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.
Hogs ahead of last year, Pittman says following first scrimmage
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman speaks to his players Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ first football scrimmage of the 2022 preseason concluded Saturday with a calm, mostly positive tone from coach Sam Pittman.
Pittman said the Razorbacks are not game ready yet, which comes as no surprise as the team is only a little more than a week into preseason drills and does not open the season until a Sept. 3 game against Cincinnati.
Pittman said the team has "a lot to work on," including playing better as a unit.
“The first part of fall (practice) a lot of times is you’re not worried about playing together as a team, you’re worried about surviving practice, and it was hotter than hot out there," Pittman said. "The next mode you go to is you’re worried about your position and where you’re at on the depth chart. And at some point that all comes together, hey, this is where I’m at, this is what I’m doing. Now how do I make my teammate better?
“We’re not a team that’s bickering and fighting and all that, but we’re not a unit yet. We’ve got some good players and we’re not a consistent unit anywhere yet, but we’re further along right now than we were last year at this point.”
Pittman estimated that Saturday’s closed scrimmage lasted about 110 plays and included periods when the first- and second-team offense each saw live action against the first- and second-team defense. Third-team players also scrimmaged against each other and there were situational periods that included red-zone work and two-minute drills.
The players “thudded,” Pittman said, but did not tackle to the ground.
“Actually it’s harder to thud than it is to tackle because you can’t leave your feet and you’ve got to run your hips through, and you’ve got to take another step, basically,” Pittman said.
“We’re good mentally, but we’re kind of taking a break physically. We’re putting in a five-minute period where we’re tackling during that teaching period, making an emphasis on having a tackle circuit. We can make up for the tackling loss that we will have in two scrimmages.”
The tempo of practice was good, Pittman said. He added that the team was in “pretty good shape” for this point in the preseason.
“We’re certainly not game ready, but we saw a lot of good things out there,” Pittman said.
Pittman was complimentary of the play of his first-team offensive line, several receivers and tight end Trey Knox, who he said caught passes of 20 and 35 yards. He said that on eight third-down plays that ranged from 4 to 11 yards to gain, the offense converted all but once or twice.
“Our wideouts right now are playing really well,” Pittman said. “(Warren Thompson) caught a touchdown. I really like the young (Isaiah) Sategna kid; I really like him. He did some really nice things today as well. We’ve got big wideouts and we’ve got quarterbacks getting (passes) to them. We’re able to protect and that’s a good thing.”
It was the second time this week Pittman heaped praise on his receiving corps, whose play he said has improved collectively since the spring, especially in the case of Thompson and Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood. The addition of the freshman Sategna and Toledo transfer Matt Landers has also been a plus. Both players caught long passes during Saturday’s scrimmage, as did Thompson, according to quarterback KJ Jefferson.
“That unit there has went a little bit in the first eight practices from, ‘Man, we’ve got a concern,'" Pittman said of his receivers, " to, ‘Man, somebody else has got a concern about our guys.’”
Pittman seemed pleased with the play of Jefferson and noted Cade Fortin was able to take some second-team reps as Malik Hornsby increased his workload at receiver.
“(Fortin) allowed us to do what we’ve been doing with Malik,” Pittman said of Hornsby playing two positions.
The quarterback Jefferson said he felt like he had a “pretty good performance” and credited the play of those around him.
“I did feel like I had a great day today,” Jefferson said. “There’s things I do need to get better at as far as small details and stuff like that.
“As an offensive unit, I feel like we had a pretty explosive day today. We came out, took shots early, but we’ve just got to clean up the little mistakes and the little details, all the penalties we had.”
SEC officials were on site for the scrimmage and Pittman was pleased that his team limited contact penalties like pass interference and holding, but he counted nine self-inflicted penalties such as false starts, illegal formations and kickoffs out of bounds. He attributed many of the penalties to younger players and pointed out the flag total included some against third-team players.
“That’s why you scrimmage,” Pittman said, “to try to make it as much as you can and the atmosphere of a game.
“I’m not overly concerned about it because it hasn’t happened at practice. We’ve got to get it fixed. It certainly gives us a point of emphasis to make.”
Pittman said running back Raheim “Rocket” Sanders “did some nice things” and blocked well during the scrimmage. He indicated that kicker Cam Little missed a field goal at the end of a last-minute drill when the offense got the ball on the 50-yard line with 22 seconds and no timeouts. Otherwise Little kicked well, Pittman said.
Defensive tackle Terry Hampton, a transfer from Arkansas State, drew praise from Pittman for the second time this week.
“He’s playing really good football right now for us,” Pittman said, “and he just shows up all the time everywhere.”
Pittman said there were sacks Saturday by defensive ends Dorian Gerald and Zach Williams, and linebacker Drew Sanders, a transfer from Alabama who Pittman said made several plays.
“The hardest guy to the block coming off the ball is Drew Sanders,” Pittman said. “I mean he's a hard guy to block — long and strong and all that.”
Linebacker Bumper Pool said the defense had “a lot of sacks” during the scrimmage.
“We had some balls get over the top on us today, but we were light in the (defensive backs) room, so guys are getting a lot of reps,” Pool said. “First scrimmage, you know you’re starting to see that fatigue kind of set in. It was good to see where we’re at. I always look at the scrimmages as a reality check and then you get to build off of it. We still have 21 days for our first game, but I really like where we’re at right now.”
The Razorbacks are banged up in the secondary, Pittman said. Safety Jalen Catalon did not practice to tend to a “family issue” at his home in Texas. Pittman said other undisclosed players were out, but none to season-ending injuries.
He complimented the play of safeties Latavious Brini and Jayden Johnson during the scrimmage and said play was physical. Pittman said Brini, a transfer from Georgia, is playing confidently after he took a while to acclimate to his new surrounding during spring practice.
“I think he’s comfortable,” Pittman said. “He made some nice plays out there today. I love the kid.”
In the special teams, Pittman said Sategna, Haselwood and Myles Slusher are candidates to return kicks or punts. Landers and AJ Green on kickoffs, and Bryce Stephens and Harper Cole on punts are also working in the return game.
“I don’t have any problem playing a freshman back there,” Pittman said, referencing Sategna, whose overall play has been praised multiple times throughout the week. “Anytime you compete like he has out of high school and all the state championships he’s (won) in track and he’s played on a really quality high school team — as long as we give him enough reps, I’m not worried about him. He’s a special guy.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.