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.
10 Keys to Arkansas vs. Cincinnati
Arkansas wide receiver Matt Landers (3) completes a pass, Monday, August 8, 2022 during a football practice at University of Arkansas practice football field in Fayetteville.
Sound special teams
One hallmark of early-season games seems to be a number of big plays in the special teams.
Arkansas has seen this firsthand under coach Sam Pittman, primarily in the punt game. Georgia in 2020 and Rice last year blocked punts in the Razorbacks’ season openers. The Bulldogs’ block two years ago was a key play in helping Georgia pull away after Arkansas kept the game tight for 2 1/2 quarters.
Pittman said special teams can be difficult to prepare for early in the season because there is not film on a team. He noted Arkansas has been better in punt protection after the first month of the past two seasons, but acknowledged Georgia blocked a punt during its rout of the Razorbacks last October.
The key, Pittman said, is for the special teams to be sound in their technique and have good communication to avoid breakdowns.
“If you’re sound with roles and schematics, you should be OK,” Pittman said. “Georgia blocked one last year on us (with a look) that we hadn’t seen. Not only that, but we just weren’t necessarily sound against that look. We started to make an adjustment (afterward), but we’d like to make the adjustments before it happens, where we can be able to pick that up.”
Cincinnati struggled to kick field goals last season, but was sound in every other aspect of special teams. The Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings combines kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, punt and field goal efficiency and ranked the Bearcats 18th in 2021. Cincinnati blocked three punts and six field goals last year.
“When they break games, it’s because they get turnovers, and it’s on special teams,” Pittman said.
Arkansas returns kicker Cam Little, a Freshman All-American last season when he made 20 of 24 field goals. Little has extended his range from last season and the Razorbacks should feel confident whenever he kicks from inside 50 yards.
One of the more intriguing story lines from the weekend involves Cincinnati punter Mason Fletcher and Arkansas punter Max Fletcher, brothers from Melbourne, Australia. Max Fletcher battled returning punter Reid Bauer in the offseason and both could potentially kick against the Bearcats.
Arkansas WRs vs. Cincy DBs
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup to watch Saturday will be between the Razorbacks’ receivers and the Bearcats’ secondary. Both teams must replace great players in both areas.
Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner was drafted fourth overall by the New York Jets in this year’s NFL Draft. Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks was drafted by the Tennessee Titans 14 selections later.
The wide receiver room was an area of concern for Pittman prior to the start of the preseason, but several receivers have elevated their play in recent weeks to the point that Pittman believes it could be a position of strength for the Razorbacks.
“They’ve become more confident,” Pittman told the Hawgs Illustrated Sports Club last week. “They are catching the ball better.”
Among the Arkansas wideouts to watch are the transfers, Jadon Haselwood and Matt Landers, along with returning receivers Warren Thompson and Ketron Jackson. Pittman said both returning receivers have improved greatly over a season ago.
Arkansas coaches have also been complimentary of their freshman class of receivers, in particular Isaiah Sategna, a speedster from Fayetteville who had more receiving yards last year than any other high school player.
In addition to Gardner, Cincinnati must replace Seattle Seahawks fourth-round draft pick Coby Bryant. The Bearcats also lost starting safety Bryan Cook to the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round.
On his radio show this week, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell was asked how he will replace two All-America cornerbacks. He indicated it will be by committee.
“You’ll see more of a rotation,” Fickell said, “especially at the corner positions and the nickel position.”
Fickell said he is excited about the development of senior boundary cornerback Ja’quan Sheppard.
“He’s done a great job,” Fickell said. “I think he’s been the guy who has been the most consistent throughout the spring and fall.”
Pittman was a defensive lineman at Pittsburg (Kan.) State and earned a professional reputation as one of the best offensive line coaches in college football.
Fickell started 50 consecutive games as a defensive tackle at Ohio State and in high school was a state champion wrestler. As a linebackers coach on the staffs of Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer, Fickell coached several hard-nosed linebackers on great Buckeyes teams in the 2000s and 2010s.
It should come as little surprise their teams have built identities on a physical brand of football.
Great technique should be on display Saturday in the trenches, especially on the offensive line where both teams return the majority of their starters from last season.
