikings and Panthers. In a 10-game season, Burks hauled in 51 passes for 820 yards and seven scores. That’s an average of more than 16 yards per catch. He also ran 15 times for 75 yards.
De’Vion Warren, a big-play machine but injury-prone, is back, as is Trey Knox, the 6-5 junior with through-the-roof potential. Woods’ departure could represent an opening for him, or perhaps for newcomers such as speedy Oklahoma transfer Jaquayln Crawford or highly touted true freshman Ketron Jackson. And pass-catching tight ends Hudson Henry and Blake Kern, the latter a COVID senior and former walk-on, will give Jefferson options.
Power-plug junior Trelon Smith returns after taking over as the primary running back midway through the 2020 season. The former Arizona State Sun Devil finished with 710 yards and five scores despite limited play early. Smith is a gamer, elusive at 5-9 but powerful enough to run through arm tackles. Highly touted freshmen A.J. Green, Javion Hunt and Raheim Sanders help give the Hogs a deep pool of talent inside the RB room. And a potential pleasant surprise is 240-pound freshman battering ram Dominique Johnson. Expect a lot more RPO from the Hogs in ’21.
Of course, the skill players will only go so far as the offensive line will let them. It’s no secret that the line hasn’t been a strength since Pittman’s time as OL coach in Fayetteville under Bielema. Program insiders say the biggest jump on the team will be seen here, despite the spring loss of OL coach Brad Davis to hometown LSU. This is still a Pittman team, after all.
On day one in Fayetteville as head Hog, he began transforming the trench men into something resembling an SEC front after Morris’ “left lane, hammer down” experiment turned Hogs into shoats, a collection of glorified fullbacks. Virtually everyone is back on a unit that got better as the season progressed, and Pittman’s reputation as an OL whisperer is paying off.
Highly regarded newcomers Ty’kieast Crawford, Jalen St. John and Marcus Henderson will push for PT, while returning starters such as tackle Myron Cunningham and center Ricky Stromberg are candidates for post-season recognition. By the eye test alone, strength coach Jamil Walker is crafting the OL into something like the monsters Pittman coached in Fayetteville during his first run on the Hill and then at Georgia.
Meanwhile, the Razorback defense was razor-thin again last year. But first-year coordinator Barry Odom, the former Missouri head coach, mustered a Broyles Award-worthy effort from a unit that finished dead last in the SEC, and comfortably so, in 2019. But under Odom’s guidance, the Hogs improved to 10th in the SEC in total defense in 2020, giving up a yard less per play and essentially defeating the Mississippi schools on defense alone. In those wins, the defense bewildered, adapted and more importantly, swarmed. Three things that seemingly weren’t a priority of the previous staff.
An inevitable late fade, resulting from depth issues but compounded by key untimely injuries and COVID wiping out roughly the entire D-line for the LSU game, pulled some of the shine off the Hogs’ 2020 defensive performance. But the Hogs had some bite on D.
Restoring the full two-deep on defense remains a work in progress, especially at linebacker, but the Hogs should again pack some of that bite with more numbers to spell several starters who essentially never left the field last season.
Savvy senior linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool return — Morgan a sixth-year COVID senior — and on their mantle are the 212 tackles recorded between them in 2020. New LB coach Michael Scherer, an Odom protégé, just needs help behind them. Opportunities abound, especially for talented incoming freshman Chris Paul. For much of last season, the Hogs employed a 3-2-6 alignment, and we may see more of that in ’21.
The D-line returns many contributors but not a pass-rushing ace among them. Of course, it’s hard to generate much of a rush with a three-man front and virtually no blitzing, an approach warranted by the game’s evolution to fast-paced attacks and the Hogs’ personnel issues.
It looks like Odom will stick with a three-man front again to start 2021. Regulars Dorian Gerald, injury-prone and from whom much has been anticipated; Eric Gregory, Marcus Miller, Isaiah Nichols and Taurean Carter are back and will be bolstered by a trio of transfer newcomers — the highly touted John Ridgeway from Illinois State, Markell Utsey from Missouri and the massive run-plugger Jalen Williams from JUCO.
Once Odom eventually takes another D-1 head coaching job, and he will, don’t be surprised to see secondary coach Sam Carter considered as his replacement. The players reportedly love him, and under his tutelage, his position group is becoming formidable, perhaps even ready to take on more man and press coverage this fall.
