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.
Hogs map plan to build off spring camp
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman is shown during the Razorbacks' spring Red-White game on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — There’s no way to gauge what the disjointed lead-up to the 2020 season meant to the Arkansas Razorbacks.
While many analysts openly speculated on a potential 0-10 season for the University of Arkansas, the staff of first-year Coach Sam Pittman clearly had the Razorbacks ready to go for the opener against Georgia. They also rebounded well from late breakdowns in that game to throw up a brilliant defensive scheme the next week in a 21-14 upset win at No. 16 Mississippi State.
So, bouncing off those data points for a program that had no spring practices and a summer like no other in college football history and projecting toward a more “normal” summer and fall camp, what’s to be expected of Pittman’s second-year Razorbacks?
If Pittman and his staff have their way, the Razorbacks will be tougher all the way around, but also faster and more explosive in the skill positions. Pittman is already pleased with the practice attitude the Razorbacks displayed throughout the 15 practices of spring.
“Very pleased, yes,” Pittman replied when asked about his overarching thoughts on spring ball. “I don’t think we had a bad practice. That doesn’t have anything to do with me. That has to do with the assistant coaches and our players. I don’t think we had a bad practice, and I think we moved forward each day, and I love this football team.
“I love them because of the way they come to work every day. Yeah, we got better. We’ll get better and we’ll continue to get better just because of the character of the kids we have on our team.”
Sophomore quarterback KJ Jefferson, who was dubbed the starter prior to spring and did nothing to lose his grip on that spot, said it helped being surrounded by five returning starters on the offensive line; veteran receivers Mike Woods, Treylon Burks and Trey Knox; veteran tight ends Blake Kern and Hudson Henry; and experienced tailbacks such as Trelon Smith and T.J. Hammonds.
“It means a lot,” Jefferson said after completing 6 of 11 passes for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Red-White Game on Saturday. “Since we have a lot of weapons coming back, we have a point to prove on offense. We just want to be the best we can be.”
Sophomore safety Jalen Catalon said he felt the Razorbacks’ defense improving during the spring.
“I think running to the ball was one thing I really saw us getting better at,” Catalon said. “I think we made a big emphasis on running to the ball.
“I’m not saying we didn’t do it last year. I’m saying we really improved on it. And I think just everybody knowing their assignments for sure. We have less mistakes from the front end, from the front of the line, to the linebackers to the back end. Everybody has less mistakes, everyone from a 1, to a 2, to a 3. I think everyone knows what they’re doing and stuff. I think that’s what made us so effective this spring.”
Pittman and his staff have 11 super seniors — players who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the coronavirus pandemic — and six of them are either starters or part-time starters in offensive linemen Ty Clary and Myron Cunningham, Kern at tight end, defensive end Dorian Gerald, linebacker Grant Morgan and receiver De’Vion Warren. The others are Hammonds at tailback, linebackers Hayden Henry and Deon Edwards, receiver Tyson Morris and punter Sam Loy.
Because of that, competition should be keen for starting jobs at many positions throughout the summer and fall.
The next step for the Razorbacks is a little downtime.
“They are on discretionary week over the next several weeks, which means they can or can’t come work out,” Pittman said after Saturday’s Red-White Game. “That’ll be up to them. I think we have enough leadership that everybody will get their three lifts in over the next two weeks.
“We want them to. We can’t make them, but certainly would like them to, and I expect them to. That’ll be the next two weeks, then they have finals.”
That takes the Razorbacks into mid-May and a brief respite from campus if they choose.
“Then they’re going to go home and get a well-deserved break,” Pittman said. “They need one with the covid and all that stuff. They need to go home and relax and see their family.”
After that break, Pittman said, the Razorbacks will return to campus for the week of May 23-29 to prepare for the first session of summer school and player-led workouts while the coaches hone in on recruiting, wrapping up all the self-evaluations from spring drills and fine-tuning the playbook to prepare for the fall.
It looks like a sense of normalcy and possibly 100% stadium capacities could be on track for the 2021 football season.
The Razorbacks will open it at home Sept. 5 against former Southwest Conference rival Rice. Then the Texas Longhorns await.
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