FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks open spring football practice at the UA practice fields today and are entering what feels like a tipping point.
Can the Razorbacks recapture the “program on the rise” they staked in 2021 with a 9-4 record? Or will they continue to struggle in tight games and remain at the bottom of the unforgiving SEC West like in 2022?
Fourth-year coach Sam Pittman has a major revamped coaching staff and a slew of new talent to sort through in the coming months as the Hogs hunt down mighties Alabama, LSU and others for another season before Oklahoma and Texas enter the SEC.
Arkansas went 2-4 in one-score games, including 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, suggesting another nine-win season was within reach.
Pittman made a change in strength and conditioning coach immediately after the regular-season finale, a 29-27 loss in Missouri, bringing on board Ben Sowders and a new staff.
“I thought we needed a change,” Pittman said. “In terms of strength, I thought we had to do some other things. This is not at all negative towards anyone. It’s just that sometimes change is good.”
Sowders’ energy levels, which were evident as he and his staff worked on the touchline during bowl practice with rehab players, were positive, Pittman noted.
“He brought a lot of enthusiasm, along with his assistants,” Pittman said. “Lots of energy, lots of enthusiasm. It was hard now. Of course we have to get better every year, but we needed fitness this spring, this winter.
“It was hard. The children have tried very hard. Been and his group are so positive, energetic, along with the other new people I’ve hired.”
Quarterback KJ Jefferson leads a solid core of returning talent on offense, where former Razorback offensive coordinator Dan Enos (2015-17) returns for a second stint.
Defensively, six players who started the midseason or better are back in the ends, Jashaud Stewart and Zach Williams, combo lineman Eric Gregory, corner Quincey McAdoo and Dwight McGlothern, and safety Hudson Clark. However, linebackers Chris Paul and Jordan Crook, tackle Cam Ball, Endlandon Jackson and nickelback Jayden Johnson all started in the Hogs’ 55-53 triple overtime win at the Liberty Bowl over Kansas, giving new coordinator Travis Williams a sneaky amount of advantage provided field experience.
With 15 practice sessions ahead, here are the biggest questions the Razorbacks will face leading up to the team’s April 15 “Spring Showcase.”
How will the defense react to the new leadership?
The Razorbacks lost defensive coordinator Barry Odom, linebackers coach Michael Scherer (both to UNLV), and cornerbacks coach Dominique Bowman. That leaves defensive line manager Deke Adams as the only returning defensive line manager and the first two-year assistant defensive line under Pittman.
Factor in the losses of linebackers Bumper Pool and Drew Sanders, defensemen Jalen Catalon and Simeon Blair, and defenseman Isaiah Nichols — all captains or prominent contributors with influence in the dressing room — and you have a large number of new votes.
New coordinator Williams and co-coordinator Marcus Woodson have a reputation for reaching out to players. The connection between these two, Adams and cornerbacks coach Deron Wilson, and the way they communicate with so many new faces will go a long way in setting the tone for the 2023 season.
Can Dan Enos build on his offensive success from 2015?
The Arkansas offense in Enos’ first season as coordinator in 2015, with senior Brandon Allen at quarterback, was one of the most productive in recent school history.
Enos will have another senior signals caller to work with in KJ Jefferson, along with a loaded running back room, veterans like Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer on the line, a solid and growing tight end corps and a largely untested receiving unit with speed and size and skill.
Advances on new terminology and on-pitch adjustments are critical this spring. There’s no question Jefferson has been one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation over the past few years under the tutelage of Kendal Briles, with strong pass efficiency numbers, completion rates and hasty skills.
Enos should have the tools to keep Arkansas among the SEC’s top offenses.
How is the secondary side sorted out?
Gone along with Odom and his colleague Bowman are a staggering 10 players still eligible for the NCAA transfer portal, including starters Jalen Catalon, Simeon Blair and Myles Slusher.
Something was wrong with that unit last year, adding to Catalon’s injury, when Arkansas ranked 130th with 294.7 passing yards allowed.
The good news is that budding cornerbacks McAdoo and McGlothern provide Williams and Woodson with a starting point to build pressure schemes because of their man-covering skills. The transfers of Lorando Johnson (Baylor) and Jaheim Singletary (Georgia) will certainly provide additional competition, as will the return of LaDarrius Bishop from knee surgery.
The Hogs need a lot of security contributors to pair with Clark and more numbers at Nickel, where Johnson and Jaylen Lewis are sophomores staying. Transfer Al Walcott (Baylor) brings the experience needed to pair with many early enrollments.
Who will shine in the “Jack” position?
Pittman spent a few minutes discussing the meaning of the hybrid “jack” position in a video conference on Tuesday. The Razorbacks haven’t always used this alignment, but when they did, players like Drew Sanders and Jordan Domineck have been there.
The desire to keep four Defensive Linemen-type bodies on the field this season makes having “Jack” back in a big way more important.
“To be honest, the number one thing I want to figure out is who this Jack, this Buck linebacker, this boundary standup is going to be in our system,” Pittman said. “He also has to be a guy who can make himself small.
“What I wanted when T-Will [Williams] came in, I wanted four D-Linemen. Even if we were in an odd package, I wanted four D-Linemen on the field. And that should be your dominant pass rusher and so on. I think that’s the most important thing we need to find out this spring, to be completely honest with you, who is this position?
Pittman also described it as the weak side’s defensive end point. He mentioned that players like junior Landon Jackson, redshirt newcomer Nico Davillier and transfer John Morgan are the kind of athletes who could fill the spot.
“I think we have that person or people on our team that can play that course,” Pittman said. “I think that’s probably the biggest question mark in jumping ball is who this guy is going to be because we’re pretty comfortable with the other guys.”
How are the receipts distributed?
If the top returning pass catcher at the wideout or tight end has had nine receptions, you know the sorting is okay. Bryce Stephens, who had a spectacular touchdown catch at Mississippi State and a punt return score against Missouri State, is the guy with nine catches who went for 109 yards.
Other returnees include tight ends Nathan Bax (3-16) and Ty Washington (1-17, TD), Isaiah Sategna (2-12) and Jaedon Wilson (3-49), who Pittman pointed out a number of times Tuesday as a player on the rise.
Incoming transfers Andrew Armstrong (Texas A&M Commerce), Tyrone Broden (Bowling Green) and Isaac TeSlaa (Hillsdale College) all come with strong production for 2022, but none of them were at the Power 5 level. All three transfers are 6-4 or greater and 6-7 in Broden’s case, and the Hogs have had success with big wideouts like Matt Landers, Jadon Haselwood, Ketron Jackson and Warren Thompson this past season.
This group of positions, along with the secondary, will likely be most closely examined during the spring drills.
Where does team leadership come from?
Jefferson is almost certain to be a third-year captain, so his role as top voice is assured. Who will join him?
On the offensive front, Latham and Limmer have long been contributors, with Latham appearing to be the more overt of the two. Tailback Raheim Sanders has had a great season with 1,443 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns and has natural leadership.
On defense, linebacker Paul increased his presence and voice late in the year, filling in for the injured veteran pool. He finished with 62 tackles, second on returns behind defenseman Clark (67), along with 4 sacks, 3 rushes, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Paul had 21 tackles early in the last two games.
In secondary, Clark and McGlothern (52 tackles, team-high 4 interceptions and 10 breakups) should help take the lead.
On the defensive front, tackle Taurean Carter and end Zach Williams have been around for a while and should provide a command presence.