Tom Murphy is a sports 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. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Razorback report: Pittman on potential super seniors, NIL needs
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) passes, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, during the fourth quarter of the Razorbacks’ 39-36 overtime win over the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
FAYETTEVILLE — With Arkansas football out of bowl contention following last Saturday’s 48-10 loss to Auburn, Sam Pittman fielded more questions about the future — his and the program’s — than about Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game against Florida International in his media appearances this week.
Pittman was asked about recruiting issues, the transfer portal and the potential of retaining veterans who still have a covid-19 year remaining during his two media appearances Wednesday, his 10-minute stint on the SEC coaches teleconference and his regular afternoon video conference with local reporters.
Pittman said he thinks a majority of the players with super senior seasons available will take them.
“I really do,” he said. “I think we’ll have a high number of those guys. … I think they’ve had some success and they want to go back and prove that we can have it again. So I think a high majority of those guys could come back.”
Pittman said the real conversations about the portal and roster composition will begin on the Monday after the Razorbacks (3-7, 1-6 SEC) cap the season with a home game against No. 9 Missouri on Nov. 24.
“You know, I mess with them when I walk by them, like, ‘What number do you want to change to next year? Do you like your number?’ ” Pittman said.
He specifically referenced senior safety Hudson Clark, a former walk-on, as one of the potential bonus-year keepers, as players like Zach Williams, Nathan Bax, LaDarrius Bishop and Cade Fortin were this year.
The list of players with potential bonus years is extensive, likely 18, and it includes defensive linemen Taurean Carter, Eric Gregory and Keivie Rose, offensive linemen Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer, defensive backs like Clark and Dwight McGlothern, receivers Andrew Armstrong, Tyrone Broden and Isaac TeSlaa, and even quarterback KJ Jefferson.
“We haven’t spoke about that either with him,” Pittman said regarding Jefferson. “I think probably going into the season, we thought definitely this would be his last year. But I don’t know where he stands right now. Again, the portal doesn’t open up for a week or eight days after our game or whatever it is, so we’ll have plenty of time to sit down and talk about it.”
Pittman said he does not envision the kind of exodus the Razorbacks experienced last year.
“I knew there was going to be a lot … [but] I don’t see anything like a year ago,” he said. “But if it is, we’ll adjust. But I don’t see anything like that.
“The first thing we’re going to try to do is look at the plus-ones that obviously can help the team and things of that nature and talk to them and see if we can get that going.”
Coach Sam Pittman called the current situation with NIL money around college football “wild” and in need of a fix.
“I’m not fine with it at all, the way it is now,” Pittman said. “If we’re going to be an NFL-type franchise, we probably ought to look at what the NFL is doing with their incoming [players] with caps.”
Pittman said based on conversations he’s had that NIL compensation is rapidly increasing.
“It’s not Monopoly money, and so we’re in trouble — across the NCAA — because it’s not Monopoly,” he said. “It’s real money that’s being paid out. Yes, I’d be all for somebody putting some types of restrictions on it.”
Pittman said the Razorbacks have NIL resources but could use more.
“It’s hard to know everybody’s budget,” he said. “I don’t feel, probably, that our budget is as big as a lot of the schools in the SEC, but it’s hard to know that because you really don’t know. You just know what other kids, where they come in recruiting of what NIL can do for them at other schools.
“And it’s a lot more than what you could imagine to be perfectly honest with you.”
Quarterback KJ Jefferson, a three-year team captain, has not been able to duplicate his success of the previous two seasons with all of his numbers — passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, touchdown passes, rushing touchdowns, completion percentage and interceptions — trailing his strong seasons of 2021-22.
“Well, I’m sure it’s been disappointing to him,” Coach Sam Pittman said Wednesday. “I mean, if his actions in practice and his leadership on the team are indicative of how he feels, he feels good. The problem has been, all year, that we’ve really never got into a rhythm, a consistent rhythm, either running the football or giving him time to throw the ball. So I’m sure that’s been very frustrating to him. Been frustrating, to be honest with you, for all of us.”
Guard Josh Braun said he’s seen great leadership out of Jefferson.
“He’s very positive,” Braun said. “He comes in to work every day. He’s trying to lead the younger guys just to get them developed and ready to play whenever their number is called. … I look forward to seeing his output on Saturday.”
The Razorbacks’ handful of injured players, including starters in cornerback Jaylon Braxton and right tackle Patrick Kutas, sound questionable for Saturday based on remarks from Coach Sam Pittman.
Kutas suffered a high ankle sprain at Florida on Nov. 4 and Braxton suffered a shoulder injury late in Saturday’s loss to Auburn.
Additionally, defensive end Jashaud Stewart and cornerback Jaheim Singletary were out last week. Stewart has battled hamstring and groin muscle problems all season and Singletary turned an ankle in practice last week.
Arkansas has 13 points in its past two home games, including six set up by interceptions that put the offense in field-goal range for Cam Little.
Coach Sam Pittman said “a lot of things” need to happen for the offense to find its groove.
“We’ve got to play better out on the edge,” he said. “We’ve got to play better at tackle. I mean, we have to. We have to make people miss. We obviously have to protect better, all those type things.
“We’ve got to change something up. Obviously we had a change during Florida, which worked for us. We did a lot of similar things, some changes, on Saturday. They had a week to prepare for it, which was different, because Florida did not.
“We’re not a team that can just turn around and hand the ball off right now and just smash like Auburn did to us. We’re not there right now like we’ve been for the most part of the other three years, especially the last two.”
Pittman said the Razorbacks have to get through holes and make defenders miss, such as they did against Florida.
“We’ve got to continue to steal some yards and things of that nature, and get some what I might call ‘easy yards’ or ‘space yards,’ ” he said. “Once we get out in space, we’ve got to make somebody miss, too, because other people are making us miss.
“We’ve got to do something a little bit different so we can get some explosive plays.”
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