by Mark Carter • Photos Courtesy of the University of Arkansas
Editor’s note: This story appeared in the August print edition of AY magazine. As they have done since March, the pandemic’s sudden fluctuations have made planning for future events a gamble and elements of our print story obsolete. Readers should know that as of the online posting of this story (Aug. 4), the SEC has mandated a 10-game, conference-only football schedule to begin Sept. 26 and moved back the start of fall practice to Aug. 17.
Will there be football in the fall? Well, it’s complicated. The short answer is … maybe. Or rather, probably, in some form or fashion.
League and conference commissioners at the pro and college levels continued to read the COVID-19 tea leaves as AY went to press in July. While the NFL plowed ahead with plans to conduct its regular season as scheduled, here in Arkansas we may have to wait past the scheduled Sept. 5 opener to see the Razorbacks. Or any of the state’s college teams, for that matter. (The Arkansas Activities Association, like the NFL, intended as of late July for high school football to unfold as scheduled.)
One thing we think we know: College football’s Power 5 conferences will play conference games only, probably, and the Pac-12 may not play at all. On the table, though increasingly unlikely as of this writing, is the start of the season as scheduled. The Hogs “are scheduled” to open the Sam Pittman era on the Saturday after Labor Day in Fayetteville against a dangerously good Nevada squad, it of the Mountain West. (And we all know how MWC matchups have gone for us lately … San Jose cough, Colorado State cough.) Also on the table, and more likely, is a delayed start to the season. Something like November through January. Or even a split fall-spring schedule. And fans at the games? You’re guess is as good as mine (but don’t count on it).
Playing a schedule of conference games only would embody Arkansas (mis)fortune to a T, of course. The rebuilding Hogs needed the bulk of the nonconference slate to build confidence heading into SEC play … and quite simply, to reacquaint themselves (we hope) with the win column.
COVID-19’s summer spike may have nixed any chance of games with fans in some sort of limited capacity unless the season is pushed back. But college football makes too much money to cancel a season. Football pays the bills at most Division 1 schools, and the TV money is just too great to abandon. Arkansas, which runs one of the few athletic departments in the country to operate in the black, annually cashes SEC Network checks approaching $50 million. (Of course, most college programs aren’t members of the money-printing SEC or Big Ten.)
With TV money then as college football’s only real 2020 revenue stream, the sport will sequester athletes in essential quarantine and monitor, monitor, monitor. And we’ll watch the Hogs play in empty stadiums as networks pipe in artificial noise to try and replicate the game atmosphere. (Good luck with that.)
Assuming we do play this fall, the Hogs look to improve under Pittman. We have to, right? Nowhere to go but up and all. The general consensus among those who follow football is that Arkansas has better than 4-and-20 talent. Based on talent alone, there’s no excuse for winning just two games in each of the last two seasons. Once a proud program, Arkansas football remains top 25 in all-time wins despite the historic valley in which it finds itself. And it has no business going 4-8, even in the vaunted SEC West, much less 2-10. The resources, the statewide support … No excuse. Consistently, Arkansas should be no worse than fourth in the West.
Unfortunately, we’re looking at another year likely in the cellar. Granted, the cellar of the best division in college football. But the climb back up from Bret Bielema’s fade and Chad Morris is steep. Morris is an adept recruiter — as promised, he re-emphasized Texas and delivered respectable classes, and he sure could talk a good game notwithstanding post-game pressers. But once on campus, players too often never developed or seemed willing to fight for their coach. “All hat, no cattle” comes to mind, to borrow a Texas phrase.
To be sure, Morris and his staff didn’t inherit a great situation. Those blown big leads in the 2016 regular-season finale at Missouri and in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech were red flags; cracks were visible by Bielema’s next-to-last season. Indeed, after Pittman left to coach the offensive line at Georgia, Bielema had lost his foundation, literally and figuratively. (Some insist cracks were showing before Pittman left, helping motivate him to join his buddy Jim Chaney at Georgia.) Thus, a program being properly rebuilt from the inside out was showing signs of post-Pittman rot by the time Morris took over, and regression soon became a freefall.
Now Pittman inherits a program that doesn’t even slightly resemble the legendary Fighting Razorback spirit on which it was built. The Morris blueprint of mobile 280-pound offensive linemen anchoring a hurry-up offense never materialized. Instead, Razorback O-lineman got bullied, defenders looked lost and the Hogs’ two-year cascade of quarterbacks … Well, it wasn’t pretty.
To their final day on the Hill, Morris and his staff of neophytes tasked with installing the “Deshaun Watson/Clemson offense” claimed that just 30 percent of the playbook was installed. Feels about right. Under the Morris regime, after all, the Hogs seemingly were responsible for only about 30 percent of the total points scored in a given game.
The new Head Hog has much to prove. A successful and respected career assistant, considered an elite recruiter, Pittman is launching his first head coaching gig. But based on endorsements from former players and reactions from current Hogs, he appears more than able to motivate. Heck, he’s already motivated a moribund fan base to step away from the ledge and dare to hope, at least. And Razorback players who appeared to let go of the rope throughout the four-win Morris tenure and even back into the Bielema days now seem willing to run through a wall for Pittman and the impressive staff he’s compiled.
