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:
Clay Henry's Top Keys: Arkansas vs. Penn State
Arkansas' Nathan Parodi returns a punt for a touchdown during a game against UAPB on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Little Rock.
It took a bowl game to make the interview with Nathan Parodi happen. I was afraid I might be his jinx to good health until there was finally a sit down meeting with the walk-on punt returner for the Arkansas football team.
The first try was a no go because of a concussion sustained against Mississippi State. That knocked Parodi out of the trip to LSU and gave Bryce Stephens a chance to return punts.
I sat by my phone for another try as the Razorbacks launched bowl practices only to learn that Parodi was not available because of stomach flu.
“Oh, man,” Parodi said when finally we talked. “That was as sick as I’ve ever been. I lost 8 pounds.”
At 5-9, 179 pounds, there were no extra pounds to lose.
“No, sir,” Parodi said.
That was the start of a wonderful one-on-one with the Austin, Texas, product just before the Razorbacks left town to play Penn State in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Wonderful is about the best way to describe everything about Parodi, who according to Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is one of the “most liked” players on the team.
That was obvious when the sideline went berserk as Parodi returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He returned four punts for 137 yards against the Golden Lions before giving way to Stephens in the second half in that 45-3 rout.
Pittman said it was as excited as he’s seen his squad in a long time. Parodi sailed through the open field for the score that made it 31-3 in the second quarter.
“He is awesome, a great student, a fine teammate, a workaholic, doesn’t complain,” Pittman said. “I am going to put him on scholarship next semester. Not because he came and talked to me or anything, but because he’s earned it. So his last semester we’ll be able to pay for his schooling.
“He certainly has been a great Razorback and we are awful proud of him and what he has done. You can tell a lot about a guy on the way his teammates look at him, way they talk about him and he is one of the most popular guys on this team.”
Parodi was almost apologetic when Pittman called him over during a practice late in the season to give him the word on his scholarship. The redshirt junior had not told anyone this would be his last year to play.
“I just told him, ‘That’s awesome, but do you know I’m not going to play next year? I’m graduating in May.’ Then, he said he didn’t care either way,” Parodi said. “He said I deserved it.”
What was it like calling home to break the good news to mom and dad, Sheila and Bill?
“This is going to sound stupid, but I forgot,” he said. “I just got busy. I finally remembered and called home about one week later. They got mad at me at first, then they started crying.”
Parodi graduates with a degree in business management in May. He has a job lined up in Austin as a fitness trainer and sales at Body 20.
But first there is one last game with the Razorbacks, a bowl game that will be the first for most of the squad.
“I’m so excited,” Parodi said. “All of us are. Penn State is the perfect matchup. It’s a brand-name team. It will be a great ending to a special season if we can beat them solidly.
“We look forward to this because last year we practiced two weeks for no reason.”
The 2020 Texas Bowl was canceled just before the Hogs were to board buses for the airport to play TCU in Houston. TCU opted out of the game because covid and injuries had depleted its roster.
Raymond James Stadium, the site for the Outback Bowl, is the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It will be the second time for the Hogs to play in an NFL stadium this season. They defeated Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys’ home in September.
That was nothing new for Parodi when he joined the Hogs. His Lake Travis High School team also played in AT&T Stadium in each of his last two seasons, winning a state championship there to end his junior year.
The touchdown against UAPB was the first since he returned a kickoff for a TD in the state title game at AT&T Stadium his senior season at Lake Travis.
“Catching kicks in (AT&T Stadium) is weird,” he said. “Because of that big video board, the ball looks like it’s coming to you in slow motion and it’s a lot of fun.”
Fun isn’t really the right description of the return against UAPB.
“That was really special, something I’ll never forget,” he said. “That was one of the best days of my life.
“I knew going into the game that I might get that opportunity (to score). We were really prepared and I was eager for those (punts).
“Our return team was giving me 20 yards of open field on those returns. And the open area I had on the TD return, you could have driven a truck through it.
“Usually, I don’t hear the crowd when I’m on the field, but I heard it on that return. I was living a dream since I was 10 years old. It was surreal because right before the punt I saw my mom in the stands.”
