Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
What Sam Pittman said during his first preseason radio show
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman (left) and radio announcer Chuck Barrett are shown during Pittman's radio show Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE The effect of covid-19 was front and center at Arkansas coach Sam Pittman’s first weekly radio show Wednesday night.
Pittman and Razorback play-by-play announcer Chuck Barrett sat surrounded by a plexiglass shield as they spoke during the hour-long broadcast at the Catfish Hole restaurant. The popular segment that allowed fans to ask questions was scratched from the broadcast to avoid passing of a microphone, and fans were told Pittman wouldn’t be able to sign autographs during breaks in the broadcast.
No athletes were in attendance.
It was a clear reminder that Pittman’s inaugural season as the Razorbacks’ head coach will be “a season like no other,” Barrett said shortly after he came on the air.
Pittman called the lead up to the Razorbacks’ Sept. 26 opener against No. 4 Georgia “crazy,” and praised the focus of his players during the unprecedented, long preseason.
“Everybody talks about how we as coaches have adapted, but it’s really our players,” Pittman said. “They’ve done an outstanding job adapting to every situation. I’ve been very, very proud of them. They’ve been pretty impressive.”
Pittman said the reality of the season is beginning to sink in for his players, who have been working since walk-through practices began July 24. Pittman said there was never any talk within the team about the season not being played.
“I don’t know how you can prepare any other way than we’re going to play,” Pittman said. “Anything less than that is going to take away from us growing as a football team.
“I think we prepared well that way.”
Pittman said players were tested for covid-19 Wednesday. Any positive tests this week would initiate a quarantine that would last until the week of the season opener.
“The virus is certainly powerful, but now it’s even more meaningful to our kids because it’s a two-week time period out of football,” Pittman said, “which they work their entire year this year to get 10 games.
“I think it’s starting to hit us mentally a little bit more that, hey, we have to be better out of practice.”
Pittman indicated the team looks different than he anticipated it might when he accepted the job last December, especially along the offensive and defensive lines.
“When I got here I didn’t know if we’d walk out there and look like an SEC football team on the front,” Pittman said, adding, “I put a premium on getting bigger, getting thicker, and that seems to not (have affected) their ability.
“I want a big, fast guy more than I want a slim, fast guy. It’s a collision sport and a bigger guy matches up a bit better. You’ve got to have speed on your team and you’ve got to have big people.
“That’s where we needed to go on the offensive and defensive line, we needed to get big. They needed to look big and in shape. That's what (strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker) and his staff have done.”
Pittman said he likes the depth that has been developed on the offensive line and praised position coach Brad Davis’ work this preseason.
“I think we’re a little deeper on the O-line than I maybe thought when I took the job,” Pittman said.
An illustration of that has been the play of redshirt freshman tackle Brady Latham, who Pittman said probably leads the team in fights started during camp.
“We don’t have a lot of fights and we’re not supposed to fight,” Pittman said, “but he’s a guy you’ve got to watch because he’s got a lot of strain to him. You have to like aggressive people.”
Pittman said the team is confident, an extension of the coaching staff.
“We are a very confident coaching staff,” Pittman said, “and that goes over to our kids. You have to have confidence to get better.
“We work well together. We have a staff that’s willing to talk, willing to give ideas. Ultimately I have to make the decision, but I’m so proud of our staff and the way they talk to our kids, the sense of urgency we have and the high standards we hold each kid to.”
Pittman went position by position over the course of the broadcast. He didn’t break any news about starters, but did indicate the players who had impressed him.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks is working out a lot with the Razorbacks’ first teamers. Pittman hasn’t named Franks the starter, but all indications are he will take the first snap against Georgia.
“Just recently he has really come into his own,” Pittman said. “This week I’ve seen him be more vocal with the football team. Expectations of your team have to start with your head coach, but it has to trickle down, and one of those positions has to be your quarterback.”
At running back Pittman said he has liked the work of Trelon Smith and Dominique Johnson behind senior Rakeem Boyd. At receiver he said Tyson Morris has had a strong camp.
The Razorbacks haven’t selected a starting five on the offensive line, although it appears Ricky Stromberg at center, Beaux Limmer at right guard and Myron Cunningham at left tackle are strong candidates to start at their positions.
Most are being trained at multiple positions, though, which Pittman said will have value because of the potential quarantines.
“We’re trying to hone in on, OK, this is your starting position but we may need you over here if we get hurt,” Pittman said.
The tight end position is “young for the most part, but that don’t mean they can’t play. They’re just inexperienced.”
Pittman said the tight end must be a versatile player in Kendal Briles’ offense. The position will be asked to block plenty, but will also be asked to be a threat in the passing game.
“He’s not just a physical blocker,” Pittman said. “Our tight end has to be able to flex out and go vertical, and be able to beat a safety or beat a nickel over the top. We feel like we have that potential speed.”
On the defensive front, Pittman said he likes the play of Dorian Gerald, Julius Coates, Jonathan Marshall and Xavier Kelly. He also mentioned Taurean Carter and Mataio Soli as having a good preseason.
“They won the second scrimmage; they didn’t the first scrimmage,” Pittman said of the defensive front. “But on a daily basis they’re hard to block.”
Like the tight ends on offense, Pittman indicated the linebackers have been the biggest question mark on defense.
“I don’t know that you can play a whole lot of by-committee at any position and be great at that position,” Pittman said. “You obviously have to have two guys there that at some point should be better than somebody else (on the depth chart). We’re not quite settled there.”
Pittman said he loved his secondary.
“I really do,” he said. “I think they’re competitive. There’s a lot to this group.”
Pittman said safety Jalen Catalon had an “outstanding” scrimmage last week and Myles Slusher has shown flashes of being a strong player as a freshman. Joe Foucha has been aggressive in the preseason.
Other defensive backs singled out as showing positives this camp included Jerry Jacobs, Montaric Brown, Jarques McClellion, LaDarrius Bishop and Myles Mason.
“I love to watch them work,” Pittman said. “This is a working group…. This group needed confidence and they’re getting it right now.”
On special teams, Pittman said A.J. Reed and Matthew Phillips both made 4 of 5 field goal attempts during last week’s scrimmage, and George Caratan averaged “50-something yards” on his punts.
“They had a really good scrimmage Friday night,” Pittman said.
The Razorbacks will hold a night-time practice Thursday to prepare for late games. After the 3 p.m. game against Georgia, Arkansas has at least three games that will be scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.
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