Arkansas, Cincy share similar philosophies

By: Clay Henry
Published: Sunday, August 28, 2022
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell prepares to take players onto the field prior to an NCAA college football game against Miami (Ohio) Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell prepares to take players onto the field prior to an NCAA college football game against Miami (Ohio) Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

FAYETTEVILLE — John Cooper doesn’t expect a phone call from one of his favorite former players. But if Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell asks for some advice about playing a road game in Fayetteville, it would be simple stuff.

“Don’t expect any breaks,” said Cooper about his experiences at Reynolds Razorback Stadium from eight fruitless trips as head coach at Tulsa from 1977-83.

I covered all of those games as a Tulsa World reporter when I got to know Cooper. Heck, there was even a trip on the school plane to cover Cooper’s team for a trip to Cincinnati.

It was fun catching up with Cooper to get a scouting report on Fickell. Cooper even volunteered thoughts on the betting line for the Sept. 3 opener between the Razorbacks and Bearcats.

“They are playing at Arkansas,” Cooper said. “I know all about that. They are ranked almost the same so I’d make Arkansas a slight favorite.”

Cooper’s Tulsa teams lost three blowouts to Arkansas squads coached by Lou Holtz. The rest were nail biters. Arkansas won by scores of 13-10, 14-10 and 17-14, the last of those in 1983 in the final year Holtz coached the Hogs.

Ken Hatfield’s Hogs beat the Hurricane 18-9 in Cooper’s final year at Tulsa. Cooper then lost a heartbreaker in his first year at Arizona State when the Hogs prevailed 18-17 on a Kendall Trainor field goal in the final seconds of the Holiday Bowl.

“I can tell you about those games in Fayetteville,” Cooper said. “We’d have breakfast in Tulsa, bus over and then most of the time it felt like we took it (on the chin) from the referees. I’d go to midfield after the game for the handshake and Lou would congratulate me on how hard our team played. It wasn’t much fun.”

Cooper enjoyed the midfield conversations much better in 1995 and 1996 when his Ohio State teams beat Notre Dame, coached by Holtz. Those scores were 45-26 and 29-16.

“I can tell you the difference,” Cooper said. “We had great players like Eddie George and Orlando Pace in those games against Lou that we won. The team with the best players always wins.

“You want to win in college football, go recruit. I’ve always said this; there are three keys to winning in college: 1, recruiting; 2, recruiting, and 3, recruiting. It never changes.”

Cooper said Fickell understands those three keys, but also what he was taught by Cooper as a four-year starter at Ohio State from 1993-96. Fickell started 50 straight games for the Buckeyes, a then school record.

“He was a tough nose guard and never missed a practice or a game,” Cooper said. “I knew he’d be a great head coach. He uses the same principles I believed in. You recruit hard, you play tough, fundamental defense, don’t give up big plays and you don’t commit penalties.

“From what I can tell of watching Sam Pittman’s Arkansas teams, they play the same way. It should be a good game. Neither team commits turnovers and they don’t beat themselves. That’s winning football. They run to the ball on defense. That’s both teams.

“What I’ve seen about Cincinnati, they have better players than the teams they have been playing. They had better players than Notre Dame last year. They did not have better players than Georgia and Alabama, but no one does.”

Georgia and Alabama beat Cincinnati to end the last two seasons for the Bearcats.

Cooper understands how Cincinnati could field such talented teams. It starts with good high school football all across Ohio.

“It does,” Cooper said. “You look at Ohio State’s roster and it’s lots of players from everywhere and not so many from Ohio. I believed in recruiting nationally when I got to Ohio State. So have the coaches in the years since. Ryan Day is recruiting nationally.

“So Luke can get those players Ohio State is passing on inside of Ohio and they are really talented. There are good football players in Ohio and that’s the heart of the Cincinnati roster. They will be talented and well coached.”

Both Arkansas and Cincinnati will feature veteran offensive lines. Cincinnati returns all five starters, three of whom were all-conference last year.

“What Luke preaches is the same as what I preached,” Cooper said. “You make mistakes – turn it over – then you are going to lose. That’s what I taught him.”

Cincinnati plays a physical brand of football. That’s exactly what Pittman is trying to build at Arkansas. That was evident with the way the Hogs played last year in a successful 9-4 breakthrough in Pittman’s second season.

