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.
Limited 'control': Hogs focus on themselves, Sept. 5 opener
Sam Pittman watches Arkansas football practice on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015 in Fayetteville.
Recent rising coronavirus numbers in Arkansas and over much of the SEC footprint do not have first-year University of Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman down or distracted.
"We can only control what we can control in here," Pittman said on a Zoom chat with reporters on Tuesday. "In our SEC head coaches meetings, everything is going on as planned, scheduled for [the season opener] on Sept. 5. That's what we're preparing for."
If the current plan holds, Arkansas would host Nevada on Sept. 5 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville for Pittman's debut.
Pittman appeared on the online conference, along with tailback Rakeem Boyd and cornerback Montaric Brown, to give updates with Arkansas three weeks into voluntary strength and agility workouts in small groups.
The Razorbacks added incoming freshmen to the mix Monday. Arkansas football is a little more than three weeks out from NCAA approved walk-throughs, which would be the first full-team, on-field activities for the program under Pittman.
The Arkansas coaching staff met with parents of incoming freshmen Friday to give them the best updates and assurances they could provide regarding the UA's efforts to slow or prevent the spread of the virus.
"It's a relationship business, and it's hard to build relationships over the phone or over Zoom," Pittman said. "We made a conscious effort of trying to make sure that we're talking to our kids as much as we possibly can, because we felt like we lost at least four, maybe five, face-to face opportunities with our recruits.
"So obviously our entire staff Friday [went] over to the Quads [dorms] and we were able to visit. Our whole Friday was trying to make the parents feel extremely comfortable that they were leaving their kids in the right hands. And so that's all you can do really, and communicate."
Boyd and Brown said the Razorbacks have done a good job of applying the latest virus guidelines.
"Yeah, keeping your hands clean and your mask on and really staying clean," Boyd said. "The workouts, we wear masks in there and [are] 6 feet apart."
Added Brown: "We've done it very well. We listen to Coach Pittman and make sure we social distance every day, and we're making sure we have our masks on and staying away from large groups of people because it spreads quickly.
"It's not hard at all, and like Coach Pittman said, 'If you want a season, you're gonna abide by those rules.' "
Boyd was asked what he thought about some of the big positive test numbers that have been reported at schools such as LSU, Clemson and Alabama.
"I think it's just crazy that that many people have the coronavirus," he said. "Something's not right, or we're doing something right over here."
The UA has confirmed only one positive test, and that happened in late May. There has been chatter that several UA football players have been quarantined, but UA associate athletic director for communications Kyle Parkinson said prior to the video chat that Pittman would not be addressing the issue of positive tests. Parkinson said any updates would have to come from UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's request Tuesday for updated positive tests for UA football players was not fulfilled.
Kevin Trainor, UA senior associate athletic director for public relations, said the department would pass along the numbers "when we have an update," and that Yurachek mentioned initially it was "not something we would be providing on an ongoing basis."
Strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker and his staff have had oversight of the voluntary workouts, as the on-field coaches cannot watch them and are not supposed to answer questions about who has performed well or poorly in them.
"I can say that everybody has been working their tail off," said Brown, who added that he had sports hernia surgery in January that would have limited his availability for spring practices if they had been conducted. "We've been listening to Coach Walker and going by him."
Said Boyd: "It's really just a lot of guys coming together, you know what I mean, because other teams are not working out at this time and we're one of the teams believing we're going to have a season. We're going to get it on.
"If you want to live, for your own good, that would help a lot just staying inside. I've done got into [video] games now. I bought an Xbox, so it's a lot different."
Pittman was asked multiple questions about whether he thought the season would go off as planned or whether it might be moved to the spring.
"We're going off the facts of what we know," he said. "I'm in a head coaches' meeting every Thursday morning at 7:30. I'm going off of facts from the SEC commissioner, and so all speculation ... I mean we could speculate for a month. Some of it would be right, some of it would be wrong. I'm just going off the facts of what the SEC commissioner [Greg Sankey] is telling us, and we're going as planned to have a season for Sept. 5.
"Honestly, I don't know how you could possibly prepare a team if you look at it any other way than that."
He was also asked whether there were multiple other "plans of attack" being considered in case coronavirus concerns alter or delay preparation for the season or the games themselves.
"I think the biggest concern is the what-ifs," Pittman said. "What if this happens? What if you get pushed back two weeks? All those type things.
"And that's always a constant communication between myself, Coach Walker and our three coordinators. We're talking about that all the time."
Pittman has stressed over and over about the need for being productive with the time of the players during the pandemic.
"We're not in the time-consuming business," he said. "We're in the winning business. So we're not trying to have our kids here just because the NCAA says we can have them here.
"If we're going to have them here and have them in meetings, we need to be diversified enough in our meetings that we're keeping their attention that we can go win football games."
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