Playing for the Razorbacks is an unusual dream for an Austin product.
“I grew up a Razorback fan,” he said. “My dad is from Little Rock. There is a picture of me with a Razorback hat when I was 4. So he made me a Razorback fan.”
His father taught him more than his love for the Razorbacks.
“He hates (the Texas Longhorns),” Parodi said. “He taught me that. I’m probably in the minority in Austin.”
That made the 40-21 victory over Texas in Week 2 this season a special game in his household.
“That game meant a lot,” Parodi said. “It was big then and it still means a lot.”
Former Lake Travis teammates dotted the Texas two deep, including quarterback Hudson Card, kicker Cameron Dicker and tight end Cade Brewer.
Parodi lined up some group messaging before the game with his old friends. Was there some trash talk?
“Before the game, yes,” Parodi said. “In those group texts. But I haven’t done any since the game. I kind of felt bad for them the way we manhandled them and I’ve left them alone. Most of them found me after the game to shake my hand.”
There will be time for more trash talking down the road.
Parodi was a recruited walk-on by former Arkansas assistant coach Mark Smith. That relationship started when Smith was on the SMU staff under Chad Morris. The Mustangs had a satellite camp at Lake Travis, where Morris once coached.
Parodi is one of two former Texans recruited by Smith who have gone from walk-on to scholarship players at Arkansas. Cornerback Hudson Clark of Highland Park has been in and out of the starting lineup the last two seasons.
Parodi played in all three phases at Lake Travis. At different times, he started as a slot receiver, safety, cornerback and kick returner. He made 90 tackles as a defensive back as a senior.
Because he was a recruited walk-on who came on an official visit, Parodi had to redshirt as a true freshman. But he worked himself onto special teams as a redshirt freshman and his role has grown each season.
Nickel back Greg Brooks opened the season as the punt returner, but lost his job after a muffed kick inside the 5-yard line early in the Texas game. Parodi has been handling that spot ever since.
“This has been a great year,” he said. “Like I said, I’m living my dream. I grew up watching Razorback games. I love this state. I love this stadium.
“I kind of thought coming into this that I might be getting in over my head. But it’s been great.”
His first two seasons were a little tough. The Hogs went 2-10 in both seasons, but things flipped with the coaching change.
“One of the first things I’ll say is that Coach Pittman made me feel welcome as a person,” he said. “The environment the previous two years was not good, but it flipped for me with Barry Odom and Sam Carter and this whole staff.
“I will say that I had a great relationship with Coach Smith. He continues to reach out. I got a text from him when I went on scholarship. He wanted to tell me how proud he was of me. That meant a lot.
“I have to say that I don’t regret one second coming here. I’m thankful for the relationships made here. They will be with me the rest of my life.”
Parodi is a hit in the locker room. When Pittman said he’s well liked, it was probably an understatement. Asked to explain, Parodi said, “I think it’s probably because I’m goofy.”
He’s one of the smallest on the team, but that doesn’t keep him from talking big.
“I do talk a lot of smack,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, I’ll talk smack. I think the guys like it.
“I’m a prankster, too. I might tell a freshman he’s got to take my clothes to the laundry. They don’t know I’m kidding.
“I’ll hide stuff from guys and tell them they aren’t getting it back. It might be Treylon Burks, or anyone.
“I’ve tried to pick fights with the biggest guys. I’m so little, 95% of the guys on our team would kick in my teeth. But I talk like I can stay with them.”
Interviews with walk-ons are generally awesome. Everyone is familiar with the Grant Morgan story, the rise to captain and winning the Burlsworth Trophy as the nation’s top walk-on.
It’s that kind of story that always intrigued. It hit me as I was waiting to visit with Parodi that another former walk-on might provide some insight on the matchup with Penn State.
It leads to the first keys to victory, the most interesting aspect of the bowl season, the contrast between conference football powers.
SEC vs. Big Ten
As soon as the Outback Bowl pairing with Penn State was announced, I ached to talk to Reid Miller, a UA walk-on who lettered on special teams and at safety in 2015-17.