That’s a good place to start in a look at what the Hogs will be like in 2022. Offensive tackle Dalton Wagner, a starter for most of the last three seasons, is proud of the toughness trait the Razorbacks have displayed of late.

“We get that from everything we do, starting with our offseason workouts with our strength staff,” Wagner said. “What we do with Jamil Walker (head strength and conditioning coach) is a little unique, I think. We love him. Nothing we do is easy, but we know it’s the key to how we play.”

Pittman said the unique part is that Walker’s program includes lifts and running on the same days.

“I don’t think many or any do both on the same day,” Pittman said. “I think what he asks is hard. But our guys believe in him. They love him. I think when you know someone cares for you, it means you get a buy in. We have that.”

Averaging 227 yards on the ground last year, the UA offense is going to come right at teams. Quarterback KJ Jefferson leads the way with true reads in the run-pass option installed by coordinator Kendal Briles.

The trick this year is replacing the team’s most talented player, first-round draft pick Treylon Burks, the big slot receiver who was Jefferson’s go-to man last year. Jefferson drew double coverage from most defenses giving the Hogs some creases in the running game.

In a post-spring interview, Briles didn’t wait for a reporter to bring up the loss of Burks as his top challenge in calling plays for 2022.

“The biggest thing, how do you replace all of the production from Treylon Burks?” said Briles, the third-year playcaller for Pittman.

“To me, there’s not a plug and play fit on that. It’s going to be multiple guys, multiple roles to figure out ways to gather that production on offense.

“You can do that with several different players and guys we’ve talked about. We aren’t going to get one guy in here to do that.”

One of the options was to put backup quarterback Malik Hornsby in the slot to get one of the team’s fastest players on the field. That still might happen. Hornsby worked a lot at receiver in the spring and has been there in August practices, too.

However, Hornsby still spends his meeting time with the quarterbacks and his development at that position is further proof that his future is there, not at wide receiver. Pittman emphasizes that Hornsby will be given a chance “to win the No. 1 quarterback job,” as far fetched as that might sound when Jefferson is listed as among the SEC’s most talented signal callers.

There were signs in early August that there is plenty of talent at receiver to leave Hornsby in the quarterback meeting room full time. Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood has turned in wow catches almost every practice. Ketron Jackson has also dazzled, but there are plenty of other options at receiver to give Pittman comfort despite losing Burks and two other starters at wideout.

Returnee Warren Thompson has emerged as an every down threat after producing a handful of big plays last season after transferring from Florida State. Miami, Ohio transfer Matt Landers, a summer arrival, has also turned heads. He may be as fast as anyone on the team and at 6-5 is a matchup nightmare even for SEC corners.

“Thompson is as improved as anyone,” Pittman said. “He finally looks comfortable here. He’s comfortable with us. He was always talented and good in space. But now he’s catching contested balls. You think, ‘How did he catch that?’ KJ looks for him.”

Pittman is also high on returnee Bryce Stephens along with true freshmen Isaiah Sategna, Quincy McAdoo and Sam Mbake. Sategna may figure in the return game immediately.

“They all three are going to help us,” Pittman said. “It may be as soon as this year.”

It’s that kind of prospects at receiver that make Pittman think hard about how much Hornsby plays there.

“With got all of those wide receivers, it’s hard to take (Hornsby) out of the quarterback room,” Pittman said. “We are going to put him out there (at receiver) some and we have some packages for him.”

Trey Knox has emerged as an every down tight end after playing too light last year to be an effective blocker. He’s at 240 now.

“His blocking success has gone way up,” Pittman said. “The willingness (to block) has always been there. But he’s 240 now versus 212 last year. He’s obviously more physical and stronger. He wants to play on two special teams, too. But as far as his blocking, he’s always wanted to be a good blocker, but now he can do it.”

Depth has improved at tight end with quick development from freshman Tyus Washington to go with Nathan Bax and Hudson Henry.

It’s the depth throughout the team that makes some cautious about predicting greatness for this team.

“We have a good team,” Pittman said. “But we may not have the depth some others have.”

That’s probably most obvious at defensive tackle, but there is some hope with the arrival of transfer Terry Hampton from Arkansas State. He’s up to 314 and knows technique.