The Razorbacks return every primary starter except for departed left tackle Myron Cunningham. Center Ricky Stromberg and guards Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham have all received All-America or All-SEC recognition this preseason.
The Bearcats have all five offensive line starters back from last year, though former walk-on Joe Huber won the starting job at right tackle this preseason. Last year’s starter at that spot, Dylan O’Quinn, will start at right guard.
O’Quinn and center Jake Renfro, a Freshman All-American in 2020, are the most notable returning players on the Cincinnati line. Both are on the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy.
The Bearcats will often line up with two tight ends and one running back.
“They’re kind of a go-at-you, physical football team,” Pittman said.
Cincinnati’s last two losses have come to SEC heavyweights Georgia and Alabama to end the past two seasons. Fickell admitted it has been eye opening to see the size of those teams, a feature Pittman is beginning to successfully replicate in Fayetteville. Not only are the Razorbacks heavier along the offensive and defensive lines, but longer at most positions.
“I think it’s a physical, physical football team that will definitely test us in a lot of the ways that we pride ourselves on,” Fickell said.
“Playing Georgia and Alabama the past two years, the thing you see that is a bit different is the size up front. Whether they’re O-linemen or D-linemen, just by nature there are some guys who were probably born to be 320, 330, 340 pounds, and they’ve got them.
“It’s definitely a program that’s built around those big guys. They’ve added a guy in Drew Sanders who is an Alabama transfer, who is 6-5 and 235 pounds at middle linebacker. As you look at those things across the board you can definitely tell there was an emphasis on length and size.”
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson in 2021 finished with a completion percentage of 67.3% and four interceptions. Those figures likely exceeded the expectations of many across college football.
But Jefferson had to shake off some nerves and shaky moments early last season. Half of his interceptions came in the first two weekends against Rice and Texas.
The Razorbacks’ offense has the potential to be more explosive than in 2021, but that, in part, hinges on Jefferson’s ability to get the football to intriguing playmakers on time and on target. He was mostly sharp last season keeping the ball out of harm’s way, and his turnover-worthy throws were few and far between.
The Bearcats are likely to throw a number of looks and coverages at Jefferson, and there will be moments when he must make accurate throws under duress. How will he handle what Cincinnati brings to the party?
Jefferson posted strong down-the-field passing numbers last season, completing 22 of his 44 attempts that traveled 20-plus yards for 7 touchdowns against 1 interception. If he is locked in in this area, the Razorbacks could strike in a hurry.
It would also force the Bearcats to take a safety out of the box, giving Arkansas numbers in the run game.
Fickell said this week that he is interested to see if Jefferson runs as much as last season when he led the team with 664 rushing yards.
“I would imagine that the next step in his growth of being a great quarterback, because they’re kind of touting him and pushing him for the Heisman, is he will be able to throw the ball better than maybe they gave him the opportunity to do last year,” Fickell said. “You’re kind of curious going into it. I know he can run and I know he can throw it. It will be interesting to see what kind of balance they have offensively.”
The Bearcats have not announced a starter for the game, though Fickell said Tuesday the team knows who will start and take the majority — if not all — of the snaps. Ben Bryant and Evan Prater have battled to replace Desmond Ridder as Cincinnati’s starting quarterback this offseason.
Bryant spent three years as Ridder’s backup at Cincy before transferring to Eastern Michigan, where he completed 68.4% of his passes for 3,121 yards, 14 touchdowns, and was intercepted 7 times last season. Prater, who is three years younger than Bryant, saw limited action as Ridder’s backup last season and was Mr. Ohio in high school.
Fickell hoped to determine a starting quarterback within the first two weeks of fall camp, but the battle lingered.
“Both of them were doing a really good job,” Fickell said. “There were a lot of things that had to be ironed out. It went a little bit longer than we envisioned it, but all in all I think it was an incredible competition and we’re going to need both of them throughout this year.”
Cut down on penalties
In an evenly matched game, it is in both teams’ best interest not to give away yardage in any phase of the game.
Arkansas struggled in that respect against Rice to open season. The Razorbacks were flagged 13 times for a season-high 117 yards in the 38-17 victory.
“I know this: If we did that again, we’d lose,” Pittman said. “I get it. It’s anxiety and all those type of things, but that’s also coaching. I believe I probably said that last year after the Rice game, that’s on me. I think we’ll be much better.
