Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Pining for football: UA coach Sam Pittman talks restart hope, QB pecking order
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman (right) is shown with his assistant coaching staff during the Razorbacks' basketball game against Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. At left and facing is offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.
FAYETTEVILLE -- New University of Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman does not want to lose the 2020 college football season.
Pittman also wants the populace to stay safe and to see the covid-19 contraction curve smashed.
In a wide-ranging interview Monday, Pittman spoke about the short-term future of college football, the extra hours available for instruction this week, the Hogs' base defense, and who would have taken the first reps at quarterback if the Razorbacks had started spring drills as scheduled March 16.
"I just couldn't imagine us not playing," Pittman said when asked for his take on the 2020 season. "We know they're going to let us play if they feel like it's going to be safe. We know that. But I've said it before, I think the United States needs football.
"So it would be hard for me to think we're not going to have a football season. July 1 would probably be perfect timing. I don't think we'll get June. If we do, that would be even better. But if we get back by July 1 or right after the Fourth of July, I think we can get everybody locked and loaded and ready to go by that time and be in good shape."
Pittman said this as a first-year Power 5 head coach who did not get in a lick of of spring practice.
He's not going to mope about the timing of the suspension of athletic activities, two days before the Razorbacks were to open their 15 practices of spring. The SEC imposed their initial halt on all athletic activities to run through April 15. That date was extended to May 31 late last week.
"I'm a very positive person," Pittman said. "I've taken it as it is, what it is. They're going to lay down rules that are concrete with everybody. We're going to do as much as we possibly can within the NCAA rules. We're trying to come up with different ways to recruit, different ways to communicate with our players and their parents."
Pittman said he and his coaches have made it a point to work with the latest technology and stay in touch with not only prospective recruits but also with their current team members.
"The biggest thing is we're trying to earn the trust of our team, and that's probably the biggest thing I'm concerned about right now," he said. "I felt like we were headed in the right direction. With them being gone, we wanted to make sure that we're really hands on as much as we possibly can be each day with our own players as well as recruiting for next year and the year after that. Been a lot of recruiting, but a lot of that is recruiting our own guys, too."
Pittman said the team isn't working with a depth chart right now, but he's pretty certain what would have taken place at quarterback had spring drills commenced March 16. The Razorbacks started five different quarterbacks in the last five games of 2019, in order: Nick Starkel, Ben Hicks, John Stephen Jones, KJ Jefferson and Jack Lindsey.
Hicks exhausted his eligibility, Starkel transferred to San Jose State and the other three remain on the roster. Jefferson, who maintained his freshman eligibility by playing in only three games, is coming off shoulder surgery. The Razorbacks also added senior graduate transfer Feleipe Franks, who started 25 games at Florida before going down with a broken ankle in Week 4 last year.
"Well, I think Feleipe coming in, we didn't really have a starter coming back from last season, so I'm pretty sure that Feleipe would have taken the starting reps, along with KJ Jefferson, who would have been right there with him," Pittman said. "But we recruited Feleipe for a reason, and that's because we think he can help our football program right now. Obviously, he'll have to earn that position. But him and/or KJ would have stepped up and taken the first reps of spring ball."
On Friday, linebacker Grant Morgan said the Razorbacks would work from a base 3-2-6 defense. Pittman said that's in coordinator Barry Odom's repertoire, but it could change.
"I think Grant's saying that because that's basically what we started with in the walk-throughs," Pittman said of the NCAA-allowed on-field time in winter. "Looking at it, I think the decision goes, whether you're a four- or a three-down line depends on depth at your D-line or you have more linebackers that you need to get on the field."
Pittman said the Razorbacks have solid numbers at linebacker and strong safety, which could affect the percentage of time Arkansas runs a three- or four-man front.
"Coach Odom has been a four-down team, he's been an over-and-under team, he bases out of a 4-3," Pittman said. "We're still going to be that way, too."
Pittman said the early walk-throughs were a chance to see what the 3-2-6 would look like with a middle safety and a nickel back added to the normal alignment in the defensive backfield.
"I think we'll be very multiple," he said. "I don't think we're going to be a 3-2-6 necessarily, but I do think that's going to be a part of our package."
Last week, the NCAA allowed fall sports to provide two hours of "virtual" instruction to mostly home-bound players. Arkansas used it to break into position groups and spend 30 minutes per day, Monday through Thursday, with Pittman bouncing around to the group chats led by position coaches and coordinators Odom and Kendal Briles.
The NCAA announced Friday that virtual instruction would be allowed for four hours per week.
This week, Pittman said the Razorbacks would expand their meetings to one hour on Monday through Thursday and keep Fridays open for personal exchanges.
"Well, right now everything is really slow," he said. "So we're trying to ... be very descriptive about our install. What we're going to do now is we're going to take that 30-minute meeting into an hour ... then Friday is just strictly communication. 'How are you doing?' Academics. All that stuff. We have an academic meeting on Thursday, so we're using Friday as updates for that and just, 'How's your grandmother? How's everything going?' More of a personal day than video and football."
Pittman added a segment to this week's presentation to the players.
"I'm trying to give a message for the day now that we have more time," he said. "I sent out a video to our players just about expectations and how are you doing, things like that, this morning. But because it was only 30 minutes last week, it was jump into different position meetings and me not being the focal point of the meeting because I didn't feel like we had enough time. Now with an hour, I'm kind of starting the meetings with my little two cents of what I had to say for the day."
Pittman said with players' workloads -- including schoolwork and personal workouts -- that four hours of instruction per week is just about right.
"We had kind of proposed four hours when it started," he said. "And I think that's a pretty good time. If you had much more time than that, you're going to lose some players. I mean they only have a certain amount of film that they can do, that you're getting positive feedback from. You're going to lose them if you start going an hour and a half, two hours, things of that nature, in my opinion. We never would have a meeting over an hour in spring ball or in fall camp."
Pittman praised the NCAA for how it's handling the coronavirus pandemic for the players.
"I like what the NCAA has done, because they're trying to make it as normal in an abnormal situation that it can be," Pittman said. "So I think doing these Zoom meetings helps them. I think there is a little bit of stir craziness going around. But I think now with them adding another 30 minutes I think is going to help us. We can put more on their plate, with different tests and things of that nature that will help us. They are bored, just like everybody else is, but with the added time I think that'll help us a little bit and it'll help them too."
Sports on 04/07/2020
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