“I see him do things with his hands and technique that shows he’s played,” said Isaiah Nichols, the starter at nose tackle. “He hasn’t played in this league, but it’s clear he knows what to do.”

The key on defense is the development of a pass rush. Transfers Landon Jackson (LSU) and Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech) provide hope of more speed off the edge. There are also signs that sixth-year senior Dorian Gerald can help after missing the last two seasons with injuries, a broken leg last year.

“Dorian has shown us his speed,” Nichols said. “He’s lighter (256) and he just needs to develop more trust in that leg.”

Linebacker Bumper Pool returns for a super senior season after leading the team with 125 tackles. Alabama transfer Drew Sanders looks like the other starter and could help in blitz packages. He started three games at rush end for the Crimson Tide. His new teammates marvel at his swim move in rush situations.

The question at linebacker might be depth. The Hogs could rotate three superb linebackers last year. Can they this season?

Redshirt freshman Chris “Pooh” Paul and true freshmen Mani Powell, Jordan Crook and Kaden Henley have all flashed in practices.

Pittman said there is hope there are enough defensive linemen to play a four-man front, something defensive coordinator Barry Odom rarely showed the last two seasons. If not, then can they blitz more?

“What you have to do is play solid man-to-man coverage on the outside at cornerback,” Pittman said. “I think we can. We have much more depth there.”

Odom thinks the third year in his system will pay dividends in other areas. He sees a deeper secondary and perhaps at linebacker, an area that has been too thin for too many seasons at Arkansas.

“If we can be great teachers, stay healthy and understand the importance of how their position all fit together, then we will have a defense you can win with,” Odom said. “I’m excited to have a chance to coach this group again. They like to compete. We made progress the entire 15 days this spring. That’s not coach talk. We did.

“It helps to be in the same system. They understand terminology. Consistency makes a difference in the way you play. When you have the same voice and the same call, you play faster. It enables you to understand it and then go execute it.”

The Hogs do one thing extremely well in Odom’s system, fly to the ball. They also have played with great effort.

The secondary is deeper with the addition of transfers Dwight McGlothern (LSU) and Latavious Brini (Georgia). But it all starts with safety Jalen Catalon, out the last seven games last year with injuries to his shoulder and hand.

Catalon is healthy and poised for a great junior season. He’s a preseason All-SEC selection and considered by most on the same level as UA greats like Steve Atwater, Kenoy Kennedy and Ken Hamlin.

The secondary is probably the team’s deepest position with as many as five cornerbacks pushing for starting jobs led by LaDarrius Bishop and Hudson Clark.

The Hogs appear loaded at running back, too. Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, A.J. Green, Dominique Johnson, and Rashod Dubinion all will get carries.

But Jefferson is the key. He led the Hogs with 664 rushing yards last year. He was tops in carries with 146. He completed 67.3 percent of his passes, a school record. He threw for 21 touchdowns with only four interceptions.

Briles said he was smoother in his operation of the offense in the spring. It’s enough to get Briles excited. He said it’s his first time as a play caller to have a returning quarterback. It’s also what makes him think life without Burks will be OK. He looks forward to the challenge.

“That’s why they call us ‘Coach,’” he said. “We have to figure out ways to get that production. We have to keep it streamlined for the players to keep it simple.”

The offensive line is solid. Wagner is healthy after a procedure in the spring to fix an issue with his back that limited him last year. Even at 100 percent he might split time with talented tackle Ty’Kieast Crawford, a candidate to spell right guard Beaux Limmer, too.

Center Ricky Stromberg is an All-SEC type, too. Brady Latham, the left guard, has shown versatility to snap, too.

The only question in the offensive line is at left tackle, but Wagner didn’t sound like he had any doubts about Luke Jones, the probable starter there, in a late summer interview.

“Luke has had an incredible summer,” Wagner said. “He’s going to be great at left guard.”

Jones split time with Latham at left guard last year and is a solid SEC offensive lineman.

“I like where we are at left tackle,” Pittman said. “I like where we are in the offensive line as far as depth. I think we have seven we can play, maybe eight. I think some others are coming along, too.”

There is depth in special teams where kicker Cam Little and punter Reid Bauer return. Newcomers Max Fletcher (punter) and Jake Bates (kicker) have provided competition in August camp.


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