‘Tis the season for gratitude, so let’s enumerate some of Arkansas fans’ reasons to be thankful.
- Sam Pittman. What else can I say? They don’t come much better than this one. Sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes the right person wants you despite your flaws and shortcomings.
- Hunter Yurachek. I don’t know about y’all, but I like seeing the guy in charge act like he cares about it as much as we do. Obviously, there’s an element of self-interest at play, but when you see Yurachek calling the Hogs with fans after a Sweet 16 win or screaming like a madman on the sidelines against Texas, it’s pretty hard to detect anything more than the same joy we’re all feeling.
- SEC refs. Ha! Just kidding.
- A tough basketball team. As the personality of the 2020-21 Hogs formed over the course of last season, it was their raw determination that came to the fore more than anything else. They simply wouldn’t back down and refused to give anything less than maximum effort. It’s early in the current season, but it’s looking like that could be a hallmark of this year’s group too. The unbeaten Hogs have struggled on the offensive end for long stretches of their first five games. They’re still lacking a true point guard and an offensive identity in the half court. But they’ve got Au’Diese Toney. They’ve got hustle and guts. They’ve got Jaylin Williams taking charges, Devo Davis applying lockdown defense and J.D. Notae poking balls loose when we need them the most. It’s not a finished product, but it’s a good foundation.
- Jaylin Williams’ court vision. Bless their hearts and thank the almighty for their ability to put the ball in the hoop, but ball distribution is a skill that comes as something less than an instinct to Chris Lykes and J.D. Notae, who otherwise would be the Hogs’ most natural creators of offense. Thankfully, the Hogs have had their sophomore big man from Fort Smith pick up the slack in that department, whipping passes out of the post and finding teammates to the tune of 4.4 much-needed assists per game.
- Treylon Burks. We don’t get talents like this often. Rarer still is the athlete with that kind of talent who shows the selflessness Burks displayed against Alabama last Saturday. It would be a rational choice for a young man just months away from making life-changing sums of money to put his NFL future ahead of his Razorback present and yield to injury. I wouldn’t blame him for that decision; within his body he has the ability to set future generations of his family on a path toward financial security. It would make sense for him to protect that. Instead, he put first his team, his program and the desire to win. It probably wasn’t even a choice. For anyone who would make it, it’s an imperative.
- The transfer portal. It giveth and taketh away (sure would be nice to have Mike Woods lined up opposite Burks this year) but on the whole, the Hogs have benefitted from looser transfer restrictions. Eric Musselman was at the vanguard of crafting a roster from veteran newcomers, a trend he continues to lead even as the rest of college basketball is now playing copycat. And often this season, Pittman’s entire defensive line has been composed of transfers — and it certainly wouldn’t be a shock to see a crop of fifth-year guys bolster next year’s linebacker corps.
- Feleipe Franks. Speaking of notable transfers, I’m still grateful for what Franks did for Arkansas football. By all accounts a respected leader among his teammates, he stabilized the offense in 2020, played a major role in turning us around and gave K.J. Jefferson another year to develop. According to Jefferson himself, it was Franks’ mentorship that helped him transform from a player plagued by self-doubt to the cool, confident QB we see maturing before our eyes and leading the Hogs on multiple last-minute scoring drives this season.
- Kendall Briles and Barry Odom. This will likely be divisive. Vacillating weekly depending on the most recent results, both of the Hogs’ top assistants have drawn their share of criticism this season. More than their fair share, if you ask me. Not that either is flawless — both have their habits that irk me on occasion and if second-guessing play callers were a competitive sport, I’d be a five-star prospect. Ole Miss would be tossing sackfuls of unmarked bills at my doorstep. But zooming out, it’s hard to argue with the sum of the results. This is a roster sharing a lot of overlap with the one in 2019, arguably the bleakest season in program history. There have been upgrades of course, both from infusions of talent and player development, but we shouldn’t overlook the role of the assistant coaches in the latter. Facing the toughest schedule in the country, the Hogs have the second-best running game in the SEC. And the quarterback, perhaps the biggest question mark entering the season, has the fourth-best passing efficiency in the conference — one spot ahead of a preseason Heisman favorite — while two of the three guys ahead of him will be playing in Atlanta next weekend. Meanwhile, Odom’s preference for dropping eight guys into coverage hasn’t always been a popular one, but I think it’s important to remember the drop-eight defense isn’t a schematic dogma Odom brought with him. Look at his defenses at Memphis and Missouri and you won’t see much resembling what he’s employed most often with the Hogs. Every coach tosses out the word “multiple” when asked about schemes, but Odom puts it into practice. He ran a 3-4 at Memphis then adjusted to a 4-3 based on the personnel available when he went to Missouri. It’s not much of a logical leap to surmise that the conservative defensive strategy we currently see most Saturdays has more to do with Arkansas’ defensive personnel than Odom’s personal preferences. And while a statistical profile that sits around the middle of the SEC pack isn’t exciting, keep in mind the Hogs haven’t finished better than 10th in the conference in yards allowed since 2016 or points allowed since 2014. On all fronts, the Hogs have shown improvement under these coordinators.
- The Henry and Morgan families. They’ve shared their sons, five in total. And without them, I don’t want to consider the state Arkansas football might be in right now.
Extra point. For my wife, who has come to know and accept, despite her Louisiana upbringings and English major aversion to sportsdom, all that comes with being legally bound to an Arkansas fan. The maniacal ethos, the ups and downs, the autumn Saturdays previously spoken for, the social calendar built around the whims of CBS and ESPN programming schedulers, the random outbursts of volume emanating from the TV room, the Sundays spoiled by my foul moods after unexpected defeats.
She didn’t fully realize what she was getting into, but she’s been game for it; chomped at by Gators, barked at by Bulldogs — calling the Hogs right back at them when Greg Childs scored from 40 yards out with 15 seconds left —- suffering the Auburn sun while great with child, and singing “Hard to be Humble” on a frigid night in Columbia, surrounded by ornery Gamecocks.
If she’s had her coffee, she’ll tolerate me waking our offspring with a boisterous rendition of the fight song and knows the words to join in if she’s had a second cup. They don’t come any better than this one. I could say she’s the one who makes it hard to be humble, but I know that sometimes you just get lucky.
And more than anything else, I’m thankful for that.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.