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.
Spring Football Report: SEC nears scheduling resolution, new QBs
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman calls the hogs after he and his staff are recognized on Saturday, March 4, 2023, during the first half of the Razorbacks’ 88-79 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
University of Arkansas football Coach Sam Pittman is hyped up over the Razorbacks’ potential permanent opponents and the idea of a nine-game conference slate with an SEC scheduling plan heading toward a resolution.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Pittman said regarding both on Thursday.
With Oklahoma and Texas set to join in 2024, expanding the conference to 16 teams, a scheduling adjustment is in the works. The league is reportedly working on two possibilities — an eight-game schedule with one permanent opponent and seven rotating opponents, or a nine-game slate with three permanent opponents and six rotating opponents.
The momentum appears to be on the latter of the options as recent reports have revealed. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey indicated in a media session at the men’s SEC Tournament on Friday that there are still a few miles to go on the scheduling plan.
“[We] narrowed over 40 different formats down to just a handful,” Sankey said. “Really since I would say early May, the focus has been generally on a single division model. The question then is the number of games, thus the scuttlebutt.
“The outcome of the models remaining would allow each of our teams to see every team at least twice in a four-year cycle, including home and away. The key will be the number of annual opponents, one or three generally. You should write this in pencil because things change in conference leadership.”
The most natural permanent opponents for Arkansas would be Thanksgiving weekend rival Missouri, former season-ender LSU, the newcomers Oklahoma and Texas, former Southwest Conference rival Texas A&M and border rival Ole Miss.
Many publications have put best-guess scenarios out, including SI.com, which speculated Arkansas would match up with Missouri, Texas and Ole Miss.
Pittman was asked about the projection of those three opponents and a nine-game slate after Thursday’s spring practice opener.
“I think renewing the Texas rivalry for our fans, and I’m supposing — I don’t know this, but I’m supposing — the University of Texas fans. It’s a close proximity,” Pittman said.
Pittman said he figured Missouri Coach Eli Drinkwitz felt the same as he did in not wanting the teams’ Battle Line rivalry to fall off.
The permanent Arkansas vs. Missouri series started in 2014 and the Tigers lead the series 7-2 since it started. Missouri is 5-0 at home in that stretch, including a 29-27 win last year in Columbia, Mo.
“I did not want to lose the rivalry with Missouri,” Pittman said. “I think it’s a great rivalry.
“And the other one was Ole Miss or Oklahoma or whomever, and they gave us Ole Miss. Certainly, I think all three of them are really good football teams. They keep us pretty close. It’ll be close for the fans to go see games every other year. I would be really excited about the nine-game schedule.”
Incoming quarterbacks Jacolby Criswell and Malachi Singleton split reps behind seniors KJ Jefferson and Cade Fortin through the first two workouts.
Criswell, a 6-1, 224-pound redshirt junior from Morrilton, transferred in from North Carolina this winter. Singleton is a 6-1, 232-pound early enrollee freshman from Kennesaw (Ga.) North Cobb.
“Those guys are extremely talented,” Jefferson said Friday. “Jacolby has been in a system like this, so he knows what it takes. Great ball guy. Loves football.
“Malachi is coming in, so he’s still trying to find his role right now and get [acclimated] to college ball and the speed of trying to slow the game down for himself. So, with those guys, we just try to wrap our arms around, me and Cade Fortin, just try to wrap our arms around those guys, keep bringing them on.”
Singleton dropped a nice deep ball in to redshirt freshman Isaiah Sategna for an impressive catch and would-be touchdown in one-on-one work on Friday. Criswell threw a dart of a completion to Sam Mbake on an in-cut route on Friday versus tight coverage.
Kade Renfro, who is recovering from knee surgery, has been involved in drill work throwing passes each of the first two days.
Coach Sam Pittman charged defensive coordinator Travis Williams with making it so the Razorbacks can keep four defensive lineman body types on the field, even if the unit lines up in a three-man front. That would mean the “Jack” or “Buck” position, a hybrid slot which can be a stand-up player, would be generally heavier than the typical “nickel” or “dime” defensive back.
Arkansas ran a lot of three-man fronts last season, mixing it with four-man looks.
Linebacker Chris Paul was asked Friday what the differences will look like between the two.
“I feel like the difference is it just frees up the linebackers even more, just gives us time and space to make plays and things like that,” Paul said. “So I feel very comfortable in the four-down alignment actually.
“I really enjoy it because the defensive line, they open up gaps and scenarios that you wouldn’t think gaps would open up quite as big as they would, but the four-down, it’s been pretty great.”
The Razorbacks have taken looks at many different players with the first couple of units on the offensive line through two practices, as Sam Pittman suggested on Thursday, and some have worked at both tackle and guard, such as three-year starter Brady Latham.
The left tackle spot is the one Pittman and line coach Cody Kennedy want to nail down.
Sitting on 77
Arkansas will have eight scholarships available when the NCAA transfer portal opens back up for 15 days, starting on April 15, the day of the Hogs’ spring showcase.
Identifying and landing more help with pass rushers or standout defensive linemen, defenders at the linebacker and secondary levels, perhaps another tight end, wideout or offensive lineman, are all possibilities for the Razorbacks.
Coach Sam Pittman said the Hogs will have a strategic plan in place for adding players from the next portal opening. He specifically mentioned linebacker, offensive line, defensive line and tight end as areas of portal interest.
“I think we just don’t want to take somebody that we don’t think can help the football team,” Pittman said. “We’ve done a pretty good job in the portal as far as taking guys that can help us.
“If we find anybody at really any position, probably unless it’s quarterback and maybe running back, we would take them, but we are actively looking for those four positions that I talked to you about, along with possibly a safety.”
Coach Sam Pittman’s initial assessment of transfer defensive linemen Trajan Jeffcoat and John Morgan was succinct, with three simple words: I like them.
He went on, saying, “I think they’ll be hard to block, rushing the passer or as a tight end trying to block them. They’re both good-sized guys that have motors.
“Again, we’re not in pads or anything, but you can only impress with what the uniform of the day is and both of them certainly did.”
New strength and conditioning coach Ben Sowders announced the birth of Gibson Marie Sowders, who was born Thursday to he and his wife, the former Shelbee Rodgers.
“You are the best thing that has ever happened to Shelbee … and I,” Sowders posted on Twitter. “We are so grateful the Lord chose us to be your parents! The Hogs just got better.”
The Razorbacks will squeeze in three more practices prior to spring break, with workouts set for today, Tuesday and Thursday.
There is no media viewing window nor interviews scheduled for today’s practice, but there will be media opportunities after the fourth and fifth workouts later in the week.
Arkansas will head to spring break on Friday and return with a practice on March 28. At that point, the Razorbacks are scheduled to work on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for two weeks in a row, followed by practices on April 11, 13 and 14 leading into the spring showcase on April 15.
The Razorbacks’ Pro Day is scheduled for March 29.
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