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 must wait to see what Hogs have on field
FAYETTEVILLE -- A college football program like the University of Arkansas, which had a change in head coaches for the second time in three years over the winter, could fall further behind the curve during the coronavirus lull.
First-year Coach Sam Pittman and his staff have not conducted one practice with the Razorbacks, and they're not sure when they will be allowed to during this time of social distancing. For now, April 16 is the first possible day the Hogs could reconvene even for a team meeting, but starting spring ball at that time looks like a remote possibility.
But Pittman was pretty stoked with how the Razorbacks came through winter weightlifting and conditioning work.
"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 on a teleconference recently. "We were able to do some different walk-throughs and things with the players in the offseason.
"So we got a little bit, since the last time we talked ... we feel like we know quite a bit more about our players than what we did before."
The Razorbacks will need to advance rapidly from knowing "a bit more" about their players to understanding how they operate under pressure between now and the season opener Sept. 5 against Nevada.
The Razorbacks are behind like no other SEC program. They posted back-to-back 2-10 records in Chad Morris' two years, and will take a 19-game SEC losing streak into Pittman's debut season.
Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek feels certain Arkansas will get on an even footing with its FBS counterparts, many of whom had started their spring practices.
"I think you'll find that the NCAA will provide some relief to most schools to make it equitable," Yurachek said March 13. "Some have had a week or two of spring practice, some have not, and some are completed with their spring practices. That obviously puts us behind, but that is not what is important right now."
One of the primary reasons Pittman and his staff wanted to push the start of spring ball back as far as possible was to spend more time in building strength and adding muscle to their entire roster. The weight gains were mainly targeted for players who operate inside the box on both sides of the line.
Pittman thought that was mission accomplished when he recently touted the added weight for numerous players, particularly in the trenches and at linebacker.
The concern now at Arkansas and across college football is the potential for players to backslide, lapsing into poor eating habits or slacking on workout regimens without the support of nutritionists, and the strength and conditioning coaches.
"There's concern about maintaining weight, and there's also concern about guys gaining too much and coming in here out of shape, but I don't know what we can do about it," Pittman admitted. "All we can do is talk to them about it.
"We can get on and Facetime them, so I guess we can see if they're putting on good weight or not by that. But other than that, we have to trust our kids that they want to be as good as we want them to be."
Football often boils down to individual choices, combined with attitude and effort, so the Razorbacks will be in the same boat with others when it comes to personal motivations during suspended athletic activities.
Out of a roster of roughly 100 scholarship and nonscholarship players, only 21 remained around town as of March 20. The campus at the University of Arkansas is interacting with athletes only to feed, counsel or rehab them. The teams cannot conduct practices, walk-throughs or meetings.
Pittman said there will have to be an adjustment period between the time players report again and when practices commence in earnest, no matter when team activities resume.
"We haven't really gotten into assumptions of when it's starting," he said. "We're just making sure we communicate with them on a daily basis."
Pittman was asked about the possibly of conducting "spring ball" during a hotter time of the year than the traditional 15 practices of spring.
"You have fall camp that starts in August. You have July where they've been running, getting in shape," he said. "I'm sure there's going to be an acclimation period. We can't just bring them back and immediately start football. So, you know, we've been talking with our strength staff about those things.
"As far as we know, [the players] are telling us that they're working out each day. So, we're trying to keep them in shape and trying not to lose the gains that we've made."
Walker was not available for comment for this story.
Sports on 03/30/2020
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.