“We do have a lot of guys coming back. I think that’ll help them, too, a little bit with a little bit of nervousness and anxiety, as well.”
The 13 penalties in the 2021 season opener — later matched in a loss at No. 1 Georgia — were the most by an Arkansas team since October 2011 against Texas A&M (14).
The Razorbacks have been penalized 10-plus times in six games under Pittman. That has happened twice in Pittman’s season openers against Georgia two years ago and Rice last year.
Cincinnati also struggled with penalties last season. Its 102 penalties were 13th most nationally, just behind Arkansas’ 104.
Tea or Liquor?
Pittman provided the soundbite of the week Monday when discussing how the teams will get a feel for each other early in the game.
“I think the first couple series are going to be really important to figure out what they’re bringing to the party,” Pittman said. “Some guys bring iced tea and some guys bring liquor. You’ve just got to figure out what to bring.”
Translation: Make the other team show its hand. Pittman said a key to figuring out what a team will do defensively is to go into a two-minute offense.
“You’ll figure out what kind of party you’re going to on the first play,” Pittman said. “They come after you, you’re going, ‘Oh, OK, this is what kind of party it’s going to be.’ Or they’ll drop eight and you’ve got to dink and dunk and get down in there.
“The first two series on both sides of the ball will be a big, big thing on Saturday, in my opinion, and how fast our coaches make adjustments and how fast theirs do.”
One area where Arkansas will have an advantage is continuity in its coaching staff. The Razorbacks return all three of their coordinators — Kendal Briles on offense, Barry Odom on defense and Scott Fountain on special teams — whereas Cincinnati will be playing its first game with defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli and special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs.
“I think it’s very, very important that you keep the people who talk to the most players,” Pittman said last week, “and if you look at your offensive coordinator, he talks to the entire offense, defensive coordinator talks to the entire defense, special teams coordinator talks to everybody on the team, strength coach talks to everybody on the team. If you like them and you feel like they’re elite in the country, it’s very, very important to keep them.”
Cornerbacks behind Clark
According to Arkansas’ coaching staff and even safety Jalen Catalon, no cornerback had a more productive or consistent preseason than Hudson Clark, the former walk-on who became a national story in 2020 after his three-interception game against Ole Miss.
After the Razorbacks’ second scrimmage of the fall, Catalon noted that Clark had four interceptions to his credit in the team’s workouts, and he likely would have had another if not for a drill when he wore boxing gloves and could not hold on to a pass that was in his grasp. Right tackle Dalton Wagner said the corner has “magnets for hands.”
Clark’s starting job is about as set in stone as can be, but Arkansas’ cornerback opposite him is still unknown.
“I don’t know that we’re set there, to be perfectly honest with you,” Pittman said this week. “We’re still trying to figure that out. We obviously know they’re all going to play and things of that nature. We’re still trying to figure out who is going to run out there with the ones.”
Throughout the preseason, LaDarrius Bishop, Malik Chavis and Dwight McGlothern all took first-team reps. A transfer from LSU, McGlothern opened game week as a top corner in a period of practice open to reporters, and Chavis began fall camp as the No. 1 corner.
Bishop was listed as the starter on the Razorbacks’ official Week 1 depth chart. He started 9 games in 2021 and finished with 15 tackles and 3 pass breakups.
McGlothern, described as a confident player who brings swagger to the position, started six games for the Tigers the last two seasons and went through spring drills with the Razorbacks. Chavis started twice last season and intercepted a pass against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
No. 2 linebackers
Who the Razorbacks plan to run on the field at linebacker to start games this season was never in question. Bumper Pool is back for his super-senior season and Drew Sanders, a transfer from Alabama, essentially secured a starting job in the spring with an impressive string of practices.
But to get through a rugged 12-game schedule, Arkansas will need more than two ready and able bodies.
Glancing at the Razorbacks’ game-week depth chart, redshirt freshman Chris “Pooh” Paul is in line for snaps behind Sanders, and freshman Jordan Crook and redshirt sophomore Jackson Woodard are slotted behind Pool. Coaches believe each reserve can make an impact on a successful defense, but it will be interesting to see who gets the first crack at playing time.