Which brings us to the main reason why the Hogs should improve. (Or look better anyway, even if the record doesn’t reflect it.) The coaching staff. Former Missouri head coach Barry Odom will lead the defense, and the Hogs need him. Odom reportedly turned down a deal to coordinate LSU’s defense so he could coach with Pittman. Kendal Briles will direct the offense. His recent past includes installing and running explosive offenses at Baylor, Houston and Florida State. And with Pittman at the helm and veteran Pittman protégé Brad Davis — who also moved over from Missouri — coaching the O-line, look for the Hogs to commence a return to respectability up front. Numbers finally are back to levels allowing a full scholarship two-deep, and the Hogs have some promising, if so far underperforming, underclassmen.
Aside from defense (more on it in a minute), the greatest improvement from a unit perspective should come from the OL; which will help the Hogs transition, of course, into Briles’ high octane offense. And don’t expect a case of same song, different verse. Though Morris energized the Clemson program as offensive coordinator, his promised “left lane, hammer down” never alighted in Fayetteville or even appeared to come close to doing so.
All-SEC running back Rakeem Boyd returns after rushing for north of 1,000 yards in 2019. His No. 5 jersey reminds Hog fans of Darren McFadden, and Boyd has the chops to back up such comparisons, or at least place himself in the conversation. And following that QB carousel of the following two seasons, the Hogs have a new likely starter in Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks.
The 6-foot-6-inch pro-style QB started 25 games before an ankle injury ended an up-and-down Gator career in 2019. Franks threw for more than 2,400 yards in 2018 with 24 touchdowns (he ran for seven more) and just six picks in leading the Gators to a 10-3 season in 2018, capped by a Peach Bowl win over Michigan. Assuming he has any time in the pocket, a Razorback bugaboo of late, Franks will find available a good corps of receivers that includes Treylon Burks, Mike Woods and Trey Knox. They’re not Wrights/Adams/Childs just yet, but could get there.
And big things are expected of five-star redshirt freshman Hudson Henry (yes, one of those Henrys), who headlines a rebuilding tight end room. The Hogs have playmakers; they just need the ball.
Odom has nowhere to go but up on the defensive side. The Hogs’ defensive woes now are recited by schoolchildren across Arkansas like oral histories of generational tragedies. The first step to fixing what ails us? New staff. Check. Odom is a decorated DC whose Missouri squads never lacked for defense. He inherits some talent, including Dorian Gerald, the heralded defensive end poised for a breakout season in 2019 before an artery issue in his neck, of all things (I mean, where else but here, right?), ended his season after one game. Youngster Mataio Soli returns on the D-line as well and looks the part of future star, and Clemson grad transfer Xavier Kelly should add quality depth if not make an immediate impact.
Speed kills, they say. It’s an SEC thing. Well, lack of speed is fatal as well. The Hogs haven’t fielded speedy linebackers since Martrell Spaight roamed sideline to sideline on his way to the NFL. For several years now, the LB corps has lacked speed, size and even depth. Odom is an LB man, but a process awaits him. The additions to the rotation of redshirt freshman Zach Zimos and Oklahoma transfer Levi Draper should help.
The secondary … Where to begin? Last season, the Hogs didn’t give up as many plays over the top. We can begin there. But the matador virus continues to occasionally plague backline defenders in Fayetteville. Talent is there, though, and three starters return in the secondary. And top 2020 signee and early enrollee Myles Slusher at safety may one day have Hog fans thinking Atwater/Kennedy/Hamlin. And there’s a lot of young talent coming in. The secondary may soon be fairly stacked.
The kicking game will miss Connor Limpert, the UA’s all-time leader in field goal percentage. And returners Burks and De’Vion Warren are legitimate threats. But special teams overall have not been special for several years and likely will continue the trend in 2020 (or whenever). Duke transfer A.J. Reed is the probable kicker, and two punters coming off subpar seasons are back.
It all boils down to this. For various reasons, Arkansas football has sunk to historic lows. And the SEC, the English Premier League of college football, is not an ideal setting to rebuild. Pittman just needs to take baby steps, such as winning a conference game for the first time in two-plus seasons. The fanbase has accepted reality; it just wants to see effort and a little progress, previously lacking.
The Hogs own a decent run game and have playmakers on offense. The defense, plagued by inept offense at bad times, has withered late after respectable starts and suffered from non-inspired if not non-existent coaching. The Hogs aren’t ready to contend, but 2-10? The program may have fallen on hard times, but it’s hard to believe recruiting classes consistently ranked in the top 30 left us with less talent than programs such as North Texas and San Jose State. Unfortunately, the redemption tour begins with what may be a 10- or 12-game conference-only schedule. This is Arkansas — it doesn’t come easy. Heading into 2020, we were facing one of the nation’s toughest schedules with an SEC slate of Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss in Fayetteville with Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri (in Kansas City) on the road. Then there’s the annual (but doubtful for long) tilt with Texas A&M in Dallas. (It wasn’t official as we went to press, but the A&M game appears headed back to campus for the next two years.)
Whether all or most of these games are played remains up in the air, as does how many fans will get to see them in person. (And what a shame the Hogs almost assuredly will have to wait for the program’s first-ever meeting with Notre Dame.) Before the virus threatened to derail all fall sports, most Hog fans would’ve accepted 4-8 as something of a success in Pittman’s first year. Win three of four in non-conference and then for Pete’s sake, win a league game.
We’ll see what happens. With “hammer down” now a memory (and a punchline), there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Hog fans are ready to run through a wall to begin that climb.