Miller hails from Hollidaysburg, Pa., just 45 minutes from State College. I knew his dream was to play for Penn State, but that vanished when the Bill O’Brien staff exited and James Franklin took over as head coach.
The phone call for Miller was not returned, both a surprise and a disappointment. My first thought was that Miller had gone to Germany to play pro football. That was one of his goals after playing at Montana his senior season where he made 68 tackles as the strong safety.
So I went to the next best source, Miller’s father, Bob. That phone call was quickly returned with an explanation on Reid’s availability that made perfect sense.
Reid couldn’t talk. He was wrapping up the final session of Navy Seals training in San Diego. Officially, Reid Miller is in Navy special operations training. It’s commonly referenced as BUD/S, or Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals.
I was right about the German plans. Miller did sign with a team from Marburg, but covid-19 stopped the season before he could head overseas.
There was one other interesting twist before Seals. Miller tried out and made the U.S. Olympic bobsled team, but declined to pay his own way to Europe for the training this past summer.
This is my summation, not from his father: Navy Seals seemed like the most logical next step.
“Obviously, Mary Beth and I are a little anxious about all of this,” Bob said. “But you know I’ve always told you this and it’s still true, my son inspires me every day.”
Back to the Arkansas-Penn State matchup, so fascinating for the Miller family. They held six season tickets in Beaver Stadium for 16 years (and often went to away games) until Reid landed at Arkansas.
“In years past, Big Ten was mostly ground game with slower team speed,” Bob said. “You saw what happened when Bret Bielema brought that philosophy to the SEC from perennial winner Wisconsin. How did that work?
“But this edition of Penn State is much faster at wide receiver and in the defensive secondary. What I saw is that the Penn State offensive line under performed all year. That should help the Arkansas pass rush.
“I watched both teams all year. For both, the quarterback is the key player.”
The Penn State quarterback is regarded as a pocket passer, but his rushing stats mislead. He is the third-leading career rusher among quarterbacks for the Nittany Lions with 851 yards.
His sack totals reduced his rushing yards by 202 yards this year, leaving him with 117 net yards on 87 carries.
Clifford is a three-year starter with 7,644 yards in career passing. He’s thrown for 61 touchdowns with a career completion percentage of 60.9.
He’s got 31 career starts and has played in 36 games. He’ll likely finish with most of the school passing records because the redshirt senior plans to return for a sixth year at Penn State.
Clifford’s 2021 numbers are impressive. He’s completed 247 of 396 passes for 2,912 yards. He’s thrown for 20 TDs against just six interceptions.
The Arkansas quarterback hasn’t thrown as much as Clifford, mainly because his team features better balance. Jefferson has completed 184 of 275 passes for 2,578 yards. He’s totaled 21 TDs against just three interceptions, one of which was a Hail Mary to end the first half at Ole Miss.
Jefferson is the better runner. He’s second on the Hogs’ rushing charts this season with 554 yards on 126 carries. Trelon Smith is tops with 554 yards on 117 carries.
Jefferson was bruised and battered with all those carries over the second half of the season. He took heavy shots in both the Texas A&M and Ole Miss games, and seemed less inclined to tuck the ball when he left the pocket down the stretch.
With over one month away from contact, is Jefferson prone to run a little more in the bowl game? No one is giving away game plans, but Pittman seemed to give that a nod in some comments during bowl preparations.
The Pittman Way
It’s clear that Pittman wanted balance in his offensive system. He’s a veteran offensive line coach who always thought the best way to eliminate sacks was to lean on the run to set up play-action passing.
That seems to be what Arkansas has done with Kendal Briles calling plays. The second-year offensive coordinator has not only displayed run-pass balance, but there is a balance in the way the ball is distributed among a talented running back group.
Consider that the Hogs have six rushers with at least 20 carries. Raheim “Rocket” Sanders has 101 for 499 yards. Starter Dominique Johnson has 86 for 498 yards.
No one knows for sure what defections have taken place at Penn State. Franklin has maintained silence on all opt out situations.
