Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs:
Pittman instilling what was missing
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is shown prior to a scrimmage Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Fayetteville.
The headline on the column published Dec. 10, 2019, was simple: Pittman will instill toughness.
It came the day after Sam Pittman was introduced as the Arkansas football coach. The answer to the one question I asked at his introduction — and the theme in my 2,500 word essay then — is as important today as it was 16 months ago.
How would Pittman make the Razorbacks tough?
“It’s hard not to be tough if you are tough every day,” Pittman said. “You instill the fight every day. It’s my belief that you are hard nosed every day. We will pride ourselves on toughness.
“You do that by communicating a lot. They will know how to be tough.”
The question I asked Thursday was almost as simple: Does Pittman have a tough team as 2021 spring football practices conclude with a intra-squad game at 2 p.m. Saturday?
To those raised on video games and 7-on-7-styled offenses, whether or not you can execute a pretty passing game is all that matters.
To the old-timers – and I’m definitely in that group – the essence of coaching is whether or not your teams look tough and play hard down after down.
The Hogs were the opposite of tough late in the Bret Bielema era and for all of the two years under Chad Morris. They were soft.
Oh, you could find a man here or there with a tough attitude, a fighter with true Razorback spirit who played past the whistle and walked away from trainers.
“You guys have been to a lot of practices,” Pittman said. “I would hope that you would think they are physical and fast and demanding and things of that nature, what a tough football team would be like.
“Let me say this, we don’t have guys fall down on the ground and they stay down there for five or six hours. They’re getting back up, and they’re coming back and playing and things of that nature.”
What I’ve noticed in the two open scrimmages this spring is that the Hogs go fast and do work on those pretty 7-on-7 plays featured by offensive coordinator Kendal Briles.
But they take enough time in between plays for Pittman’s entire staff to fix things that breakdown from time to time. If a player misses an assignment, you see new linebackers coach Michael Scherer jump off the sideline to make a correction. Or, you hear defensive coordinator Barry Odom fix an alignment fault before the next play.
That’s what I didn’t see in the Morris era. One mistake led to another, or was repeated. They went too fast to fix the complicated offense or defense that is needed in the SEC.
I see more complexity on both sides of the ball this spring, but just as much emphasis on getting things correct. It’s just as important as playing tough or hard. You can play hard, but if you beat yourself, the scoreboard will look ugly.
Eliminating errors in the kicking game — most notably in protections — is a constant theme this spring. I’m not sure who is going to kick or punt, but protecting them might be more important.
I see a change in the blocking formation in the punt game with one less blocker in the shield and more help up front where the Hogs will be able to stop the penetration a little better. That seemed the big issue last season when blocked punts ruined several games.
Pittman said the emphasis on special teams has been intense this spring because the Hogs “weren’t very good there” last year. No one argues. It was the major glaring problem with his first team, despite hiring a solid special teams coach in Scott Fountain.
The Hogs can be as tough as any team in the SEC but they won’t be successful until they also play as sound in the kicking game. It’s the way the Hogs won in the 1960s, solid kicking and fanatical effort and toughness.
I asked who are the toughest players on the team. Pittman declined to reveal that much detail because he thinks all of them are tough. But he did comment on the toughness displayed among several position groups.
“I don’t have time to tell you all of them (who are tough),” he said, “but I think our offensive line is tough. I think the secondary is tough. I think the wide receivers are that, too.
“I’m not sure on the quarterbacks because we haven’t hit them. I’m not sure if our punters and kickers are tough, either. The rest of our team is pretty tough.”
There were hints that it wasn’t that way when Pittman returned to Arkansas. He said there were “too many people” on the sideline during scrimmages.
That’s not the case now. I saw team leader Jalen Catalon come out for a check of his shoulder during the second scrimmage. Doctors ran some tests and he quickly put his shoulder pads on and returned to action.
A lineman who was helped off the field returned to action one series later. He may have been limping, but he wasn’t going to watch and let someone lock down his spot.
I’m reminded of last season when Grant Morgan played with torn ligaments in his elbow. The story goes that trainers and doctors ordered an MRI, but Morgan declined, fearing the result would suggest surgery. He knew he could play through the obvious pain.
What I’ve seen is that the Hogs are not just tougher, but bigger, too. Pittman mentioned that junior defensive end Zach Williams, a starter along with classmate Eric Gregory, is now at 265 pounds.
Those two have kept their speed as they have added size and strength. They look like SEC defensive ends now. The Hogs are getting bigger, but they still run.
The speed is evident at all positions, including offensive tackle where Myron Cunningham and Marcus Henderson will be the starters Saturday.
Henderson is stepping in for the injured Dalton Wagner on the right side and is now capable of becoming the desired swing backup tackle on either side. Henderson, who has worked well at left tackle, has SEC speed and is adding bulk daily.
Starting Henderson at right tackle in the spring game, Pittman said, “will prepare him to be that swing guy in the fall.”
That speed thought was front and center for a fun assignment I gave Pittman late in his Thursday Zoom session with the media. Mindful of his big love for the horse racing at Oaklawn Park, Pittman was asked to rate his team on the big track.
Asked which Razorback would be the favorite in a 6 furlong race, Pittman pointed to former track sprinter Josh Oglesby.
“If it was a little longer, maybe I’d go with Treylon Burks,” Pittman said. “At a longer distance, maybe up to 7 furlongs, I’d go with Malik Hornsby.”
Who would be the favorite at 1 mile, 70 yards — the distance race at Oaklawn?
“Oh, go with Greg Brooks,” Pittman said. “You know you can have an entry, 1 and 1A. So you could have someone with Brooks, maybe Simeon Blair at 1A.”
No matter the distance, expect all of these entries to fight tough all the way to the finish line. That’s just what you expect with Sam Pittman as their coach.
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