Dudley E. Dawson is a reporter for Hawgs Illustrated. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Pittman, Stepp high on Arkansas' receivers
Justin Stepp, Arkansas wide receivers coach, huddles with players in a timeout Saturday, April 6, 2019, during the Arkansas Red-White game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
FAYETTEVILLE The only assistant coach to survive the Arkansas football regime change with will be leading one of the deepest parts of the team.
Razorbacks receivers coach Justin Stepp, who came to campus with former coach Chad Morris and was retained by new coach Sam Pittman, has a talented mix of youth and veterans to work with whenever football practice returns.
Stepp made an impression on Pittman right away as the new coach hit the road recruiting soon after he was introduced in early December.
“In all honesty we were going to visit with everybody (on the last staff),” Pittman said during his teleconference on Friday. “Stepp volunteered to go on the road (recruiting) with me, which meant something to me, and I saw how coaches looked at him, recruits we were recruiting looked at him.
“There were a couple of coaches who held me back after we were getting ready to leave and talked to me personally about him. I don’t think he arranged that. I think they felt adamant that he was a good man and good football coach.”
Pittman also saw the players that Stepp had brought in during his short time at Arkansas and knew he had strong recruiting ties in an area Pittman wants to concentrate on.
“Obviously I had seen what he recruited in the room before I got here, and he has strong ties in East Texas, which I think we need,” Pittman said. “I was able to offer him the job that he had back to him, and he was very grateful, very thankful. He’s a good person, (has a) good family, and again he fit in that ‘good man, good communicator’ role that I had kind of set for who I wanted to hire, so we hired him.”
Pittman noted that he had plenty of candidates for the position, but the overall package that Stepp, a former Furman wide receiver and punt returner, brought to the staff made the decision an easy one.
“I’m sure they would have done a nice job, but I felt because he was so good in the 3-4 days I was with him before I offered him the job that we ought to keep him and keep some continuity from the previous staff,” Pittman said.
Stepp began his Division I college coaching career with three seasons at Clemson as a graduate assistant (2009-2011) before becoming receivers coach at Appalachian State (2012-2014) then joining Morris at SMU (2015-2017).
“Man, I am just excited for new,” Stepp said. “I think our kids are excited for new. It is just something different. I think we needed something different. I know where we have been, but I also know where this place can go from hearing what Coach Pittman said about this place when he was here. Not too long ago guys were winning a lot of football games here. I know we can recruit here.”
Pittman likes what he has seen from the receivers, as does new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.
"Well, I think the first thing about that group is their coach is back, so that probably made their transition a little bit easier for them," Pittman said. “Then Kendal Briles is a very personable guy who knows how valuable this group is to us. They’ve worked really hard.”
The top six appear to be Arkansas sophomores Treylon Burks (6-3, 231) and Trey Knox (6-5, 203), juniors Mike Woods (6-1, 197) and Kolian Jackson (6-2, 215), and seniors De’Vion Warren (5-10, 182) and Tyson Morris (6-1, 198) with redshirt freshman Shamar Nash (6-3, 209) and early enrollee Darin Turner (6-3, 218) hoping to get some playing time.
“Those are probably, right now, the top six kids that we have at that position,” Pittman said. “We really don’t have much coming in from the freshman class because Darin Turner is already here and he’s doing a nice job, but it’ll take a little bit for him probably to adjust.
“But those six guys have done a good job. They work hard. They’ve got a lot of pride in that room, and they’ve got a lot of publicity. They’ve got a lot to live up to, and they know it.”
Stepp is enjoying working with Briles, who was offensive coordinator at Houston when Stepp was at SMU.
“Just from playing against him while I was at SMU, God almighty, they were loaded when we played them that year," Stepp said. "It was bombs every play. Obviously he has got an unbelievable reputation as far as offense, especially for my position. That last name in recruiting helps me when I am trying to recruit players to this offense.”
While Razorbacks tight ends coach Jon Cooper is from the same type of offensive system as Briles, Stepp, offensive line coach Brad Davis and running backs coach Jimmy Smith are learning Briles’ system.
“There are really only two people on this staff who have been in this system with Kendal and Coach Cooper,” Stepp said. “Me, Coach Davis and Coach Smith are all learning this thing together, so the kids are going to learn at the same pace as we do.”
Stepp was amazed at how well Burks (29 catches, 475 yards) and Knox (28 catches, 385 yards, 3 TDs) played as rookies last season.
“I think they got thrown in the fire,” Stepp said. “Bless Trey’s heart. He was 17 when he got here and didn’t turn 18 until August, so I think it was a lot on him. And physically, he was not as big as Treylon and I think the physicality of the league caught up with him.
“I could not be prouder of those two. They kept a good attitude and a good work ethic. They came to work every day and battled some bruises and bumps. Really proud of the seasons they had and I know they will be looking to build off of that.
“They will continue to get more physical, put on more size, stuff like that. That year of them playing is going to be invaluable for us going forward.
Burks did not catch a touchdown pass in his freshman season.
“That is mindboggling,” Stepp said. “That blows my mind. How does that happen? You don’t even think about it until somebody tells you and you said, ‘My God, how did that not happen?’
“You would figure a wideout would be the one to tell you that, but he doesn’t care. He just wants to win. If he catches zero balls or eight balls, he just wants to win. Trey is the same way. Really, my whole group is. We have got a lot of unselfish kids, and at this point we just want win. We don’t care what we have to do.”
Woods, who led Arkansas’ receivers in catches (33), yards (423) and touchdowns (4), is the leader of the group, according to Stepp.
“He is the alpha,” Stepp said. “Mike stepped up and took over that role. He is just steady. He knows what to do, he is going to be in the right spot. He doesn’t show up on the list academically. He is never a problem when he leaves this building. As a coach, that is what you appreciate the most and it is the reason those kids in that room respect him so much.”
Woods has joked on Twitter in the offseason about moving to defense.
“That sucker ain’t playing no defense,” Stepp said. “He’s staying right where he is.”
Morris (13 catches, 155 yards, 1 TD), Warren (4 catches, 19 yards, 5 carries, 51 yards) and Jackson (3 catches, 38 yards) round out Pittman’s top six at this point.
Warren’s 2019 season was hampered late by an injury while Jackson has battled injuries throughout his career.
“(Jackson) came on toward the end of the year last year and did some good things,” Stepp said. “But it is the same thing with everybody and that’s consistency every single day. We tell them all the time that you don’t earn playing time on game day, you earn it through the week with how you prepare and how you practice. I think he got better at practicing specifically throughout the year.”
Morris is a versatile receiver, Stepp says.
“In the (Texas) A&M game he played all three positions and, bless his heart, he had no idea what he was doing half the time, but he played hard,” he added.
Turner is the lone scholarship freshman in the group.
“Darin provides a lot of size,” Stepp said. “Adds a lot of length, big kid, played a bunch of different positions. He has played defense, and the physicality of that position is something of interest to us.”
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