Paul soaked up knowledge from former linebackers Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry a season ago and feels prepared to contribute as a result. Crook is said to be mature beyond his years with a high football IQ, and Woodard is moving as well as he has since arriving on campus, according to linebackers coach Michael Scherer.
“I think we’ve got a good amount of guys that can go and play in a game right now,” Scherer said. “I think Bumper and Drew can take a large load. They’re going to need to go in and out.
“I can’t tell you if (the rotation is) going to be three guys, right now. I think we’ve got more than that, to be honest with you.”
Both teams will rely on several transfers who were added over the offseason and are now in starting positions.
For Arkansas, projected starters who were elsewhere last season are receivers Jadon Haselwood (Oklahoma) and Matt Landers (Toledo), and linebacker Drew Sanders (Alabama).
Cincinnati could potentially start quarterback Ben Bryant (Eastern Michigan), running back Corey Kiner (LSU), linebacker Ivan Pace (Miami, Ohio) and kicker Ryan Coe (Delaware).
Both teams have transfers who will back up at positions and rotate playing time.
Pittman and Fickell have both spoken this offseason about the varying acclimation times for transfers in a new program. It is possible a transfer will star by the end of the season, but might not be ready to play at that level in Week 1.
That kind of progression is evident in practice. At Arkansas, Haselwood nursed an injury in the spring and by all accounts has looked like a different player since preseason practice began Aug. 5. Latavious Brini was not injured during spring practice, but the defensive back transfer from Georgia was similar to Haselwood in that it took awhile for him to find his footing in a new program.
Sanders has earned good reviews by coaches since he first suited up for the Razorbacks in spring ball and has the potential to be a playmaker from the get-go.
Pace, who was recruited by Arkansas but chose to join his younger brother DeShawn in the Cincinnati linebackers room, took some time to settle in with the Bearcats.
“When you come into a program at an older age, you’ve been a really good player wherever you are…and you walk into a new program, sometimes it’s difficult,” Fickell said. “I always wonder how those guys are going to handle it.”
Fickell, who said this week he did not properly prepare his team for the environment before its game against No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff last December, was blunt about the type of environment he expects at Reynolds Razorback Stadium — tough and nasty.
“We started probably last week really kind of talking about it, talking about the atmosphere, making sure we’re aware of what it’s going to be like,” Fickell said. “I can’t exactly tell them, because I’ve never been there.”
Fickell does have experience with Arkansas, having assisted Ohio State for its 31-26 victory over the Razorbacks in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2010 season.
“It is something that does stick with you,” Fickell said of hearing the Hog Call. “Hopefully we can do something about it, that we don’t have to hear it all the time.”
Most tickets to the game were sold by the middle of the week and Fickell expects a loud environment. How to prepare for that environment in practice is a balancing act.
“You can turn the music on and crank it up for practice and not be able to hear a darn thing, because that’s what it’s going to be like,” Fickell said. “But then you think, ‘Did we get a good practice out of that, or did we just come out with a headache and a lot of mistakes?’ I think there is a balance that we’ve talked about. From the start of camp and even during the summer we’ve talked about atmospheres and emotions and how you’ve got to be able to play at a high level.
“I don’t know that you can actually say, ‘Hey, we’ve done this to prepare ourselves.’ It’s like going to play at altitude….There are some things that you’re just going to have to understand and prepare yourself for mentally and be willing and ready for whatever it is.”
For Arkansas, Saturday marks its first ranked-versus-ranked season opener in more than 40 years, and the first-ever such matchup to open a season in Fayetteville. Emotions will run high, but keeping them in check will be paramount on both sides.
“When your emotions spike pregame and there are 75,000 or 80,000 people hollering at you…then it’s really hard for them to recover,” Fickell said.
Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon said he expects “an elite atmosphere” that might be reminiscent of last year’s Texas game. An announced crowd of 74,531 watched the Razorbacks beat the Longhorns 40-21.
“It’s something you dream of as a kid, to play in atmospheres like this,” Catalon said. “It’s going to be something great for everybody to see and it’s going to be a physical matchup. When that ball is set down, I know both teams will be ready to go.
“I know our squad’s going to be ready to go, so just ready to get it on.”
Ethan Westerman contributed to this article
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