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.
Pittman preparing for future hurdles
Sam Pittman watches Arkansas football practice on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015 in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Sam Pittman has made the mental adjustment.
Instead of fretting about not being in the midst of the Razorbacks' third practice of spring drills Friday as previously scheduled, the first-year University of Arkansas coach focused on what he can control during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We have concentrated more on recruiting, including 2022 kids, and the well-being of our players and our families," Pittman said on a Friday teleconference. "Just making sure we're communicating with them on a daily basis."
Pittman said Friday was the first day the football coaching staff didn't have a preassigned morning meeting time at the Smith Football Center.
Spring break will take place as scheduled during the coming week, and Pittman said the week will operate like a dry run to see if coaches are able to complete their tasks at home or need to convene at the Smith Center the week after.
"If they let us come back in and work here [at the Smith Center] we will do that," Pittman said. "We're kind of doing a test run this week to see if we can do everything out of the office as well and as efficient as we could in the office. So we'll know a little more about that midweek, Thursday or Friday of this upcoming week."
Pittman said about 80% of the football team has returned to their homes, while 21 players, as of Thursday, were living in off-campus housing in and around Fayetteville.
"All of our young kids that were living in the Quads, the dorms, are not here," he said. "They're back home. ... Every day we have a tracking through each one of our coaches of where our kids are."
Instead of moping about lost practice time or worrying about when practices will resume, the Razorbacks coaches have attacked recruiting, or as Pittman termed it, "We're trying to put a stampede" on recruiting.
"We're staying plenty busy, it's just not what we thought we would be doing at this point," he said.
Pittman has been in communication with Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek about potential target dates for starting spring drills. Yurachek has been engaging in daily conference calls with commissioner Greg Sankey, other conference officials and the other 13 athletic directors.
As of now, the SEC has canceled all spring games and set a date of April 15 through which no practices, team meetings, group or individual workouts or campus athletic facilities can be used by players.
"You have to have several different dates in mind," Pittman said of his conversations with Yurachek about when practices might commence.
He also rattled off some of the many other questions that come up, such as, "What about the teams that have had practices before us? How long of a period do we need in conditioning before we go out there to practice? All those things have been talked about."
The current suspension has already made it impossible for Arkansas to get in all of its allowed 15 spring practices prior to the April 25 deadline to complete the period. Yurachek and Sankey said schools will seek relief from the NCAA to alter the calendar and allow for equitable amounts of practice time before the camp season starts in early August.
That works as long as the all clear has been given prior to some time in early July.
A harder scenario for the Razorbacks would be if they get no practice time in before early August.
"I don't know about when August starts, and we roll out the ball and get ready," Pittman said. "I was a head high school coach at three different schools and maybe you go back to something like that. I don't know.
"I do know this. Everybody will be in the same boat. The difference obviously is we'll be getting to know our talent level where most other schools -- not all of them, but most other schools -- already know what they have. We're going to look at it as a positive, and whatever it is, we'll go out there and try to have the best practices of anybody in the country."
Pittman said the Razorbacks might have to adjust their installation pace based on how much practice time is available before the season opener on Sept. 5 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville against Nevada.
In the meantime, maintaining academic eligibility, urging the players to maintain their fitness levels at distance and pounding on recruiting are the orders of the day, every day.
"All we know how to do is just go to work," Pittman said. "We have a plan every day of what we're going to do and we know a bunch of it ... is recruiting. We know a bunch of it is staying in touch with our players. We have to make sure they're working out, we have to make sure that they stay eligible and they're doing well in school. So we have a lot of work that we can do. The difference is we just can't see them face-to-face in person."
Pittman said the Razorbacks made a big push for 2022 prospects Tuesday through Thursday, resulting in eight offers being made.
"We've amped it up," he said. "I mean, we have more time, so you can either sit around and not do anything or you can recruit."
As for the current roster, Pittman gave an update on injured players that concluded with the thought that the entire roster should be relatively healthy by Aug. 1 barring unforeseen setbacks.
In the quarterback room, grad transfer senior Feleipe Franks is coming off ankle surgery from early last fall, while redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson is rehabbing from shoulder surgery later in the fall. Any extra time to heal would benefit both.
"We felt like if we were practicing Monday of this week, that Franks and Jefferson both would have practiced, so [extra time] certainly can't hurt them," Pittman said.
Additionally, offensive line starters Ty Clary and Dalton Wagner are both coming off shoulder surgeries to their labrum, as is linebacker Hayden Henry. Linebacker Bumper Pool had back surgery in the offseason, Pittman said. And offensive tackle Noah Gatlin is seven months removed from knee surgery.
"Our situation with those guys ... we were going to have them in walk-throughs and things of that nature, non-contact things, condition them at different points of time in practice when the coach thought that learning wasn't as valuable as the conditioning," Pittman said.
"Then whenever we felt that learning was more valuable than conditioning, they were going to be with the team. But they were going to be in every walk-through that we had. We don't see anybody on our team that won't be ready at least by Aug. 1."
Defensive end Dorian Gerald has been cleared for football activity, Pittman said. "The senior was stricken with a swollen artery in his neck during the first half of the season opener and ruled out for the rest of the year.
Pittman termed the offseason conditioning work of strength coach Jamil Walker a big success. The Razorbacks wanted to start their spring drills as late as was feasible on the calendar in order to get bigger and stronger on both sides of the line.
"Really pleased with the offseason and really thankful to have Jamil Walker here as the strength coach and then Ed Ellis as his No. 2 guy," Pittman said of the strength and conditioning coaches that came over from the University of Georgia, as he did. "We were able to do some different walk-throughs and things with the players in the offseason. We feel like we know quite a bit more about our players than what we did before."
Pittman said the coaching staff and team were ready to get busy with spring drills before the SEC put a hiatus on practices last Friday.
"Obviously, we were really excited to get out and see them perform and let them get to know the coaches better," he said. "Us get to know them better. Put them in some stressful situations, see how they react. But, we weren't able to."
Pittman said staff members are working to set up video chats between coaches and players to improve communication.
"My reaction was probably the same as everyone out there. We're trying to figure out when we can work hard via Zoom and things of that nature to visit with our kids. We're trying to put a stampede on recruiting."
Sports on 03/21/2020
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