But it’s clear that the Hogs will not have their best player, All-SEC first team wide receiver Treylon Burks. The junior with 66 catches for 1,104 yards and 11 TDs will not play in the bowl or return for his senior season.
That opens the door for Ketron Jackson and Stephens, both speedsters, for some work at wide receiver. Senior De’Vion Warren will start at the slot in place of Burks and looked sharp in the season finale against Missouri after rounding into shape after 2020 knee surgery.
Penn State Losses
The Nittany Lions have not provided a bowl depth chart and their game notes have not included one in weeks. But they will have to replace their top two inside linebackers, top receiver, top pass rusher and top safety for the bowl game.
Ellis Brooks (100 tackles) and Brandon Smith (81 tackles), the starting All-Big Ten linebackers; All-America safety Jaquan Brisker (64 tackles); All-America defensive end Arnold Ebiketie (9.5 sacks); and All-Big Ten receiver Jahan Dotson (91 receptions for 1,182 yards and 12 TDs) announced they have opted out of the bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo has also opted out of the game.
Franklin hasn’t indicated how they’ll be replaced, but the backup at middle linebacker is starting defensive end Jesse Luketa. So that impacts the front four.
There may be more Lions out for the bowl game. Since several Arkansas practices have been at least partly open, the loss of Burks seems to be the main subtraction in the Arkansas depth chart. Defensive end Tre Williams opted out, but only after an off-the-field issue.
Penn State’s top prospect in the offensive line, left tackle Rasheed Walker, arrived at the bowl site on crutches. He was injured late in the season.
The Penn State Defense
The strength of the Nittany Lions is on defense. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry left in early January to become head coach at Virginia Tech. Franklin quickly named fired Miami coach Manny Diaz as the coordinator.
However, that may not change the plans for the Lions for the bowl game. Franklin has named co-coordinator Anthony Poindexter, the linebackers coach, as the signal caller for this game.
The Lions are seventh nationally in scoring defense at 16.8 per game. They gave up just 344.3 yards per game against a tough schedule. The Lions returned three pass interceptions for touchdowns.
Penn State does not mind a punt. Franklin will play the field position game with an offense that doesn’t commit many turnovers. The Lions are second in the nation in net punting at 45.1. Jordan Stout, an All-Big Ten punter, averages 46.6.
Arkansas counters with Reid Bauer, solid with a 43.2 average. The Hogs have a net punting average of 38.4, which is 80th in the nation.
Who has it? The Hogs (8-4) finished with a flourish. Arkansas won November trophy games over LSU and Missouri while winning four of its last five. The only loss was 42-35 at Alabama.
Conversely, Penn State stumbled to the finish. The Lions (7-5) lost five of their last seven. Their only wins in that stretch were over Maryland and Rutgers.
Penn State soared to No. 4 in the national polls with a 5-0 start that included victories at Wisconsin and over Auburn at home.
The Lions began their tailspin with a nine-overtime home loss to Illinois. That was the only loss to a team that did not finish the season in the top 15. Those five losses were by a combined 21 points.
This long has been the biggest factor in bowl games: Who wants to be there?
Of course, it’s clear that many who don’t want to play just stay home these days.
But it’s old hat for the Lions to be playing in a bowl game. It’s not for the Razorbacks.
Penn State is playing in a New Year’s Day bowl or New Year’s 6 game for the fifth time in six years. Are the Lions as excited about this game as the Razorbacks?
This might be where the Hogs have an advantage. With the Penn State opt outs at linebacker — and the Hogs are healthy and strong at linebacker — it may be the key Arkansas advantage in the game.
Arkansas seniors Bumper Pool (120 tackles), Grant Morgan (96 tackles) and Hayden Henry (94 tackles) were all working through minor injuries late in the season. They should be full strength for the bowl game. Those three rotate at the two inside linebacker spots.
The irony of this strength is that Penn State has long bragged about linebacker prowess, but the Linebacker U tag was mainly appropriate in the 1970s. Maybe in a surprise, it goes to the Hogs for this game.
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