Jalen Catalon returns at safety to build on his freshman all-America season, and his mere presence on the field impacts game plans. His ejection for a bogus targeting call against LSU enabled the marshland mousers to pull out a game the Hogs should’ve won. Catalon is in the Atwater/Hamlin/Kennedy mold, and the Arkansas D finally resembles units of old with a mobile sledgehammer roaming the back forty and providing punishing run support.
(Arkansas has recruited talent, even in the lean years, but Catalon probably is one of two current Hogs, along with Burks, who would be a for-sure starter at Alabama.)
Also back are an entire room of old reliables that Hog fans know well by now — Joe Foucha, Montaric Brown, Greg Brooks, LaDarrius Bishop. And Myles Slusher, Simeon Blair, Khari Johnson, Malik Chavis and Hudson Clark, he of the Ole Miss three-pick fame, provide competitive depth when not starting themselves. (And yes, that includes Clark. He may not be a lockdown corner, but he’s a ball hawk and a gamer and valuable in certain packages.)
Plus, the Hogs welcome to the secondary promising newcomers in Penn State transfer Trent Gordon, true freshman Jayden Johnson, plus early enrollee and likely future star Jermaine Hamilton-Jordan.
Special teams remain a work in progress, a cut-and-paste phrase for season previews of late. The Hogs improved last year, for sure, but there was nowhere to go but up. Hog fans continue to wait for the notable results that special teams coach Scott Fountain, a Pittman confidante, provided at other SEC stops, including Auburn and Georgia. Fountain couldn’t afford to stick many starters on special teams last year because of overall depth issues, but more progress is expected this year.
The return game was almost nonexistent all season, and blocked punts continued to haunt the Hogs early in the year. But things settled as the season progressed, and Reid Bauer developed into an effective punter. If Burks and Warren are available as return men, don’t be surprised to see at least one taken back.
The Hogs bring in true freshman kicking sensation Cameron Little, a rarity as a scholarship kicker, from whom much is expected. He’ll battle Matthew Phillips for kicking duties. Can Hog fans be comfortable this season lining up for a last-second kick for the win? Time will tell.
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The national general consensus for the Hogs in ’21 seems to be 5-7 with a couple of SEC wins — maybe 6-6 and 3-5 with an upset. Close to guaranteed non-con wins over Rice, UAPB and Georgia Southern (although the latter might pose a test coming on the heels off an emotional game with Texas). Probable losses to Bama, Georgia (what do you know? Bama and Georgia, again), LSU (I think we beat ’em) and some might say A&M. The rest, right now, look like probable toss-ups.
But mark it down: the Hogs will deliver at least two unexpected, marquee wins, starting with Texas, it of the hideous burnt orange Barad-dûr in Austin. That long-awaited return game, scheduled for ESPN primetime the night of Sept. 11, is a bellwether for Arkansas’ season. Win it, and it could be “Katie bar the door” for a squad as hungry as any in program history.
(On the flip side, don’t be surprised to see Marc Curles assigned to Fayetteville that weekend and a late review costing us another one.)
Still, the Arkansas program sits in the “buy” column. True optimism, cautious but sincere, hovers over the program for the first time in a while. These Hogs are “hooongry,” as the lady on the radio used to say, maybe even hangry after TCU’s lame, last-minute bailout from the Texas Bowl last December. (We should still get credit for a bowl appearance and a forfeit win, if you ask me.)
That leaves the deceiving blowout loss to Bama as the team’s last taste of 2020. The Hogs, coming off the heart-wrenching loss at Missouri, were without an injured Franks, and the thin defense, which had battled all year like Dain’s Iron Hills dwarves atop war pigs in the shadow of Erebor, was quite simply out of gas. (Note to UA brass: you have my permission to use that footage from the movie with Sam’s face photoshopped on Dain as Sabbath’s “War Pigs” blares just before the band starts Arkansas Fight, and the players run through the A.)
Pregame choreography and excuses notwithstanding, there’s a quiet, confident intensity emanating from the Hill. It’ll be fun to see what that translates to on the field. And assuming we don’t end up with a COVID lockdown 2.0, it’ll be pretty nice to welcome back college football in its natural, intended state replete with campuses buzzing, bands marching and stadiums full and loud. (A&M and Florida can go back to OVERinflating attendance numbers …)
Two factors to consider, and they’re significant ones: Pittman finally got to have a spring camp at Arkansas after COVID forced a shutdown before the Hogs could even start spring ball last year, and he’s no longer a first-time D1 head coach sidestepping his way through a pandemic.
Whatever the perception, the reality is this: The culture is changed, and the War Pigs are in formation.
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